Cancer survivor was one role that TV superstar Gerald McRaney never played on screen. And one he never dreamed of living.
“I sure didn’t see it coming,” said McRaney, shaking his head. “I was very lucky the tumor was discovered so soon.”
The native Mississippian was diagnosed with lung cancer in July 2004 during preparations for knee surgery to repair injuries sustained during a hunting trip in New Zealand.
“I twisted in one direction and my right foot didn’t, so I tore the meniscus in that knee,” explained McRaney, who travels the world as host of a big-game hunting show on The Outdoor Channel. “I thought I could walk it off, but I kept hobbling around the house and Delta (Burke, McRaney’s wife) insisted that I go to a doctor. Finally I did, and an MRI on my knee confirmed that my meniscus needed to be repaired. The doctor asked me when was the last time I’d had a physical. I told him it’d been three years or better, so he said let’s do another one just as a precaution to get ready for the surgery.”
During the physical examination, the doctor recommended a chest x-ray. That extra precaution saved McRaney’s life.
“After the knee surgery was over, the internist called me back and said, ‘listen, we’ve seen a shadow on your right lung, behind your heart. We want to take a further look at it,’” recalled McRaney. “There were two possibilities: either a tumorous growth or a particular type of infection. After I took a course of antibiotics, there was no reduction in the size of the mass and they were 99 percent sure it was a tumor.”
A CT Scan, a procedure that shows a full three-dimensional computer model of a patient’s internal organs, and a PET Scan, a procedure in which a small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein to make detailed, computerized pictures of cancer cells inside the body, confirmed doctors’ suspicions.
“I went to see a surgeon in Los Angeles and he said, ‘yep, that’s a tumor,’ so I got a second opinion from a surgeon in Houston who said, ‘yep, that’s a tumor,’” recalled McRaney. “I said, ‘OK, then when can we get rid of this?’ And he said, ‘well, today’s Friday. How does Monday sound?’”
Ironically, several years earlier, McRaney had attended a shared birthday party for President George Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush, at a Houston arena benefiting M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
“Their daughter had died of leukemia and the cancer center had become their pet project,” explained McRaney. “I’d toured the facility, never realizing how much I would need it one day.”
In August 2004, surgeons at M.D. Anderson opened a five-inch section of McRaney’s chest, separated his ribs and permanently removed part of a rib to expunge the tumor. A biopsy confirmed that the tiny growth, which was discovered during the earliest stage of cancer, was removed in its entirety and no additional treatment was required.
“Once it’s removed, there’s a very rare chance of recurrence – used to be, you were sent home afterward, period – but the medical team at M.D. Anderson recommended that I follow up with an oncologist,” said McRaney. “There’s a slightly increased chance
of survivability – maybe five percent over a five-year period – if chemotherapy follows surgery. I weighed my options and knew that chemotherapy could make you weak and sick and I wouldn’t have been able to work.
In this business, once you’ve been diagnosed with something like that, people are scared to go around you again, for giving you acting roles. I decided against it.”
Even though full recovery from this type of surgery usually takes the better part of a year, McRaney recuperated in Collins where, within a week, he was walking five miles a day with his brother, Buddy McRaney.
“I was back to work within three weeks of the surgery, ready to re-shoot the pilot for ‘Commando Nanny,’ which ended up getting cancelled before it started because of producer-writer conflicts,” he said.
McRaney was set to star in the new comedy series as a rich Beverly Hills tycoon who hires a young British ex-special forces soldier to look after his kids.
Mark Burnett, who also produced hit reality shows “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” created “Commando Nanny” with McRaney in mind, and loosely based the show on his experiences as a West Coast babysitter after leaving the British Army Parachute Regimen.
McRaney had played a no-nonsense military guy on the long-running sitcom “Major Dad,” in which he portrayed conservative Marine John D. MacGillis, who married a liberal woman with three daughters. He was best known for his breakout role as private eye Rick Simon in the long-running caper series “Simon and Simon.”
“Phil DeGuerre, a good friend of mine who created ‘Simon and Simon’ in 1980, waited too long for his cancer to be diagnosed,” McRaney said sadly.
“His cancer had metastasized, and he passed away this January.”
The younger son of Clyde and Edna McRaney, a construction worker dad and homemaker mom from Collins, “Mac” joined the junior high school drama club after a football injury to his left knee sidelined his future playing sports. After studying drama at the University of Mississippi, he worked as a mud logger for a service company then known as Subsurface Evaluation in the Louisiana oil fields and offshore rigs in the Gulf
“It was hard work, but boy, it sure as hell paid the bills,” said McRaney. “And it allowed me to become an actor.”
A New Orleans repertory company hired him as an assistant stage manager for $125 per week for six-month runs. “I’d call up Subsurface at the end of six months, and if they needed a hand, they’d send me out to rigs,” he said. “It’d only be a matter of a week or so that I’d be out of work after the theater was over, because in those days, the oil patch in south Louisiana and west Texas always needed workers.”
After making some low-budget movies set in the Louisiana Bayou, McRaney moved to Hollywood and landed his first TV role in an episode of “Night Gallery,” which led to regular character actor work in television movies and later, fame as the star of several TV comedies.
“I enjoyed the process—the auditions, classes, theater work,” said McRaney. “If you’re too focused on just the monetary success, fame or recognition, you can really put yourself in a bad place, but I’d have done it for free. It’s my favorite hobby and I get paid to do it for a living.”
McRaney and his “Designing Women” TV star wife divide their time between their Los Angeles home, their Vieux Carre garden home in New Orleans, and the McRaney family homestead in Collins. This spring, Burke will star in a Broadway play while McRaney roams the globe for The Outdoor Channel.
Fortunately, McRaney, a chain smoker for 40 years, had quit smoking several months before he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
“I tell people that I quit just after the nick of time,” he joked.
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