Funky gray sweatshirt, faded jeans, camouflage cap worn with the bill in the back, welder’s goggles staring blankly from his forehead – the shabby, gangling figure bending over the
whining power saw
in the middle of a living room set on this Universal Pictures sound stage would not likely draw even a cursory glance from any VIP tourist on the lookout for celebs. Obviously, the shambling dude with the backwards cap must be one of the stage crew.
Let the assistant director call for quiet, though,
and film begin to turn – and the lanky fellow with the power saw stays in place, smack in the view of the camera. Another figure enters the frame, a blond young man in an impeccable navy blazer and gray-flannel slacks. With all deliberate speed he steps to an outlet and pulls the plug on the power saw – to the befuddlement of its frowning owner, who tries to coax it back to life with a tentative thump-thump of the hand. Catching sight of the blond fellow, he leaps back in a comic startled take that’s magnified by his bug-eyed welder’s mask.
”Have you any idea –“ the outraged man in the blazer begins, but the next instant he’s doubled over with helpless laughter. “It’s the goggles!” he exclaims.
“Cut!” calls the director, and one grumpy crewman is heard to mutter something about a “waste of money.” But that malcontent is definitely in the minority on the set of Simon & Simon,
a series reprieved by CBS after a dismal first season’s ratings, and rescheduled to follow the popular Magnum P.I. on Thursday nights, where – recently renewed for its third season – it often as not enjoys a comfortable perch in the Nielsens.
It’s hard for any onlooker not to laugh when McRaney – universally addressed as either “Mackie” or “Mac” – is cooking in his offbeat way: wide-eyed and ingenuous (“You will not believe the bargain I got on these tools”), sheepish (“I just wanted to get the feel of the saw…), then hangdog sulky, with the downcast eyes of a wronged child (“OK, OK, I’ll have this place looking like a motel again in 10
Smiling from the sidelines at McRaney’s antics is Richard Chapman, one of Simon & Simon’s producers and the writer of the scene now being interpreted. “I knew when
I wrote this, it would play well,” Chapman says. “But it’s what they do with it that makes it all happen.”
During a break, Jameson Parker is sipping some
microwave-reheated coffee in his dressing trailer near the stage. “Mackie?” he says when asked about his partner in the show. “Drinks like a fish and beats his wife. Other than that, he’s OK…”
Actually, Parker and McRaney seem to be the best of friends on and off the set. The two actors and their families spent a recent vacation together, and there are plans for
“Mackie” and “J.P.” to film a feature together (along with their Simon costar Jeannie Wilson, who plays the brothers’ friend, Janet) when the series’ schedule permits.
Parker remembers vividly the day McRaney came in to read for the series’ pilot. Parker had already been hired for the show, and McRaney was stealing lunch time from a guest
shot as a psychopathic cop on The Incredible Hulk. “Here was this sort of rawboned, lanky, balding guy in a three-piece suit, no mustache - he’d shaved his mustache for The Hulk – and I just had trouble seeing him in the part. Then he started reading, and every nuance of the humor was right there. It was apparent that he’d been born to play Rick.” The next time they met was in Florida, where the series’ first pilot (then called “Pirate’s Key”) was filmed; “It was right when the big rains hit L.A. three years ago,” says Parker. “A pine tree had fallen on Mack’s (rented) house, and then mud slides took it right off its foundation. He’d been up for two nights before he got on the redeye to Miami, and when he landed, he felt he deserved a rather liberal drink. But he hadn’t factored in his fatigue, and that one drink hit him like a ton of bricks. He was ripped! And I thought, ‘Hey, this guy’s all right; we’re going to get along just fine!’ And we have…”
“I don’t know if you know this,” Gerald McRaney deadpans a few weeks later, “but Jameson Parker is actually a good deal older than I am. It’s those monkey-gland injections that kept him going. I bet you hardly noticed the net in his toupee…” No head rugs, hair plugs, or other such trickery for him,
boasts the noticeably thinning-on-top McRaney. “The only thing we do is, every time I take my hat off, five guys with little spritzers come running to spray me down…”
McRaney speaks in the living room of his recently
purchased home. “That’s right,” he cracks, “we now own one one-hundredth-thousandth of a house in Malibu.” “We “ is himself and the
former Pat Moran, he companion of some 11 years; they were married in 1981. Dressed in a striped –green, short-sleeved polo shirt, jeans and some old pebbled-leather boots. McRaney
stalks the high-beamed wood-paneled room, now opening windows to let the booming Pacific breeze blow freely, now lighting some logs in the
fire=place. At last he settles on the couch and sits sipping coffee from a mug that’s decorated with a cartoon of a jaunty frog floating in an inner tube.
But for all the surface cheer and ready wit, Gerald McRaney is a man of considerable inner resources who’s found his way past many
obstacles along the road to what he’s achieved. Born 35 years ago in Collins, Miss., McRaney decided at age 14 that acting was his calling. At
19, he badgered his way into a New Orleans repertory company, alternating the classics with six-month stints working the oil fields as a mud-logger. He mimicked
Shakespearean recording by Gielgud and Olivier in order to lose a regional dialect. In 1971, he went to Los Angeles and drove a cab while studying with acting coach Jeff Corey.
TV parts began coming his way: usually heavies of the sleaziest stripe. “The rapist I played on Baretta lost me about every lady friend I had.” But McRaney had
real-life matters more serious than typecasting to contend with. A brief early marriage had produced two children, Jessica (now 16) and Angus (now 12).
Angus was almost 3 years old before it was discovered he’d been born deaf.
“The typical thing,” says McRaney, sipping from his frog mug. “A pediatrician does a couple of little tests and says, ‘Hey, the kid’s hearing’s fine.’ They don’t
know; they’re not trained audiologists.” McRaney brought his boy to L.A. for treatment at the John Tracy clinic, where Angus, Gerald and Pat all participated in
a grueling and often frustrating two-summer program that combined lip-reading with thousands of repetitions of individual words. Angus’s vocabulary skills are now
only a couple of years behind those of hearing children his own age. His speech, though not perfect, is understandable – as demonstrated in some recent
public-service TV spots he and his dad have made for the Tracy clinic.
The cheery house, the devoted family: it’s hardly the scene many might expect of a Hollywood actor cashing in with a hit series after years of struggle. Explains
Jameson Parker: “Mackie’s what used to be called a square – a very stable guy, a family man.”
But is it possible that family harmony has been attained at the cost of artistic fulfillment? Can a whimsical action-adventure private-eye show satisfy the acting
needs of someone who once worked as a roustabout to afford his craving to play Elizabethan drama?
McRaney – standing within arm’s reach of a bookcase where Shakespeare leans against Eudora Welty and Tolkien nudges Louis L’Amour – contemplates the
question of his own aspirations. Yes, he says, eventually he’d like to be doing something a bit more substantial. He recently finished a forthcoming NBC movie
called “The Haunting Passion,” in which he costars with Jane Seymour. But he’d like to direct as well as act, and he’s prompted to recall a definition of art once
given by Jeff Corey. “If you have a positive effect on a group of people’s attitude about life through your work, then you can call yourself an artist.” It occurs to me
the only way you can do that is by filling the loneliness – letting people know they’re not in this thing on their own.
“The film Redford directed – ‘Ordinary People’ – is an example what I mean. The problems were extraordinary, but the thing is, they dealt with them. It didn’t
work out perfectly, but there had to be a lotta people who watched that movie and said, ‘My God – I thought I was the only person who ever felt like this.’ It fills something in their lives.
“Obviously, Simon & Simon is not doing that. It’s entertaining, and it gives you
a few yucks on a Thursday evening, maybe it picks up your day if you’re feeling down…But I really want to be doing things that have more to do with the way
people live their lives, with trying to make them a little bit better. There’s been so damn much stuff done that’s just depressing.”
“He would also,” guesses Pat, “like to play Richard the Third and King Lear on the stage.”
“Oh yeah,” says McRaney. “And try Hamlet again. I did that when I was 19.
Can’t imagine it was anything but dreadful. Think I’d like to give that another shot, too.”
Wouldn’t he make a rather aging prince of the Danes at this point? goads a visitor.
“You can get away with a lot on the stage,” cracks Mackie, the comic mask slipping once more into place. “Slap on some fake hair – they’ll buy it.”