by Julie McKenna
For over 20 years, Gerald McRaney has appeared as lead role in numerous broadcast and cable network series and movies. From private detective Rick Simon in Simon & Simon to Major John D. McGillis in Major Dad to Russell Greene in Promised Land, McRaney has depicted some of the most memorable characters of the last two decades. With his part in HBO’s original series Deadwood and as host of Outdoor Life Network’s hunting show The World of Beretta, McRaney continues to be a mainstay of television programming.
In 2004, due to an injury he sustained on a hunting trip for his Outdoor Life Network show, and through a fortuitous but unlikely diagnosis, he discovered he had stage I lung cancer. His cancer was diagnosed at an early stage, all thanks to a knee injury and his wife, actress Delta Burke.
In my recent interview with McRaney, he laughs as he tells me about his unusual diagnosis nearly a year ago. “It was a bizarre set of circumstances that I thank God for,” McRaney remembers. “I blew out a knee on a hunting trip in New Zealand and my wife kept nagging me to go see somebody about it. But I kept saying, ‘Oh no, I’ll just walk it off; it’ll be fine.’
“And then finally,” McRaney continues, “I went in to see an orthopedic guy. He wanted me to get a physical before the surgery, and part of the physical was a chest X-ray. My doctor didn’t spot anything on it, but the radiologist spotted this little shadow of a thing, sort of hiding behind my heart. Several more tests later, I’m at M. D. Anderson in Houston getting a second and then a third opinion. That was on a Friday and on Monday I was having surgery.”
I remark on how fortunate he was to have been diagnosed at such an early stage. “Oh my God, are you kidding me?” he replies, laughing. “I tell people all the time that medical science, the grace of God, and a nagging wife saved my life.”
After his surgery, McRaney took only a couple of weeks off from his hunting show and a pilot that he had been working on for another network. He went back to his hometown in Mississippi where his brother lives to recover – and he didn’t waste any time starting his rehabilitation workout.
“That week after surgery my brother had me walking five miles a day,” McRaney remarks. “But I told him to; I put him up to it. And he walked every step with me.”
As this is quite an undertaking for someone who has just had surgery for lung cancer, he explains, “Well, I was determined that it wasn’t going to make me incapacitated any longer than was absolutely necessary. And, you know, the McRaneys are not known for much, but being stubborn is one of them.”
While McRaney was fortunate for having an early diagnosis and good outcome, he acknowledges that having lung cancer made him examine his mortality in a way he never had before. “The only thing that has changed since my diagnosis, Julie, is that what’s important in my life now is in even sharper focus than before,” he explains. “I discovered that I ultimately wasn’t afraid to die. I would miss my family and I would especially miss my wife. I’ve only been with Delta for 18 years and I was going to get greedy about that; I wanted more. But, as far as being afraid of death, I wasn’t. Which was a very freeing thing to realize about myself.
“But,” he continues with a chuckle, “As my father, who lived to be 90, used to say, ‘Heaven is my home, but I ain’t that homesick right now.’”
Currently McRaney is enjoying his part in Deadwood, in which he plays mining magnate George Hearst, who acquires gold claims in the town of Deadwood and is the father of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. When I ask McRaney how this role compares to others and which of his roles throughout his career has been his favorite, he replies, “Oh boy. Honest to God – and this is not a glib answer – but the one I’m doing now. I’ve been so lucky in my career because of the great people I’ve worked with and the roles that I’ve had, and right now Deadwood is the best one. That’s because number one, it’s so good, and number two, it’s right now. You know, I am working. When you stop and think about it, most actors aren’t working at any particular given time. And I’ve been very lucky to be consistently employed for over 20 years now.”
As McRaney approaches one year of cancer survivorship, he acknowledges that, along with the support and love of his family, having the right attitude is what got him through his diagnosis. “The number one thing, I think, is to adopt a positive mindset. If you are going to have to go through cancer treatment, you’ve got to have that. And you’ve got to be prepared that you’re going into battle. But the battle can be won. It gets won every day.”
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2005.