The 62-year-old McRaney just finished the big-screen version of "The… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
Starring in a popular TV series is a highlight of any actor's career -- but it can also be a trap. Once a series is over, it's hard for many stars to get off what one veteran called "the island of lost actors."
For Gerald McRaney, getting off that island was doubly hard since he was identified with two hit series, "Simon & Simon" (1981-89) and "Major Dad" (1989-93). But McRaney has made the great escape in fine fashion, and today the 62-year-old actor finds himself much in demand for movie, stage and TV roles with some of the top talents in Hollywood, including J.J. Abrams ("Lost") and Robert Duvall.
That's all part of the career plan for McRaney, who never wanted to be pigeonholed or typecast.
"I am not a dramatic actor or a comedic actor," McRaney said recently. "I am an actor. I started out in a rep company in New Orleans. That's where the fun is -- you play a different role every night. That was a good training ground for me."
Over the last 40 years, he's created such diverse characters as the streetwise and charming investigator Rick Simon on CBS' lighthearted detective series "Simon & Simon" and the conservative Marine widower who falls for a liberal journalist in the CBS sitcom "Major Dad." More recently he memorably played the ruthless mining magnate George Hearst on HBO's gritty western "Deadwood."
In 2007, he won rave reviews in the off-Broadway production of the Horton Foote gothic comedy "Dividing the Estate." His performance so impressed Duvall that the Oscar-winning actor insisted that McRaney be cast with him in the new indie drama "Get Low." That film, which also stars Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek, is now screening at the Sundance Film Festival.
Back when "Simon & Simon" took off, McRaney's agent lined up movies of the week for his client.
"The only rule was that they had to be 180 degrees away from Simon, so there wouldn't be that typecasting," says the ruggedly handsome actor over lunch at a Sherman Oaks eatery. "When the show was ending, Universal wanted one more year out of it for syndication," he says. "My contract was up then, so I said I will do another year if you will give me an office here and I'll develop a sitcom for myself. That's how 'Major Dad' came about."
Born and raised in Collins, Miss., McRaney turned to acting after he twisted his knee in football practice while a freshman in high school. "I was out for the rest of the season," he recalls. "I had dead time in the afternoons and somebody suggested, 'Why don't you go over and talk to the folks at the drama club? You can help them build sets.' "
One teacher eventually cast McRaney in a play. "It was some little thing, and I wasn't bad," he says. "It didn't scare me to death. I said, 'Shoot, this is something I could do.' "
His father, a building contractor, was "responsibly discouraged" when he heard the news of his son's career choice. "But once he saw I had made up my mind, it was a done deal with him," the actor says.
McRaney went to New Orleans because it was "cheek to jowl" to Mississippi. While acting in the rep, he made ends meet by working in the oil fields. Though it was dangerous work, it paid good money. "It basically funded the beginning of my acting career," he says.
It was strictly economics that brought McRaney to Los Angeles instead of New York.
"I was married and had a family," he says. "I had done a couple of low-budget movies in New Orleans. So I said, if I starve, it will at least be in warm weather. I was lucky enough to get a few jobs right away."
And in between jobs, he drove a taxi.
"My agent had been a cab driver before he got into the agency business," McRaney says. "One of his clients was Ida Lupino, and she had broken her ribs. She had gotten a job on 'Columbo' and couldn't drive herself. My agent said to her, 'I have just the guy for you.' "
McRaney showed up early at Lupino's house just in case he got lost. "She was nervous, but we had time to kill and we sat at her kitchen table and had coffee," he says. By the time he drove her to Universal, she had asked if he would come on the set and stay with her for a while because her nerves were still getting the better of her.
"I wound up staying with her the whole day and wound up the entire time with her," McRaney recalls. "It was this great early experience for me."
This month, he begins work on the fall pilot for Abrams' latest series, "Undercovers," for NBC, a lighthearted affair about a married couple who quit the spy business to become caterers. McRaney plays the "senior spook" who brings the couple back into the espionage game.
On the big screen, he'll be in two feature films: In May, he'll be seen in the big-budget version of the TV series "The A-Team," in which he plays the boss of Liam Neeson's character, and in the indie project "Get Low," he plays a preacher. That film, picked up by Sony Pictures Classics after its screening at the Toronto Film Festival last year, does not have a release date.
When Duvall approached "Get Low" director Aaron Schneider about McRaney, the filmmaker admits his first thought was, "Oh, 'Simon & Simon.' I used to watch those old TV shows and I was half expecting [Rick] Simon to show up, but Gerald is nothing like that character.
"His theater training is very evident," Schneider says. "Film has Take 1 through Take 4 or whatever you need. Some actors use this to their advantage to ramp up to speed. But you always got the sense when you rolled the camera on Gerald that what you are going to get was exactly what he wanted to give you. He brings such an authenticity to a piece."
McRaney, married since 1989 to actress Delta Burke ("Designing Women"), describes himself as a workaholic. "I have done three motion pictures, a play on Broadway, a guest shot on a pilot I finished up in Canada in the past year," he said, though he's quick to add: "But apart from the business, I am the laziest person I know."