His demons (almost) defeated, the Australian comedy legend is the sad
clown no more.
GARRY McDonald suddenly becomes distracted. He's just spied a small brown
mark on the blindingly white ottoman crouched in front of the blindingly white
sofa where he's sitting in the blindingly white house that his friend, costume
designer Roger Kirk, lends him whenever he's in Sydney. His eyes wander over to
it, again and again.
Finally, he just can't help himself. He darts towards the Japanese tray
sitting on the ottoman and moves it to cover the smudge. He meets my eyes
``It was a stain," he explains. ``I just hope Roger doesn't think I left it
These days, Garry McDonald legendary comic, actor, director and official
Living National Treasure feels almost a lifetime away from the anxiety disorder
breakdown that brought his world to a crashing halt eight years ago, just as
he'd revived his beloved Norman Gunston in one of the most hyped TV series of
Yet sometimes, just sometimes, there's a glimpse of the fretfulness for which
he was always known. The difference is that now it doesn't rule his life. It's
in check. Under control.
``I've calmed down a hell of a lot," he says, seriously, the blot
reassuringly out of sight.
``I've taken off the pressures that I put on myself. You come to a point that
unless you're really honest about yourself, you'll come unstuck. I know I'm
preaching now, but I've been there. You've got to be comfortable about yourself
and know yourself. You're dragging yourself around for all your life you might
as well enjoy it."
It's been a long journey, but McDonald's now thoroughly relishing the
destination. Sitting back on that white couch, in a casual green shirt and
jeans, with the car packed outside ready for a three-day fishing trip, he's
relaxed, he's happy, and his self-esteem is back almost to where it should,
quite rightly, be.
I mention a John Callahan postcard I have on my wall of a positive self-image
seminar, where the lecturer is pointing to the back of the class, and yelling,
``Let's hear it from that dumpy man with the thick glasses". He grins
``I went to a self-esteem seminar that [panic attack consultant] Bronwyn Fox
was holding," he says. ``She kept saying you've got to respect yourself,
nurture yourself, look after yourself. I thought, `What a fantastic motto! I'm
going to put that up on the wall'.
``Then I realised that I'd already been saying that to myself every time I
meditated. The mantra meant, `Honour thyself'. I'd been saying it for so many
years without knowing what I was saying. Isn't that ludicrous!"
Meditation has been one of McDonald's lifelines over the difficult years.
Every day, for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the late
afternoon, he sits down, listens to his mantra echoing in his mind and relaxes.
He reckons it's helped him enormously. And now, he says, it's payback time.
Next Saturday, he's starring in a production of a completely different kind.
He's appearing with Swami Shankaranda, the director of Melbourne's Shiva School
of Meditation, on stage at Sydney's Masonic Centre in the city to talk about
meditation, how it's helped him and how to do it. After that he'll go to
Canberra to do exactly the same thing.
``It's such a useful tool and enriches your life so much," says McDonald,
52, who's currently starring in the over-the-top David Williamson satire Up For
Grabs, after finishing his Sydney Theatre Company debut directorial run with
Stones In His Pockets and a role as the doctor in Moulin Rouge.
``I don't want to proselytise too much but one great thing about it is that
there are no rules and no vows," he says.
``It's a pure laboratory and you are the scientist. I do it because I enjoy
it and it helps me. It burns up a lot of stress. We used to talk about
navel-gazing but that's what it is, it's time for healthy introspection. Now I
spend a lot of my down time repeating my mantra. Before, I was very negative and
I'd spend it putting myself down, in self-denigration."
McDonald's friends can certainly testify to that. Close mate Geoffrey
Atherden, who wrote possibly Australia's greatest TV sitcom, Mother And Son, for
McDonald and Ruth Cracknell, remembers the old days.
``After a performance, whether on television or in the theatre, he would
fret about things he didn't do properly. He would never say `Gee! I was good!'
or `That went well!' He would always say `I missed that moment' or `I should
have pushed that laugh a bit harder'."
Sadly, he'd do it even when he'd been quite brilliant. An enduring image in
Atherden's mind was the time McDonald had been performing the play Hotspur, in
which he had to pull down his pants and moon Cracknell, in front of a bunch of
school kids. At a Q & A afterwards, one of them asked if that was really his
bottom. ``No," he replied, quick as a flash. ``That was a fake one."
His self-criticism, however, often prevented him from enjoying such moments.
Many thought that obsessive perfectionism was simply the downside of his
tortured genius; instead it nearly killed him.
Now McDonald, usually based in Berry with his wife, actor Diane Craig, can
see that, and he doesn't beat up on himself nearly as much. ``You realise you're
okay and realise that if other people have expectations about you, that's not
your problem," he says.
``But I'm still as much a pain in the arse. I ask the most inane things. I
don't take responsibility. When I'm cooking, and there's some leftover, I'll
ask, `Do you think I should put this in this?' Diane will say to me, `What do
Nevertheless, anxiety expert Fox is delighted with his progress.
``The change in Garry is extraordinary," she says. ``There's an enormous
negativity that goes on with an anxiety disorder, but now he's not nearly so
self-critical. He's so much calmer, there's no doubt about that.
``I think he is comfortable being himself now, being where he is. He's
totally relaxed with himself. Meditation helped facilitate that whole process."
Looking back on it, McDonald can see the genetic clues, too. Whenever there
was a knock on the front door, his grandfather would immediately go into anxiety
``He'd say, `Who the hell is that? What do you think they want?'," laughs
McDonald. ``Everyone would be worried about what he'd be like, but then they'd
come in and he'd be the life of the party.
``My mum is a great worrier, too. I told her when she wakes in the middle of
the night to repeat a mantra, too."
Yet with all this enthusiasm for meditation, isn't MacDonald simply
substituting one obsession for another? He grins.
``No," he says. Then he pauses, and shrugs. ``I suppose I'm a bit obsessed
about it, but not that I want to rush off to India or sit in a cave for three
years. I don't seem to have any real obsessions any more. Although I am a bit
obsessed about fishing."
On the way out, he peers anxiously at the sky. The three days staying in a
caravan to fish somewhere outside Goulburn won't be half as much fun if those
dark clouds deliver on their promise.
He catches me looking at him and smiles self-consciously. ``You see,
meditation can't solve everything," he says. ``You still worry about the
Garry McDonald will be appearing with teacher Swami Shankaranda at the
seminar on Saturday from 8pm to 10pm at The Masonic Centre, 279 Castlereagh
Street, Sydney. Tickets $15/$10 concession at the door or through Ticketek.