News Store
Important notice to all NewStore users. The NewsStore service is now free! Please click here for more information. Help

Newcastle Herald

Grabbing at life

Author: Annabel Crabb
Date: 30/06/2001
Words: 3203
          Publication: Newcastle Herald
Section: Saturday Magazine
Page: 89
'I WAS younger, and I was driven more by wanting fame. I really wanted to be successful. I think after

the breakdown and during the recovery, you obviously assess, and this is something that has to be realised. My expectations for life became far more realistic ... simpler.'

The speaker, Garry McDonald, is temporarily at rest on a steel chair in an anonymous dressing room deep inside Canberra's Playhouse, just before he is due to go on stage as Manny, the repressed Jewish money man in David Williamson's latest play, Up for Grabs.

The breakdown that McDonald refers to is now eight years old but it is almost as much a part of his

contemporary image as Norman Gunston or the lugubrious Arthur Beare, the Mother and Son character he inhabited for more than a decade.

McDonald is used to talking about it, having become a public advocate for sufferers of anxiety disorders.

His amusement at the cachet his

mental illness continues to command is infectious.

'People still approach you and they're, you know, how are you?

Or they're saying, "What medication are you on now?" I haven't been on medication for, you know, seven years.'

McDonald is jittery but says this is not evidence of an incipient breakdown.

'I'm always going to be a fairly nervy-type person, not in a negative way, but that's what I'm like. That's just what I'm like!'

After the Williamson show is over, Australia's pre-eminent comic actor has no firm plans, although he is considering various projects.

McDonald's directing debut earlier this year, an ambitious two-hander for the Sydney Theatre Company, was a confronting experience and one he is not

anxious to revisit in a hurry.

The play, Stones in His Pockets, won good audiences but mixed reviews in Sydney. McDonald struggled to leave his own performing instincts behind and remain off-stage while directing actors Greg Stone and Philip Dodd.

McDonald subsequently published an honest diary

of the experience, describing his exhaustion and occasional clashes with Stone, who at one stage complained he was wanting

to produce 'two Garry McDonalds'.

'I really jumped in the deep end,' McDonald says.

'I've never directed before in my life, and I directed a play that opened the season at Wharf One.

I probably should have taken it a bit slower.'

McDonald straightens up in his chair.

'But bugger it, the opportunity came up and

I'd wanted to do it for so long, and I'm bloody

50-whatever and I thought, take it now. Otherwise

you go to your grave thinking, "I bloody-well should have directed".'

With a bark of laughter, he adds: 'In the end, it nearly took me to my grave!'

IT is in Australian television that McDonald has reached iconic status. His presence on the Logies podium spans two decades from Gunston, which won him a Gold Logie in 1976, to his inclusion in 1997 in the TV Week Hall of Fame. And despite the preponderance of theatre and film work in recent years, he still prefers the instant thrills of the small screen.

'I like the pace of television,' McDonald says. 'I've never been really, really theatrical because I came into it wanting to be famous and make people laugh.

'I really love it when I go to the theatre and it moves me, but I can't bear theatre that's theatrical. And I find film a bit stressful.'

One of the projects on the go is an idea for a sitcom with a friend under the banner of her production company, Don't Panic Pictures. The humour is not lost on him.

'It's very good for someone with an anxiety disorder, isn't it? My company should be called Panic Pictures!'

After the Melbourne season of Up for Grabs, McDonald will return with wife Dianne to the small farm they share on the NSW south coast, getting the garden 'in shape', fishing, visiting his excellent local butcher and making his own beer.

'I would like to have something to do on that property commercially, but I probably haven't got the patience,' he muses.

That McDonald would not have the patience to coordinate a small agricultural enterprise is unsurprising. He has enough trouble sitting still for a one-hour interview. A creature of complex and ambitious gesticulation, his gaze is impossible to hold.

In the end, I take notes with my head down so that he can talk more freely.

In person, McDonald is still hilariously afflicted with the curse of his own distinctive physiognomy -- he continues to look exactly like both Norman Gunston and Arthur Beare.

'I still get Norman a bit, yeah,' he says. 'But look, you know, say if I hadn't done Norman, what would have happened to me? I probably could have had an OK career of theatre acting and small parts maybe in television. To actually have two big hits is pretty good in any career, and I feel happy about that.'

Long-term colleague and friend Robyn Nevin, artistic director at the Sydney Theatre Company, says self-deprecation is one of the McDonald trademarks. For the record, she says she hopes he will direct again.

'Garry is one of Australia's great clowns - and he's a political clown, which is important because there aren't enough of them,' she says.

Typically, McDonald was on the scene as Gunston for the most pivotal day in Australian politics in contemporary memory. The dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1975 saw him scooting obsequiously up and down the steps of Parliament House, accosting the major players in the drama and leaving an indelibly comic mark on the event.

'Actually, I was in Sydney having lunch at the Imperial Peking in Cremorne on that day - I was

a real restaurant goer in those days, a real lunch

person,' he says.

'A phone call came through to the restaurant from the ABC producer saying "Whitlam's been sacked! Get here, we're going to fly to Canberra".

'So I went there, grabbed my make-up case and

I remember I got made up in the toilets on the Fokker Friendship.'

Nevin says that in an industry where hardship too often turns its victims into 'drunks or cynics', McDonald's candour about his own troubles and vulnerabilities has been of great value.

McDONALD has what first appears to be the ready volubility of the often-interviewed, but at length a cheerful kind of confessionalism emerges about his career, his illness, his future.

Only once does he refuse to talk freely about anything - it's when I bring up his shattered partnership with former close friend and Gunston writer Trevor Farrant, who walked out of Channel Seven's revamp of The Norman Gunston Show in February, 1993, weeks before McDonald's now-infamous surrender to an anxiety disorder and the subsequent collapse of the series.

Collaborators for more than a decade, the pair have not exchanged a word since.

McDonald won't explain what happened to their friendship, although he describes Farrant, who wrote McDonald's critically acclaimed 1990 film Struck by Lightning, as a very talented man - very, very funny".

'It was a strange relationship. I don't really like talking about him,' McDonald says.

A day after the interview, I am in the middle of leaving a second message on the answering machine at Farrant's North Adelaide home when he picks up the phone.

'Actually, when I got your message I thought, "This is it, Garry's died",' he remarks, in a silence-inducing opener.

'I thought that was the only reason someone would ring me, and I wondered how I should explain that Garry's family probably wouldn't welcome a comment from me,' he elaborates.

Farrant now works as a 'script doctor' - largely on American cable TV projects - and has written a number of films for foreign markets.

He thinks it unlikely that he and McDonald will see each other again, much less reprise the Gunston character, but after the passage of eight years he has considered praise for his former close friend.

'No-one even comes close to Garry as our finest (Australian) comic actor,' Farrant says.

'Of the many people I've worked with over the years, he's the only one who's always been able to make me laugh."

Despite the intervening bitterness, Farrant continues to treasure a memory he says holds the key to understanding McDonald's nature - watching the actor develop a strong relationship with the Down Syndrome cast on Struck by Lightning.

'When Garry wasn't on a set with them, he was off playing ping-pong with them - he absolutely gave to them and adored them, and they loved him in return and that is the true Garry.

'If you can fit that into whatever piece you're writing, then you should. It's important.' The Age

Garry McDonald stars in the David Williamson

play Up for Grabs, which opens at the

Civic Theatre on July 25.

'I WAS younger, and I was driven more by wanting fame. I really wanted to be successful. I think after

the breakdown and during the recovery, you obviously assess, and this is something that has to be realised. My expectations for life became far more realistic ... simpler.'

The speaker, Garry McDonald, is temporarily at rest on a steel chair in an anonymous dressing room deep inside Canberra's Playhouse, just before he is due to go on stage as Manny, the repressed Jewish money man in David Williamson's latest play, Up for Grabs.

The breakdown that McDonald refers to is now eight years old but it is almost as much a part of his

contemporary image as Norman Gunston or the lugubrious Arthur Beare, the Mother and Son character he inhabited for more than a decade.

McDonald is used to talking about it, having become a public advocate for sufferers of anxiety disorders.

His amusement at the cachet his

mental illness continues to command is infectious.

'People still approach you and they're, you know, how are you?

Or they're saying, "What medication are you on now?" I haven't been on medication for, you know, seven years.'

McDonald is jittery but says this is not evidence of an incipient breakdown.

'I'm always going to be a fairly nervy-type person, not in a negative way, but that's what I'm like. That's just what I'm like!'

After the Williamson show is over, Australia's pre-eminent comic actor has no firm plans, although he is considering various projects.

McDonald's directing debut earlier this year, an ambitious two-hander for the Sydney Theatre Company, was a confronting experience and one he is not

anxious to revisit in a hurry.

The play, Stones in His Pockets, won good audiences but mixed reviews in Sydney. McDonald struggled to leave his own performing instincts behind and remain off-stage while directing actors Greg Stone and Philip Dodd.

McDonald subsequently published an honest diary

of the experience, describing his exhaustion and occasional clashes with Stone, who at one stage complained he was wanting

to produce 'two Garry McDonalds'.

'I really jumped in the deep end,' McDonald says.

'I've never directed before in my life, and I directed a play that opened the season at Wharf One.

I probably should have taken it a bit slower.'

McDonald straightens up in his chair.

'But bugger it, the opportunity came up and

I'd wanted to do it for so long, and I'm bloody

50-whatever and I thought, take it now. Otherwise

you go to your grave thinking, "I bloody-well should have directed".'

With a bark of laughter, he adds: 'In the end, it nearly took me to my grave!'

IT is in Australian television that McDonald has reached iconic status. His presence on the Logies podium spans two decades from Gunston, which won him a Gold Logie in 1976, to his inclusion in 1997 in the TV Week Hall of Fame. And despite the preponderance of theatre and film work in recent years, he still prefers the instant thrills of the small screen.

'I like the pace of television,' McDonald says. 'I've never been really, really theatrical because I came into it wanting to be famous and make people laugh.

'I really love it when I go to the theatre and it moves me, but I can't bear theatre that's theatrical. And I find film a bit stressful.'

One of the projects on the go is an idea for a sitcom with a friend under the banner of her production company, Don't Panic Pictures. The humour is not lost on him.

'It's very good for someone with an anxiety disorder, isn't it? My company should be called Panic Pictures!'

After the Melbourne season of Up for Grabs, McDonald will return with wife Dianne to the small farm they share on the NSW south coast, getting the garden 'in shape', fishing, visiting his excellent local butcher and making his own beer.

'I would like to have something to do on that property commercially, but I probably haven't got the patience,' he muses.

That McDonald would not have the patience to coordinate a small agricultural enterprise is unsurprising. He has enough trouble sitting still for a one-hour interview. A creature of complex and ambitious gesticulation, his gaze is impossible to hold.

In the end, I take notes with my head down so that he can talk more freely.

In person, McDonald is still hilariously afflicted with the curse of his own distinctive physiognomy -- he continues to look exactly like both Norman Gunston and Arthur Beare.

'I still get Norman a bit, yeah,' he says. 'But look, you know, say if I hadn't done Norman, what would have happened to me? I probably could have had an OK career of theatre acting and small parts maybe in television. To actually have two big hits is pretty good in any career, and I feel happy about that.'

Long-term colleague and friend Robyn Nevin, artistic director at the Sydney Theatre Company, says self-deprecation is one of the McDonald trademarks. For the record, she says she hopes he will direct again.

'Garry is one of Australia's great clowns - and he's a political clown, which is important because there aren't enough of them,' she says.

Typically, McDonald was on the scene as Gunston for the most pivotal day in Australian politics in contemporary memory. The dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1975 saw him scooting obsequiously up and down the steps of Parliament House, accosting the major players in the drama and leaving an indelibly comic mark on the event.

'Actually, I was in Sydney having lunch at the Imperial Peking in Cremorne on that day - I was

a real restaurant goer in those days, a real lunch

person,' he says.

'A phone call came through to the restaurant from the ABC producer saying "Whitlam's been sacked! Get here, we're going to fly to Canberra".

'So I went there, grabbed my make-up case and

I remember I got made up in the toilets on the Fokker Friendship.'

Nevin says that in an industry where hardship too often turns its victims into 'drunks or cynics', McDonald's candour about his own troubles and vulnerabilities has been of great value.

McDONALD has what first appears to be the ready volubility of the often-interviewed, but at length a cheerful kind of confessionalism emerges about his career, his illness, his future.

Only once does he refuse to talk freely about anything - it's when I bring up his shattered partnership with former close friend and Gunston writer Trevor Farrant, who walked out of Channel Seven's revamp of The Norman Gunston Show in February, 1993, weeks before McDonald's now-infamous surrender to an anxiety disorder and the subsequent collapse of the series.

Collaborators for more than a decade, the pair have not exchanged a word since.

McDonald won't explain what happened to their friendship, although he describes Farrant, who wrote McDonald's critically acclaimed 1990 film Struck by Lightning, as a very talented man - very, very funny".

'It was a strange relationship. I don't really like talking about him,' McDonald says.

A day after the interview, I am in the middle of leaving a second message on the answering machine at Farrant's North Adelaide home when he picks up the phone.

'Actually, when I got your message I thought, "This is it, Garry's died",' he remarks, in a silence-inducing opener.

'I thought that was the only reason someone would ring me, and I wondered how I should explain that Garry's family probably wouldn't welcome a comment from me,' he elaborates.

Farrant now works as a 'script doctor' - largely on American cable TV projects - and has written a number of films for foreign markets.

He thinks it unlikely that he and McDonald will see each other again, much less reprise the Gunston character, but after the passage of eight years he has considered praise for his former close friend.

'No-one even comes close to Garry as our finest (Australian) comic actor,' Farrant says.

'Of the many people I've worked with over the years, he's the only one who's always been able to make me laugh."

Despite the intervening bitterness, Farrant continues to treasure a memory he says holds the key to understanding McDonald's nature - watching the actor develop a strong relationship with the Down Syndrome cast on Struck by Lightning.

'When Garry wasn't on a set with them, he was off playing ping-pong with them - he absolutely gave to them and adored them, and they loved him in return and that is the true Garry.

'If you can fit that into whatever piece you're writing, then you should. It's important.' The Age

Garry McDonald stars in the David Williamson

play Up for Grabs, which opens at the

Civic Theatre on July 25.

Garry McDonald

Born: Sydney, 1948.

Educated: Graduated Cranbrook 1965, NIDA 1966/67.

Career: Norman Gunston Show 1975-1980. Gold Logie 1976.

Other television includes: The Aunty Jack Show, Mother and Son, Fallen Angels, Rip Snorters, Eggshells.

Films include: Struck By Lightning, Ginger Meggs, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Moulin Rouge.

Named as National Living Treasure 1998. Inducted into TV Week Hall of Fame 1997.

Lives: NSW south coast with actress wife Dianne Craig.

The credits

 
Back  Back to Search Results
 

Advertise with Us | Fairfax Digital Privacy Policy | Conditions of Use | Member Agreement
© 2014 Fairfax Digital Australia & New Zealand Ltd.