Michael Patrick Thornton
As a child, Michael Patrick Thornton practiced acceptance speeches for the various show business awards he expected to win. "I thanked my parents," he recalls. "I thanked God. And I also thanked my very famous friends. Jack Nicholson made the list."
He hasn't delivered those speeches onstage — yet. But that he's had a TV career at all is a tribute to perseverance, courage and more than a little chutzpah.
Twenty years ago, Thornton had a spinal stroke, an illness so rare he had a better chance of winning Powerball. After extensive rehab, he'd recovered full mobility when, he says, "Out of nowhere a second one came, and it was devastating."
Thornton was completely paralyzed, but his passion for work kept him going. "I remember when I was in a coma and wanting to find my way out of the dark space, where all you could hear was the ventilator breathing for you. It wasn't that I wanted to see my mother and father again. It wasn't that I wanted to marry my girlfriend. The trail of breadcrumbs that I followed out of the hellscape was that I needed to act again."
He read Shakespeare sonnets out loud to relearn how to speak. Through rehab, he regained full use of his right arm and 70 percent of his left hand and arm. "I can stand and with a walker take some steps, very slowly," he says. "But I can do it."
Finding roles seemed improbable, but Thornton was undeterred. After almost two years, he started going out on calls again. "It was a bizarre and surreal experience because I was returning to the same casting offices I had gone to when I wasn't disabled. But I couldn't go to the front door because the front door had, you know, steps. So now I had to go around the back way and ride up in a freight elevator."
Thornton found success in Chicago theater, landing roles at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and cofounding The Gift Theatre. He costarred in this year's Broadway revival of A Doll's House.
After Steppenwolf cofounder Jeff Perry told his wife — casting director Linda Lowy — about Thornton, she suggested him for the recurring role of Dr. Gabriel Fife on ABC's Private Practice. Thornton appreciated that his disability wasn't a plot point.
This year, more than a dozen TV roles later, he's played a recurring love interest on ABC's The Good Doctor and appeared on CBS's NCIS. More scripts have headed his way. "Really great roles," he says, "where the chair is hardly mentioned at all. It means the character is a person just like everyone else."
The interviews for this story were completed before the start of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #9, 2023, under the title "Second Act."