Playing a truly iconic role is the dream of many an actor. Some get lucky and find one. And some, like Gerald McRaney, get really lucky and find a few.
Simon and Simon. Major Dad. Deadwood. 24: Legacy. This Is Us. McRaney has made an indelible impression on his audience for decades, and was recognized by his peers with an Emmy Award for his guest shot as the kindly Dr. K. in This Is Us in 2017.
When choosing a role, McRaney has specific criteria for deciding to embody a particular character. He says, "Primarily it's just, is the role fully fleshed out and is the story worth telling? There's so many yarns that have just been told ad infinitum, ad nauseum that you question 'do we need to hear this again?' So, if it's one of those, I generally pass on it.
"And I'm not really that much into the size of a role. It's 'Does it matter? Does it do anything? Does it further this story in some way? Does it come across as at all real or interesting?' I mean, not every role is going to be absolutely realistic, otherwise they would never have made Star Trek, but the role has to be well defined to me. That's all."
The role of Dr. K in This Is Us, had a particular resonance for McRaney.
"Number one, the structure of the script and the idea that it did go back in time. I knew up front that their intention was to go back and forth in time through the series, but then, just a guy who said what expectant mothers want to hear under those circumstances is that, 'I'm the best there is. You're in good hands. You don't need to worry about anything. Whatever happens, we'll deal with it.' I had people like that in my past. See, I'm old enough to remember doctors coming to the house when I was sick as a kid.
"Beyond medicine, they were just wise men, and I sort of like that idea of playing one of those guys, because I had something I could draw on. People from my past that really were like that guy, and that's the other thing. He wasn't like a superhero or anything, but he was that kind of granddad that everybody wants to have. I would love to have known Dr. K."
And on the heels of the beloved Dr. K., McRaney moves into a one-season regular role for the third season on Shooter, the USA Network series adapted from Stephen Hunter's book Point of Impact, starring Ryan Phillippe. In this one, McRaney says, he is "playing the most evil son of a bitch I've ever played in my life, so it's been great fun."
He goes on to say, "My character is one of the upper echelon of an outfit called Atlas, which is like this shadow government organization supposedly in the United States, so it's all rather darkly fanciful, but I'm not the head guy but close to it, and I'm the one in charge of enforcement of all sorts."
So, which does he prefer - good guys or bad guys? "Yes. Again, it depends on how the role is written. I'm really, as all actors truly are, at the mercy of writers. If it's good writing then you'll have a good time playing the role. If it isn't, it's going to be a miserable experience, so that's the main thing. I put my faith in good writing. That's all.
"When I did Deadwood, that was one of the finest experiences I could ever have, and that was a pretty evil son of a bitch right there, but it was so deliciously written that I just had a ball doing it. The same thing with Dr. K. It's just so well written and so well structured, and the dialogue is intelligent. That always makes a difference.
"It's an amazing thing. Good words go into my brain easily. I can remember them. All I have to do is look at the page and I can go do the scene, but bad writing will not go into my head. I have real problems learning sort of trivial dialogue or nonsensical dialogue."
Another guiding force in McRaney's life is his wife of nearly 30 years, Delta Burke. He says, "Well, honest to God, I think one of the things that made me get better as an actor was being married to her. She really does inspire me to do good work. She inspires me to do good things, period, but my work is, of course, an essential part of who I am. That's one of the things.
"It's like when you're a kid and you want to please your parents. I want Delta to be pleased with what I do, and when she likes what I do, I'm over the moon about that. The great thing about it is she'll tell me when it wasn't quite up to the mark."
Not only does Burke tell him when he's missing something in a performance, she also knows how to help him to fix it.
"I was doing a movie, Red Tails. We were shooting in Prague and Delta went with me on that location. She was out on the set with me one day and I had just finished doing a scene and came back to where she was sitting and she could tell that I was troubled about something. She asked what was wrong. I said, 'I just didn't feel like I was connecting in that scene.' She looked at me and said, 'Okay? How long have you known that guy?'
"I went back to the director and said, 'Let's do it again.' We did and it was there, and all it was was her saying that one thing, because I had left that out of the scene. The history that I had with the man that I was playing with. Little things like that, that only another actor could put their hands on."
Burke also helped him when he made the move from drama to comedy. He recalls, "You know, when she was doing Designing Women, I knew I was getting ready to do a sitcom of my own. I would go over there and try and study her. Nobody can do her timing. Nobody. It's hers. It's hers alone, but she's just brilliant, and she's as good in drama as she is in comedy.
"As a matter of fact, she couldn't get arrested to do a comedy for the first 10 or 12 years when she was here, and Linda [Bloodworth-Thomason, producer] gave her her first breakthrough in comedy on Filthy Rich."
Making Burke proud was, for McRaney, the best part of winning the Emmy. He says, "It was fantastic and honestly I think more so for Delta than it even was for me. She wanted this so badly for me. When they announced my name, I had never seen this before in my life, but Delta was shooting tears from her eyes. I've referred to it as projectile crying. I've never seen anything like it in my life.
"More than getting the award, more than being able to set it on my desk, I made my wife proud."