When describing his father, Michael McGrady told me, “I knew him as dad. I just never knew him as a man.”
To say that their relationship was rocky would be an understatement. “We had a tough, tumultuous relationship,” McGrady recalled.
McGrady thinks that part of the reason their relationship was so strained was because his father was such a hard worker, often consumed with work and in his own thoughts and, therefore, less available to McGrady. “He was a tremendous provider—impressively so. He was working at Western airlines at night. He had a real estate license so he was selling real estate during the day. He was helping my mom run her two successful beauty salons of 30 employees,” McGrady explained.
As a result, McGrady felt that he never developed a truly intimate relationship with his father. “I don’t remember him as being someone I could go to for heart to hearts or anything like that,” he described.
But another reason why McGrady struggled to connect with his father was that his father was intent on instilling a strict discipline and work ethic in his children that he felt would protect them from hardships in life. “My dad wanted to make sure so badly that I was going to be able to survive in the world as a man. My dad was very driven. If you do something you do it very well. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time,” McGrady recalled. “I started doing sports when I was eight. And if I didn’t do well in a game, I heard my dad for an hour and a half lecture me on what I did wrong. And the applied metric was ‘Please do better the next time you’re out there.’
"There wasn’t a lot of time for back slapping.”
But as a child, McGrady was more interested in questioning rules than following them. “I wouldn’t say I was a disciplined kid. I wanted to see how I could explore the limits. I wanted to see how far I could jump. I wanted to see if I could make that leap from one tree to another like Tarzan does," McGrady explained. "And because of this I have broken legs, broken noses, busted this, busted that. I was constantly in and out of hospitals getting mended.
“I think my dad had a fear that my willfulness was possibly going to get in the way of my success in life.”
Their relationship became very tense "He and I had a physical altercation once when I was a senior in high school. And I came within a nanosecond of throwing a punch at my dad,” McGrady explained. “He gave me a look that was like a laser beam. And I knew that even if I had hit him and possibly put him down, it would be the end of our relationship.”
What McGrady did not know at that time was that his father was dying of skin cancer. His father eventually died at the age of 44. More, McGrady himself would soon be diagnosed with melanoma -- the same cancer that took his father's life a year earlier -- and was told that for the next five years, they would be unable to assure him that he would live.
“When that cancer experience hit me, I didn’t have anybody to go to. I remember laying in the hospital – it was about midnight, a few hours after surgery … the doctor sat down with me and said, ‘I’m going to shoot straight with you just like I did with your father. We don’t know if we have it all. We never will. So it’s going to be the worst day of your life every time you have to come in here for the next five years for blood analysis,” McGrady said.
But McGrady chose to keep moving forward. "I was going to take a big bite out fo life," McGrady said.
“If I’m going to die, I’m going to die living.”
As a result, McGrady spent the next five years engaged in serious soul searching. And in part because he did not connect with his father’s approach to life, he sought out “father figures” through other pathways – particularly from the work of famous authors.
“There are two quotes that really caused me to change the way I think about things. The first was Marcus Aurelius, the emperor-philosopher … ‘It’s not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live,’” McGrady explained. “And then I read Emerson’s essay on self-reliance where he says, ‘The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.’”
More, McGrady began questioning the very essence of what he felt his father was teaching him – that he needed to conform and follow the rules in order to survive and be successful.
“From the beginning of time, men travel in packs, relying on each other for safety and success in the hunt. Hence, we are measured by our performance. And much of how we are judged in these modern times is also how we perform," he described. "Don’t piss people off. Don’t question authority. Just do your job. And if you do that, you’re guaranteed success in life,” he said. “I didn’t find it very effective … So I started questioning that philosophy. I started questioning what does it mean to be a successful man? What are the requirements.”
After having attended business school at The University of Washington, with aspirations of continuing on to law school, McGrady decided to take a break from his studies his senior year. And with the encouragement of his sister Shari, McGrady embarked on an acting career that has spanned over 30 years. He became a prominent actor, appearing in movies such as Wyatt Earp, The Thin Red Line, The Deep End of The Ocean and The Babe, and TV shows such as 24, Southland, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Ray Donovan and Beyond. And his role models for acting were actors who could portray a more complex persona rather than a “stereotypical” male.
“My role models were Gene Hackman, Albert Finney, Brian Cox, even Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and James Caan – guys that were not your typical leading men. They were more like anti-heroes. And that’s what I really related to,” McGrady said. “They’re not afraid to explore the shadow side of characters – the darker side. There’s an approach to the work that is more primal. They’re not just nice to look at – they’re really wonderful to hear. There’s a gravitas there that is so profoundly apparent."
McGrady has certainly fulfilled his life vision. Not only does he act, but he is also an accomplished and represented artist. He is a hang glider pilot, has blackbelts in two different forms of karate, plays and sings with his band The Sonic Groove Band in and around the Los Angeles area, and engages in a host of other pursuits. More, he is now a husband and parent of three children. And this is where McGrady slowly began to realize that perhaps he and his father were not so different after all. That process began in part with a recognition of how difficult parenting is.
“When I was younger, I had an image of my father – and it was not very flattering. Now that I’ve become a father, I realize it’s not as easy a job as everyone thinks it is,” McGrady said. “Raising and trying to sculpt a young mind and make them prepared for this thing we call life is not easy for anybody.”
And in talking with one of his father’s old friends, he learned that he and his father in some ways were more alike than different. “I just had a conversation with someone who knew my dad really well, and he said, ‘You know what? If your dad was alive today, you two would probably hit it off swimmingly. You look like him, you sound like him, you move like him and you have the same interests he did,’” McGrady said.
“‘You’re a chip off the old block.’”
McGrady’s mother went further, suggesting that it was their similarities that caused McGrady’s father to come down so hard on him. “My mom told me that I reminded him a lot of himself. Everything he saw as deficient in him he saw in me and wanted to improve those attributes,” he said.
As McGrady began to contemplate this, he saw even more similarities between him and his father. “When I look back on my dad’s life, he was a woodcarver, he was a woodworker. He refurbished both of our houses. He built his own bar. He basically built out both of my mom’s shops," McGrady said. "I was a do it yourself guy even before DIY came out. I refuse to pay anyone anything if I can do it myself. And in that way, I think my dad and I are very alike. My mom told me, ‘Your dad was a guy who if he wanted to know something, he went to the library and got a book on it.’
“They didn’t have YouTube back then.”
Soon, McGrady acknowledged that his father’s “give it your best” ethos also rubbed off – especially when it came to performing a job for someone. “That’s something I got from both my parents. When someone is paying you money that they worked hard for, it’s incumbent upon you to put in your best effort,” he described. “They’re paying you for your time and your skill set. So, I don’t fool around as much or experiment as much as I would if I was doing it for myself.”
Just as McGrady’s father was not thrilled with his son’s willfulness and adventurousness because it could get him hurt, so McGrady is cautious with his own kids. McGrady described how his approach to surfing is 180 degrees different when his family is in the water than when he is surfing alone.
“I went surfing with my wife and my son and she said, ‘You weren’t that aggressive today. You didn’t catch as many waves as you normally do,’” McGrady recalled. “I said, ‘No, never when I have family out here. When I have you and the kids out here, I’m watching you like hawks. I’m watching for other surfers. I’m watching for your safety. For me it’s not a surf session.
“It’s a lifeguard session.”
Sounds like a chip off the old block indeed.
Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with offices in Manhattan and South Orange, NJ, and is a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Contact Dr. Mike at michaelfriedmanphd.com. Follow him on Twitter @drmikefriedman.