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All in the Family

Date: Sep 28, 2007


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Gerald McRaney started his TV career playing bad guys: He was the last gunfighter downed by Marshal Matt Dillon in the final season of Gunsmoke, he played a demented police chief on The Incredible Hulk and he otherwise robbed and terrorized victims on such 1970s procedurals as Barnaby Jones, Baretta, Cannon and Police Woman.

Then, suddenly, this moustachioed Mississippi native was cast in a series of roles that defined him as a good guy, albeit a strong-willed and sometimes feisty one: the detective show Simon & Simon and the sitcom Major Dad, among others.

More recently he made a trip back to the dark side, as mining magnate George Hearst on the HBO series Deadwood. And he's making his New York stage debut as a hard-drinking ne'er-do-well named Lewis, a scion of a gnarled Texas family in Horton Foote's play Dividing the Estate, through Oct. 27 at Primary Stages.

"The guy is not just a creep," McRaney is quick to clarify. "That's the wonderful thing about Foote's writing: Everyone in the piece is right in their own way, and everyone's a little bit wrong, too. But Lewis is the black sheep of the family, that's for sure. And those are the fun characters to play."

McRaney, who lives in "the factory town" of Los Angeles with his wife, Delta Burke, came by the role in Dividing the Estate through a "bizarre set of circumstances," as he puts it. As a young actor in the late 1960s and early '70s in a regional theatre in New Orleans, he studied with Group Theatre alumnus Wendell Phillips, who had previously mentored the young Foote.

Years later, McRaney was chatting up his co-star on the drama Promised Land.

"I was on the way to the set the first day, and I mentioned Wendell to her, and she said, 'Didn't you notice my name?' " Indeed, it was Wendy Phillips, Wendell's daughter, who played McRaney's wife on that Touched by an Angel spinoff.

The family-and-friend connections behind the casting of Estate don't stop there: Wendy counts among her friends Elizabeth Ashley, who also stars in the play alongside Wendy's daughter Jenny Dare Paulin and Foote's daughter Hallie. Long story short, McRaney soon found himself fielding calls from a number of corners urging him to do Horton's play.

It was a big leap--his last experience onstage was nearly four decades ago in a small Louisana theatre.

"It was a little nerve-wracking at first, but once the rehearsal process started, it all came back to me," says McRaney of his return to the boards. "It's much more enjoyable, in a way, because at a certain point it's up to the actors, period. Doing TV or movies, you can give a mediocre performance and it can be fixed with the editing, or give a great performance that can be messed up later. That can't be done in the theatre. It's entirely up to us at some point, and the play's in our hands. I like that."

Most of McRaney's career has been in single-camera TV, with the exception of the multi-camera sitcom Major Dad. Some actors compare that form to theatre because it's done on a stage with a live audience, but for McRaney, "Those sitcoms are neither fish nor fowl. You can't really play to the audience because the camera's right up in your face, and you can't play to the camera because there's an audience there. So it's neither a film nor a play--it's a little bit of both, and mostly neither."

Though raised in the South, McRaney's normal speaking voice exhibits only the faintest traces of a twang. That goes back a long time, he explains.

"When I was a student at Ole Miss, I realized that if I was going to work at acting, I would get a lot more parts if I didn't have the accent, so I started working then to get rid of it," McRaney says. "It's funny, my brother lives in L.A. and he never lost his accent, and he got tired of explaining why he had one and his brother didn't, so he finally started telling people: 'My brother's always been a little slow on the uptake. He just never could pick it up.' "

In any case, "It comes back easily enough. And the thing is, saying that there's 'a' Southern accent is like saying there's only one New York accent. There really isn't. It varies almost county to county." The cast of Dividing the Estate, set in Foote's typical East Texas milieu, includes a "smattering of old Southerners" from Florida, Louisana and Texas. "We've kind of pulled it together into one family of accents."

Though Foote has been writing plays since the 1950s, and Dividing the Estate was actually written in 1987, he has only been celebrated in New York as a living American master in the last decade or so. Part of that has to do with his insistently regional voice, McRaney thinks.

"This country is a fascinating place, and it can't be defined by one area or city," McRaney says. "I wish we had more writers like Mr. Foote, who write what they know. I'd love to see works coming out of Phoenix, Ariz., and Tacoma, Wash., and I'd love to see major theatre operations in every state."

But surely there are regional theatres in every state?

"Yes, there are, and I started at a regional theatre, an NEA-funded theatre in New Orleans," McRaney says. "But that became more about bringing in culture to New Orleans, when there was already culture there.

"A friend of mine from New Orleans came to New York and got cast in Grease, and he was nominated for a Tony," McRaney says, referring to the late Tim Myers. "I called him to congratulate him, and he said, 'You know, Mac, there are people coming here by the busload from New Orleans who wouldn't have crossed the street to see us in our little theatre there.' "

Not that McRaney is complaining. "If you wanna do theatre in the fastest company there is, you come to New York."

Dividing the Estate runs at Primary Stages' theatre at 59E59, 59 E 59th St., Manhattan, through Oct. 27. More information here.