Gerald McRaney Interview: Veteran TV Actor Stars in New NBC Spy Series 'Undercovers'
Mississippi native Gerald Lee “Mac” McRaney has been a regular on television screens since the early 1970s, guest starring on Alias Smith and Jones, Cannon, The Waltons, Mannix, Gunsmoke, Police Woman, Barnaby Jones, Hawaii Five-O, Switch, The Rockford Files, Baretta, The Incredible Hulk, Designing Women, and The West Wing just to name a few. He also holds the distinction of being the last guest star to meet “Matt Dillon” in a gunfight on Gunsmoke.
The actor is perhaps best known as one half of the detective team of Simon & Simon which ran from 1981 to 1989 on the CBS network. The show revolved around polar opposite brothers Rick (McRaney) and A.J. (Jameson Parker) who ran a private detective service in San Diego.
“You wanted to be as good as Robert Duvall or Brando or one of those guys. But, Bobby Duvall, for me personally, was the absolute benchmark.”
Shortly after Simon & Simon ended, McRaney portrayed hard-headed United States Marine Corps Major John D. “Mac” McGillis for four seasons in the CBS sitcom Major Dad. The show followed Mac in his work life as well as his home life as he learned to live with wife Polly’s three daughters.
McRaney played a prominent role in the second and third seasons of the HBO television series Deadwood and had a starring role in the CBS post-apocalyptic series Jericho as Johnston Green. In addition, he has acted in many television films such as Not Our Son, Going for Broke, and Ike: Countdown to D-Day.
The busy actor will again be returning to episodic TV this fall in the new NBC action spy series Undercovers (also starring Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) created by acclaimed writer/producer/director J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost, Fringe) and executive producer/writer Josh Reims (Brothers & Sisters, Dirty Sexy Money, Everwood). Undercovers premieres on Wednesday, September 22 at 8:00 PM Eastern.
McRaney married his third wife, actress Delta Burke (Designing Women) on May 28, 1989.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Gerald, you’re from Collins, Mississippi?
Gerald McRaney: I was born there and grew up there until I was four, then lived in Picayune and Long Beach for the most part.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I don’t detect much of a southern accent.
Gerald McRaney: I had to kind of get rid of it if I wanted work as an actor. My brother used to live out here in Los Angeles and he got tired of explaining to people why he had an accent and I didn’t. It was not something the family liked to talk about, but I’ve always been just a little bit slow and never could pick it up.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you visit Mississippi often?
Gerald McRaney: Not as much as I’d like to. I was back there in May and was the commencement speaker for the Mississippi School for the Arts, which is a fairly new high school program they have now. If they’d had it when I was there, that would have been great.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ve been a huge fan of your work, especially Simon & Simon, Major Dad, and Promised Land.
Gerald McRaney: Thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about your latest project, Undercovers.
Gerald McRaney: Well, oddly enough, the guy who plays the lead (Boris Kodjoe) and his brother grew up in Germany and one of the two shows that they were allowed to watch by their mother in those days was Simon & Simon. When he called his brother and told him who he was working with, his brother just about went nuts. They were huge Simon & Simon fans.
I think my role in Undercovers is of the designated curmudgeon (laughs). I’m the senior CIA operative who brings these two people back into the fold as it were.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): They are currently in the catering business.
Gerald McRaney: Yes. They are former CIA operatives who work independently of each other. They met while in the CIA, got tired of having to keep secrets from each other, and both decided to withdraw to have their own private personal lives together so they opened a catering business. That’s where we find them now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ve heard there are comparisons being made between Undercovers and Hart to Hart (ABC television series 1979-1984).
Gerald McRaney: Well, you know, J.J. Abrams created the show and said that this is not really a unique idea. There’s been Hart to Hart, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and his dad produced Undercover Blues, which was shot down in New Orleans. So this idea has bounced around for a while. It’s his application of it, I think, is what’s going to make it unique. The two kids playing the leads are just terrific, too.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It’s off to a great start being a J.J. Abrams vehicle.
Gerald McRaney: That gets it on and the rest is up to us.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you become involved in the show?
Gerald McRaney: I was sent a copy of the script, read it, went in and met with the people who were producing it, and that was that. I was the first one cast in the show.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You really liked the script.
Gerald McRaney: Yeah, that and the fact that J.J. Abrams is the most innovative man in television these days.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In addition to a new series, you have some feature films out also.
Gerald McRaney: Yes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ll bet The A-Team was fun to film.
Gerald McRaney: It was. I loved working with Liam Neeson, but who wouldn’t? The guy is a great actor and a terrific human being on top of it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): A film you made last year, Get Low (also starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, and Lucas Black), has also been released?
Gerald McRaney: Actually the official premiere is tomorrow night. I think there have been some press screenings and things like that ahead of time, but the official premiere is tomorrow.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Had you ever worked with Robert Duvall before?
Gerald McRaney: No I hadn’t. I did a play in New York, the last play Horton Foote produced before he passed away. Of course, Horton and his wife gave Bobby his start in movies back in the 60s with To Kill a Mockingbird. They became great friends.
Bobby came to see the play I was doing and insisted that I be in his next movie which was Get Low. He sort of put some pressure on the producers to get me in the film.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Duvall is amazing at almost 80.
Gerald McRaney: Oh, he is absolutely incredible! When I was starting out as an actor in the mid 60s that was the benchmark. You wanted to be as good as Robert Duvall or Brando or one of those guys. But, Bobby Duvall, for me personally, was the absolute benchmark.
Duvall did a thing in the early 70s again with Horton Foote called Tomorrow. It was based on a William Faulkner short story, a little black and white film. I can tell you that the character he was playing was from New Albany, Mississippi. I mean, he was that specific with the accent. He’s a great technician, but his method of method acting goes far beyond most people.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I also read that you’re working on a film about the Tuskegee Airmen.
Gerald McRaney: Yes. I’m the commanding general who gives them their first mission over Germany in support of a major bombing mission.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were any scenes filmed in Tuskegee, Alabama?
Gerald McRaney: No, not to my knowledge, but they may have since gone and shot some extra footage there. Everything I participated in and most of the film was shot in Prague in the Czech Republic.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): They have the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic site there now with a fabulous museum.
Gerald McRaney: I’d love to see that myself. You know, it’s interesting, about two or three months before I got the word that they wanted me to do this movie I was sitting in an outdoor café in my neighborhood near Studio City.
I saw this black gentleman wearing a ball cap and I could tell it was military in nature. He finally turned in my direction and the cap read, “Tuskegee Airmen.” I waited for him to finish his lunch and went over to him. I said, “ Were you one of the airmen?” He said, “Yes I was.” I gave him a handshake and thanked him for what he had done because those guys were something else.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes they were. Do you enjoy making films more than the sometimes-grueling schedule of television?
Gerald McRaney: No, I don’t really. It all depends on the project. If you had the most luxurious schedule in the world doing bad TV, it would still be a bore. The same thing is sometimes true for a movie, but luckily for me the things I’ve been doing lately have all been good material and good people to work with. I’ve had fun.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever tried your hand at directing a feature film?
Gerald McRaney: Not a movie, no. I directed many Simon & Simon episodes, Major Dad, a couple of movies of the week, but I’ve never done a feature. I’d love to.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would you like to do more Broadway?
Gerald McRaney: Absolutely. I started on the stage in New Orleans and I miss it. I had a great time. Of course, working with Horton Foote right there was a treat that not many people have had the opportunity to witness.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You and Delta have been married for 21 years.
Gerald McRaney: Yes and I’ve known her for 23 now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is the secret to a successful marriage?
Gerald McRaney: If I knew that, I wouldn’t have had two false starts, now would I? I had two marriages that I considered five-year options that simply weren’t exercised. I have no idea what the secret to a successful marriage is other than to marry Delta Burke.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You two always look so happy whenever you’re photographed together.
Gerald McRaney: We are. People are always amazed and they talk about the way we still hold hands or I’ll touch her face and snuggle with her. We’ve been married for 21 years and it still seems normal to me. It’s odd to me that people remark about it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do the two of you like to do during the down time?
Gerald McRaney: Travel. We love road trips as much as anything else. When I did that movie in Prague Delta went with me and we just absolutely fell in love with that place. I’d love to go back to Prague and also to Venice. We were there on our honeymoon and went back again when she was doing documentary type stuff for Lifetime television. We both love to travel.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Much luck in the new series and thanks for many hours of entertainment.
Gerald McRaney: Thank you very much. It hasn’t been all great material, but it beats working for a living. I used to work on oilrigs out in the Gulf of Mexico so I know whereof I speak.
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