HOUSE CALL: On the Scrubs set during the show’s seventh season, John C. McGinley in his roll of Dr. Perry Cox confers with fellow-Jerseyan Zach Braff, who played Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian.
A miracle happened last summer in Bay Head. Max, the 14-year-old son of actor John C. McGinley, grabbed a boogie board and headed into the pounding surf to join his cousins in catching a wave. What sounds typical for a teenage boy is a feat for Max, who was born with Down syndrome and had never before ventured into the ocean, much less attempted to navigate a curl.
“For his whole life, Max squatted on beaches around the planet, clocking the ocean,” says McGinley, an avid surfer who negotiated his first waves on the Jersey Shore. “He’s a terrific swimmer—in heated pools. But, he decided it was time to go into the ocean. It was astonishing to see him bodysurfing like he had been doing it all his life.”
It’s impossible to talk about McGinley without mentioning Max. A longtime advocate for people with Down syndrome, McGinley received the Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award last fall for his efforts in promoting the rights of individuals with special needs. “He’s an amazing spokesperson for the cause because as a parent of a child with Down syndrome, he can speak of it in a loving, authentic way,” says Michelle Sie Whitten, director of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, which presented the award. “To see John and Max together is to understand the depth of his fathering, and to see how this child balances, brightens and enlightens John every moment is palpable.”
Those who know McGinley from his childhood in Short Hills understand that his sense of integrity and love of family was nurtured around a cozy kitchen table in the house his parents still own. Growing up as one of five siblings—three boys and two girls—McGinley is the first to tell you his was a childhood straight from a Norman Rockwell painting. “It was really pretty great. After school, we either had an activity or we rode our bikes back home,” he says. “My mother was a second-grade teacher at Pingry for about 25 years, and she wasn’t always available to cater to everybody in the house—and she didn’t want to cater to everybody in the house. We weren’t allowed back until dark. We were to be engaged in something, whether it was football or tag or hide-and-seek or baseball or mowing lawns or shoveling snow.”
His favorite haunt remains his mother’s kitchen table, and he journeys from his home in Malibu to gather around it as often as he can with his own family— wife, Nichole; Max; Billie Grace, 4; and Kate, 1. Besides coming home for Thanksgiving—“It’s a luxury to go back to the house you grew up in,” he says—he tries to rent a house in Bay Head for a family reunion every summer. “I get one of the big, old dinosaurs that has 11 bedrooms so all the cousins can come and stay with us,” he says. “You know, one of those homes at the Shore with the great porches where everyone sits with a beverage and stays up talking all night about how great everything used to be.”
For McGinley, things have continued to turn out rather great since he graduated from Millburn High School in 1978. He got his big break in 1983, when he landed the understudy role for John Turturro’s character in writer-director John Patrick Shanley’s two-person play, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. Auspiciously, McGinley stepped in on the night that a casting agent for Oliver Stone was in the audience. This led to the audition that gave McGinley his breakthrough role in Platoon—and catapulted him to national recognition. Stone went on to cast him in a total of six films, including Wall Street. Other memorable roles include Bob Slydell in the cult classic, Office Space.
McGinley’s favorite part, though, happens to be his most iconic: Dr. Perry Cox on the TV sitcom Scrubs, whose quick-witted tongue filleted fellow Jerseyan Zach Braff’s character in every episode while offering up a strong dose of no-nonsense life lessons. McGinley played Dr. Cox as though the role was made for him—and in a way it was. “The funniest thing on the outline of the casting invitation was, in parentheses: ‘Looking for a John McGinley type,’” he says. “And I still had to audition six times. ‘But,’ I said, ‘I’m the guy in the parentheses!’
“At the time, I had a Mustang—a real Jersey muscle car—and when I left my last audition, I put the top down, blared Bruce and thought, My God, this was the best audition! I was thrilled to get this role,” McGinley says. “Scrubs allowed me to be a working actor in Los Angeles doing something I was proud of and spend the maximum amount of time with my son.”
McGinley’s most exciting role may be yet to come. This year, he’ll star as Richard Brookwell, the ambitious chief of police in Alex Cross, the latest movie based on James Patterson’s beloved detective, played in the upcoming rendition by Tyler Perry. “The director, Rob Cohen, is a family friend,” McGinley says. “We’ve wanted to do a film together for a while, and he asked my input on creating this character. For an actor, this is a very rare opportunity and as good as it gets.” Describing the film as “really brutal and fantastic, with a tone like Silence of the Lambs,” he says that he tried to instill in Brookwell a sense of leadership and integrity.
McGinley brings that sensibility to everything he does, whether it’s a role that is fictional or within his family. “I consider myself a guy with no small amount of integrity,” he says. “It’s what I trade on.”
Pledge with John
During the 2009 Winter Special Olympics in Boise, John C. McGinley attended a youth leadership conference comprised of participating athletes who gathered to address their most pressing issues. Their number-one concern: The cavalier use of “the R-word”—retard or retarded—in the media and in everyday language. Their resulting campaign, Spread the Word to End the Word, seeks to promote the acceptance and inclusion of those with intellectual disabilities and encourage people to take a pledge to support the elimination of these words from everyday speech. To date, more than 200,000 have pledged. “An individual’s dignity is not only an entitlement; it is a fundamental quality that distinguishes each of us and lends an informed significance to everything that we do,” McGinley says. “And anytime a person’s dignity is stomped on, it is wrong. Make no mistake about it: Words do hurt. And when we pepper our speech with retard and retarded, we are spreading hurt. So stop it.” Read more about McGinley’s cause and take the pledge at r-word.org.