By David Hennessy
Best known for playing Dr. Cox, the morose and reluctant mentor in popular and long running sitcom, Scrubs, the actor John C McGinley will be recognisable to many. The hospital series was an instant hit when launched in 2001, launching the careers of Zach Braff and Sarah Chalke while also greatly lifting McGinley’s profile. A complex character, the first impression of Dr. Cox may have been that of a nonchalant loner but as the series progressed, he was revealed to be nursing wounds from his upbringing, work and failed marriage. After patching his marriage back together, he was shown to be a loving father.
The characters he has played have often had Irish names like O’Neill, O’Malley and McCarty. The red headed Cox is also of Irish descent and with heritage in Donegal and Meath, John C frequently travels to Ireland like he did recently: “Every year, my brothers and I go to Dublin for a week. We’ve been doing it for 15 years. We used to be it with my father but he’s too old to travel now.”
In 2008, he was made an Honorary Patron of the University Philosophical Society, Trinity College: “They invited me over there and included me in an honorary capacity over at Trinity and it was one of the great nights of my life and we gave a speech over there and the kids were pretty astonishing to tell you the truth. It was one of the greatest nights I’ve ever had.” He was also made an Honorary Life Member of the UCD Law Society.
John C’s earlier work includes appearing in Oliver Stone’s Oscar winning Platoon but it is the abrasive, hard drinking doctor that he is most often recognised for: “Dr. Cox was on for 200 episodes in nine years or so, so that was one of the great gigs of all time. Those don’t come along ya know, shows get cancelled after a year or two for a myriad of reasons and so when a show runs for nine years and you happen to be really proud of it, that’s a real treat. Scrubs somehow managed to eek out nine years and I was really proud of Dr. Cox just because of how damaged and human he was and so I’m fine when people recognise me as Doctor Cox, I think it’s great.”
Scrubs came to an end in 2010. After working so closely for so long, does John miss the rest of the cast? “I do, I miss Zachy, I miss Donald (Faison), I miss Sarah. When you spend 16 hours a day together for 24 weeks a year for nine years, it’s easily more time than you spend with your family. Just mathematically it would have to be. There’s not another 16 hours left and so you spend so much time together you learn to get along. You don’t get along all the time and it becomes a family and you knock heads every once in a while but then most of the time, you fundamentally love each other and you’re a lifeline to the other person: Otherwise it’s too hard.”
What set Scrubs apart from other sitcoms were its believable characters and the way it dealt with the life and death situation. Offering much more than simple laughs, it could tug at the emotional heart strings. Even seasoned professional Dr. Cox was once shown struggling with a patient’s death following a transplant he hastily ordered: “So many doctors have told us over the years that Scrubs was right on the money. What a couple of doctors told us was that there’s so many circumstances where, because the stakes that they’re playing for are in fact life and death that, there’s kind of a gallows humour. Unless some of these doctors find the humour in things, they’re just gonna shrivel up and die because the pain is too great and they can’t save everybody so these guys find a way to arm themselves with humour almost like a kevlar vest that a cop might have on. They have emotional Kevlar that they wear to work and every once in a while that fails and something, a circumstance gets through and it hurts too much. I think Scrubs was able to bestride those two places: The places where we have the laugh right now and other places where you’ve gotta cry a little bit.”
Recent months have seen the American release of 42, the story of Major League Baseball’s first black player, where John C plays legendary sportscaster, Red Barber. Was portraying a real person as opposed to a fictional character extra responsibility? “I think so especially when the real character is a figure that baseball fanatics, of which Brooklyn Dodger fans were and are, cherish this guy. They held him close to their hearts because he was the only way that the game was delivered to them. There was no internet, there was no TV, there was no other way to get the game other than to listen to Red Barber and so they listened with such keen interest and with such attention to every detail of the story that Red was telling. They held this guy so close to their hearts as they get older and so then to bring him back, I thought there was a huge responsibility there to try to elevate to Red Barber instead of try to imitate or anything like that, but rather to get his rhythm and sound and his cadence which were very strange because he was born in Mississippi, grew up in Florida, then came up through the Cincinnati Reds organisation and wound up in Brooklyn so those four different regions imprint on somebody’s sound. When one of your friends moves from Dublin to Alabama for ten years, I guarantee you they’re gonna come back to Dublin with some kind of crazy Alabama twang. It’s what happens to our ear and of course that happened to Red Barber and so he was this insane amalgamation of these four different regions which yielded the most interesting sound on radio.”
Some may say we have come far since the days when Robinson ended racial segregation in an American sport but this is not what strikes McGinley who is a vocal supporter of the special needs community: “I don’t know how far we’ve come. I think bigotry and racism and exclusionary behaviour is inherent to the human condition because I see it with the special needs community all the time. My son Max was born with Down Syndrome and so I find myself in an advocacy position more times than not with a lot of our members of the special needs population. I see it all the time: I see the exclusionary behaviour, I see use of the R word which is retard and retarded, I see the taunting and I see the exclusionary put downs and so, how far have we come? I don’t know, not that far.”
Committed to building awareness and acceptance of people with Down syndrome, John currently serves as an Ambassador for both the Special Olympics and the National Down Syndrome Society and is a board member of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. He is also one of the original creators, in conjunction with Special Olympics, of the ground breaking Spread the Word to End the Word campaign to eradicate the R word. This word is still used in many films and TV programmes and John has come across it in material he has been offered: “I just tell them I can’t participate in their material unless they’re willing to change it and if they can’t change it, then there’s nothing I can do about it other than to tell you I don’t want to participate. The fact of the matter is in the United States, you’re allowed to use any language you want but in most cases, there’s a consequence for offensive language. There’s a tax or a price you have got to pay when you use certain language about certain groups but that doesn’t exist for the special needs community and so it galls me and I go out of my way to try to inform people that when they use the R word, they are perpetuating a negative stigma about a population that has done absolutely nothing to them and never will. Therefore when you’re aware of that and you insist on using that language, that then goes into bullying and I feast on bullies.”
For the full interview, see the June 15 print edition of The Irish World.