Not just a tough guy: Actor brings depth to ‘Scrubs’ role

Jun 3, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Every actor looks for the role that will make all the difference, that will guarantee his place among the stars after years of success in notable supporting parts and lesser-known films and shows. John C. McGinley seems to have found such a role in NBC’s “Scrubs,” playing the good-hearted bully Dr. Perry Cox, a world-weary physician who rages sarcastically at the hospital interns in his midst but lets us see that he hurts inside.
The paradox of Dr. Cox is suited to the fiery-eyed Mr. McGinley, who in scores of movie roles has often combined wild physical energy with a talent for introspection and tragedy.
Mr. McGinley had never starred in a TV series before, but his role as Dr. Cox can be seen as the summation of a career spent trying to lend humanity to a long row of wackos and brutes, beginning with the swaggering Vietnam sergeant full of hot air he played in Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.”
In “Scrubs,” Mr. McGinley has had to take a slightly different approach, based on the show’s breathless farcical style. He describes it as, “Hit your mark a la Spencer Tracy and talk as fast as you can.”
About Dr. Cox, Mr. McGinley said, “I wanted to find what was redeemable about the guy. I wasn’t interested in making him just a hard-core tough guy. It felt like he was an archetypal descendant of two of my favorite characters: Danny DeVito’s Louie De Palma in `Taxi’ and Ed Asner’s Lou Grant in `The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’ To me, Cox occupied a similar space-somebody who taught with a spoonful of dirt and then a cup of sugar. He just seemed really damaged in a wonderful way.”
Mr. McGinley credits “Scrubs” creator Bill Lawrence with allowing him to explore the dark spaces behind Dr. Cox’s sarcasm.
“When Cox goes to bed every night and when he gets up in the morning, I’ve made his point of departure love,” Mr. McGinley said without irony. “And then he can be caustic and acerbic and ride these kids pretty hard because he functions from love. And that’s the way I have to do it because of how enormous my son Max is in my life. Max profoundly affects every single script I read.”
His son and only child, Max, 4, was born with Down syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality that results in developmental difficulties. Remaining physically close to Max has been important for Mr. McGinley.
“Doing a TV series simply means that I can be in Los Angeles with my son and not have to go to Calgary and Vancouver and Toronto four months a year, which is where I had been going to make movies. I get to have a pretty normal schedule.”
A native of New Jersey and a 1984 graduate of NYU’s graduate acting program, Mr. McGinley, 42, got his first break while working as an understudy to John Turturro in an off-Broadway play by “Moonstruck” author John Patrick Shanley. The first night he got a chance to go on in place of Mr. Turturro, a scout for director Oliver Stone was in the audience and asked Mr. McGinley to audition for “Platoon.” Initially, he was cast in a small role, but by the time the low-budget picture was ready to go into production two years later, Mr. McGinley was promoted to the larger part of the loud-mouthed Sgt. O’Neill that was to have been played by “The West Wing’s” John Spencer. Mr. Spencer by then was busy in a Broadway show.
“It all kind of rolled from there,” Mr. McGinley said, noting the unexpected box office triumph of “Platoon.” “Just before that I was doing third-guy-on-the-right in Kevin Kline’s first `Hamlet.”’ Mr. Stone cast him again in five more films, including most recently the 1999 NFL drama “Any Given Sunday,” in which Mr. McGinley played a broadcast sports reporter with the soul of sandpaper. His other 40-plus movies include “Wall Street,” “Nixon,” “Fat Man and Little Boy,” “Seven” and “A Midnight Clear.”
“I was pretty lucky to get on that film train and stay on it for a while, and then to back into this thing seems pretty tremendous,” Mr. McGinley said.
Did he set out to play the kind of manic and prickly roles he has mastered?
“When I got out of NYU, all I wanted to do was stop being a waiter and start making a living as an actor. I didn’t want to bring people Cristal at 4 in the morning anymore. If I told you anything else it would be a lie.”