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A local’s ‘dramatic’ comeback

Michael McGreevey starred in popular Disney films as a child, now he returns to lure of spotlight

Posted: July 3, 2010 9:07 p.m.
Updated: July 4, 2010 4:30 a.m.

Michael McGreevey looks through old photo albums containing photos from his extensive career as a child and young adult actor.

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Michael McGreevey used to scarf down his lunch at The Walt Disney Studios so he could fit in some rounds of ping pong.

Most of the players he went paddle-to-paddle with were other child stars, Disney crew members or executives.

As the 62-year-old Valencia former child actor sat in a Santa Clarita Valley park on Tuesday, he smiled as he vividly recalled facing off with one particular opponent.

“The next person stepped up, and it was Mr. Disney,” McGreevey said. “And I thought, ‘Should I beat him or not?’ And I found out quick that I couldn’t beat him.” 

Though he never won — playing ping pong with Walt Disney is just one of many fond memories McGreevey has of his childhood acting days. 

“It was paradise for a kid actor,” he said of his time at Disney. “It was like going to the best summer camp you could go to everyday, and you get paid to do it.”

After a decades-long hiatus from acting, McGreevey has returned to his roots.

He’ll soon depart to Maryland, where he’ll transform into a reverend for a role in the small independent film “A Lesson of Love.” In the fall, he’ll star in an episode of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”

A child in demand
McGreevey got his first break at age 7. The owner of the dance academy where McGreevey studied cast him and several other dancers in “The Girl Most Likely” with Jane Powell and Cliff Robertson.

“I spent the summer of my seventh year dancing with Jane Powell,” he said. “She was beautiful and smelled good — that’s what I remember.”

McGreevey’s career took off from there. After he signed on with an agent, McGreevey found himself working with directors like Michael Curtiz, of “Casablanca,” and actors like Burt Reynolds and Henry Fonda. 

He worked hard and soaked up what he could from “the greats” for some “on-the-job training.” Though he never had any formal acting lessons, the fresh-faced tyke had some natural tricks of his own.

“I was in demand as a child actor,” he said. “I was one of few that could cry on cue, which I think got me a lot of jobs.”

Having red hair and freckles definitely helped. So did good comedic timing, he said.

McGreevey became a regular on the television series “Riverboat.” For a year and a half, he was Chip, the cabin boy.

“I spent a year and a half of my childhood running around the backlot at Universal, having a great time,” he said.

But nothing compared to life at Disney Studios. McGreevey landed a recurring role on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.”

He played the lead in “Sammy, the Way-Out Seal,” one of the first major television shows shot in color.

He hung out on streets named Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive. There were basketball courts and a softball field. And most importantly, he was treated well, he said.

“It felt like a family,” he said. “I felt very secure there.”

Marrying Sally Field
High school called for a break and time to taste what McGreevey called a “normal” kid’s life. But life out of the spotlight only satisfied for so long. By graduation, McGreevey was itching for a new role.

The day after he accepted his diploma, he flew off to Oregon to work with Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Sally Field on “The Way West.” He played Brownie Evans and married Sally Field’s character.  

The movie didn’t receive rave reviews, McGreevey said, but it still allowed for a significant leap in his acting career.

“It was a really big movie for me,” McGreevey said. “I got a ton of work off that (film).”

He went to college at the University of California, Los Angeles, but continued to take accept major acting roles.

He co-starred with Kurt Russell in three television action comedies: “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes,” “Now You See Him, Now You Don’t” and “The Strongest Man in the World.”

Writing and directing
While McGreevey had fun in the spotlight as Russell’s right-hand man, he soon came to realize the toll Disney movies had taken on his reputation as an actor.

“I discovered Disney films had typed me in Hollywood,” he said. “It was sort of the kiss of death.” 

He decided to leave behind his fame as “the funny guy who makes the Disney movies” and try his hand at writing and directing.

He delved into research on Jack Ruby, convicted of the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald on Nov. 24, 1963, two days after Oswald was arrested for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Hoping to receive some positive feedback from an experienced voice in the industry, McGreevey left a half-written script about Ruby on the desk of his father, Emmy award-winning writer John McGreevey.

Several days later, his father phoned with some news that producer Alan Landsburg coincidentally wanted a script on Jack Ruby. He followed with a question that stunned McGreevey: “Would you mind writing it with me?” his father asked.

Together, the pair co-wrote the television docudrama.

But the aspiring writer didn’t always have his father by his side. The elder McGreevey became ill during the process.

Michael McGreevey recalled visiting his father in the hospital. Five words helped the nervous new writer gain the confidence he needed to take the lead and launch a successful writing and directing career.

“You can do this, Mike,” his father told him.

“Ruby and Oswald,” a three-hour television special that garnered industry acclaim and ratings success, was released on Feb. 8, 1978.

“(My father and I) were never as close as we were when we did that,” McGreevey said. “I learned a lot from him.”

Return to the spotlight
Work as a writer and director held steady. McGreevey married, had children and moved to Valencia.

Many of the works he wrote and directed began to reflect the new focus of his life — his family.

He wrote episodes of “The Waltons,” “Father Murphy,” “Fame,” and scores more.

Then sometime between age 55 and 57, he hit a wall. His agent bailed on him and work dried up, he said.

Determined to keep working, he joined up with an old friend and film manager. The pair filmed a series of feature-length documentaries “on the cheap” including: “Aging without Symptoms,” “Welcome to Eden” and “The Face of America.”

McGreevey said he remembered telling a friend he would focus on writing and when he was in his 60s, he would return to acting.

The thought of retirement dimmed in comparison to the allure of a return to acting. He decided to take the leap back to his first love.

“I think I have too much energy left,” he said. “I’m one of these people who believes in fate. I think I’m supposed to do more.” 

As fate would have it, McGreevey landed the “Parks and Recreation” role on his first interview.

He’ll portray a car dealership owner in an interaction with cast member Aziz Ansari, who plays Tom Haverford.

To not return to acting would be a waste of “God-given talent,” McGreevey said. 

“I believe if you have certain gifts, you should use them,” he said. “I’m just having a great time.”

 

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