Garry McDonald

Garry McDonald

Garry McDonald (born October 30, 1948 Glen Innes NSW Australia) is an Australian stage and screen actor.

McDonald, a graduate of Cranbrook School and NIDA, first came to wide public attention playing the supporting character "Kid Eager" in the second series of the groundbreaking Australian television comedy series The Aunty Jack Show in 1973. It was while working on Aunty Jack that McDonald first performed the character for which he would become best-known, the gauche and inept local regional TV personality, Norman Gunston.

Gunston's first appearance was in a series of brief sketches (written by Wendy Skelcher) which saw him reporting uncomfortably on a "sex-scandal drought" in his home town, the NSW regional city of Wollongong; a drought he eventually breaks by appearing nude on camera.

After Aunty Jack, McDonald went on to work with the same team in the comedy miniseries Wollongong The Brave (1973) and Flash Nick from Jindivik (1974). The Gunston character was revived for one episode of Wollongong The Brave, a parodic show business biography entitled "Norman Gunston: The Golden Weeks".

Around the time of his major breakthrough on Australian TV in 1975, McDonald also made his first major film appearance, playing a minor role in the landmark Peter Weir film Picnic at Hanging Rock.

In 1975, McDonald revived the Gunston character for TV with the help of a writing team that included Morris Gleitzman (now a successful children's author) and veteran TV comedy writer Bill Harding, who had written for the pioneering Australian TV satire The Mavis Bramston Show.

The new series, The Norman Gunston Show was a parody of the Tonight Show format, and McDonald himself has stated that it was originally based on a mediocre late-night chat show hosted by expatriate American entertainer Tommy Leonetti. The series saw Gunston now the unlikely host of his own national TV variety show. After a slow start, the series rapidly gained a sizable audience by word of mouth and by 1976 it was a major hit, with McDonald winning the coveted Gold Logie Award that year, becoming the only winner in Logies history to win the award in the name of the character he played.

The series, which satirised many aspects of Australian culture and show business, was a mixture of live and pre-recorded interviews, awkward musical segments -- excruciatingly sung by Gunston himself in the broadest 'strine' accent -- and continuing comedy sketches such as "Norman's Dreamtime" (in which Norman read a stories to a group of children, such as "Why Underpants Ride Up") and the fondly-remembered soap-opera TV parody "Checkout Chicks", which featured actress Anne-Louise Lambert (who starred as Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock).

Using Gunston's gormless personality as a cover to avoid down the defences of his 'victims', McDonald pioneered the satirically provocative "ambush interview" technique, which was used to great effect in legendary interviews with Paul McCartney, Muhammad Ali, Keith Moon and actress Sally Struthers.

As Norman Gunston, McDonald also had a surprisingly successful recording career, releasing a string of satirical novelty pop records that anticipated the pop parodies of Weird Al Yankovic. Norman's Top 40 chart hits included his interpretation of the Tom Jones classic "Delilah", the punk rock send-up "I Might Be A Punk But I Love You, Baby" and "We're All Marching In The KISS Army", a parody of the KISS single "I Was Made For Loving You".

Edited versions of the Norman Gunston shows were screened in the UK in the late 1970s and it is arguable that McDonald's pioneering work was a direct influence on the later British comedy characters Dennis Pennis, Alan Partridge and Ali G. In the late 1990s, American actor Martin Short also created a distinctly Gunston-esque talk-show host, Jiminy Glick and one of the sketches in that show, "La-la-wood Tales", is a direct copy of the "Norman's Dreamtime" sketch, featuring Glick reading a satirical fable about Hollywood to a group of children.

Although he suffered inevitably from typecasting as Gunston, McDonald was able to create another memorable character in the successful ABC television series Mother and Son, in which he played the long-suffering Arther Beare, whose life is dominated by his obligation to care for his increasingly senile mother Maggie (played by Ruth Cracknell).

McDonald has also appeared on stage at Sydney's Her Majesty's Theatre and at Nimrod Theatres in many dramatic and musical productions.

Garry was also the host of a sales video series for the now renamed Telecom Australia, promoting the ease-of-use and corporate usefulness of the Telememo communication network.

In later years, McDonald fought a public battle with depression which reached crisis point after an abortive attempt to revive the Gunston character for a commercial TV series in 1993. He is a member of the Board of beyondblue, an Australian national depression initiative.

In 1999, a portrait of Garry McDonald by artist Deny Christian won the Packing Room award at the Archibald Prize.

In 2005 McDonald filmed a Tele Series called Step Father of The Bride for ABC Australian Television.



Enough Rope with Andrew Denton - 12th April 2004

My guest will not recognise himself in this introduction. The rest of us know him as a national treasure, someone who in a career of delights has given us not one, but two of the greatest Australian TV characters ever. We see him as a giant of his craft, a man with a great heart and even greater courage. He on the otherhand looks in the mirror and just sees some bloke called Garry McDonald.

Garry McDonald: I actually look in the mirror and see my grandfather.

Andrew Denton: Is that right?

Garry McDonald: And he has been dead for a really long time.

Andrew Denton: Yeah. It's really good to have you on the show.

Garry McDonald: Thank you.

Andrew Denton: Been looking forward to this for a long time. Your dad, Rubin, reckoned you were always funny and said you were always going to do comedy, did you know that?

Garry McDonald: Did you speak to him this week. How do you know by Dad's name?

Andrew Denton: Rubes? Yeah. How did you know you were funny?

Garry McDonald: People laughed.

Andrew Denton: Yeah, that's a sign. It's a pretty good sign.

Garry McDonald: Yeah it is. It's one of the surest signs apparently.

Andrew Denton: Yes, but it's having the confidence to say that thing to fill the gap and say what you think's going to be funny.

Garry McDonald: I know, I know like just before your guest comes on, to say you going to wear that shirt?

Andrew Denton: I apologise all right.

Garry McDonald: And I said to him, I said to him you bastard, I've just been doing that myself in the mirror looking at me and saying why are you wearing that shirt? You know I'm so, saying sorry, I, I've changed, taken the show from you a bit here.

Andrew Denton: That's fine.

Garry McDonald: But same thing, I'm terribly conservative you know, which seems a bit, bit strange when I played Norman Gunstan, but I'm terribly conservative, and I kind of got a bit sick of it. And I was in Melbourne year before last doing 'Laughter on the 23rd Floor', a Neil Simon play and I thought, oh I wish I was a bit more sort of daring in the way I dressed, you know more colourful, like Barry Otto, so sort of wild in the way he dresses. So I saw these trousers that were striped, you know they were really lovely, these fantastic trousers and an orange and a pale lime T-shirt that you that went with them, really well. And I, I bought them I thought, and when I bought them thought, funny section to be selling those clothes in, and I wore them in the city you know, and I had people looking at me, apparently they were pyjamas, I didn't think to, I'd wear them on the tram to a barbeque, I was an hour on the tram you know in my pyjamas. And the worse thing is people just kind of accepted it, oh he's just you know having another one of his turns. I really liked them, so now I wear them as pyjamas.

Andrew Denton: You could have worn them tonight, we wouldn't have commented.

Garry McDonald: Yeah, yeah right.

Andrew Denton: Let's take a look at a little bit of 'Mother and Son', because I want to talk more about comedy. This is perhaps one of Australia's most loved sitcoms. (Excerpt from 'Mother and Son'.)

Andrew Denton: That's a two-handed there. I'm going to ask you a bugger of a question, what's the secret to doing good comedy?

Garry McDonald: Oh, well I think the most important thing is that it's got to be totally believable and it's got to look effortless.

Andrew Denton: And how much courage does comedy take, people look at it and think oh that's fun, that must be fun, how much courage does it take?

Garry McDonald: Not much fun to .

Andrew Denton: So lesson one is be real.

Garry McDonald: Yeah.

Andrew Denton: Going back to courage, and we're going to look at your other creation here.

Garry McDonald: Oh yeah, it was very courageous.

Andrew Denton: Norman, Norman Gunstan, which for some of the younger members of our audience they wouldn't have seen Normal Gunstan, this is, this is Norman with Mohammed Ali. (Excerpt from interview.)

Andrew Denton: Now let's talk about courage in comedy.

Garry McDonald: That's my gig.

Andrew Denton: How scary was it sometimes to be Norman and front these people?

Garry McDonald: Ah yeah, well that was you know, that was pretty scary. I guess it depends, some, some days it was scarier than other days. Most of the time it was pretty scary.

Andrew Denton: So when you're for instance, how would it, how would it work with Norman, when you're preparing to do Mohammed Ali?

Garry McDonald: Yeah.

Andrew Denton: There, there's, you were the performer, but there is a team of people made that happen, how would you get to that point?

Garry McDonald: No, well you'd get the odd question you know something like, I can't remember the Mohammed Ali questions, but say to Julian Clary it was like, you're you know you're putting your, you're pretty big with homosexuality aren't you, and he said yeah. That was sort of my favourite subject at school, I could have taken it as an elective but I chose Modern Greek instead, and you know it's stuff like that, and that's he'd write that. And sometimes, and so then Julian Clary would say, he said, "Yes, well but homosexuality is much easier to get your tongue around than modern Greek".

Andrew Denton: Good answer.

Garry McDonald: Oh yeah he was pretty fast, and so you'd try not to laugh of course, but if the interview started to go well, you could then ad-lib. But you would have, often you'd have question say like that or you'd have a question that required an answer, and you realise you could go, one or two ways, like to Chuck Colson, you discovered, you found Jesus in jail didn't you? Now, I thought his answer was going to be yes, but his answer was no. And so I, I had to well, I had, it wasn't much of a re-write, I had to say, "no, I mean you know, what would he be in for?" But, usually the questions, you had a vague idea where you thought they'd go with the answers. But the bonus was if the interview was going well then you could drift off the script, you know. If the interview wasn't going well, you stuck to the script as much as you could, cause at least you knew you had a few laughs in there.

Andrew Denton: That's a very scary prospect though.

Garry McDonald: Sure, you're doing this.

Andrew Denton: Well no I, I don't have a series of jokes written as people can clearly see. Ah, but that's a scary prospect because if the guest for instance is, doesn't like Norman at all or is completely thrown by you, you really have no control over that process.

Garry McDonald: No.

Andrew Denton: Your lines may be completely useless, so what do you do then?

Garry McDonald: Um, well cut and run. I didn't have too many of those, I mean I, I mean you didn't see them you know, Margaret Thatcher.

Andrew Denton: You're on cable now.

Garry McDonald: Uh?

Andrew Denton: No, what happened with Margaret Thatcher?

Garry McDonald: Well Margaret Thatcher came out here, and she'd just become leader of the opposition, of the Tories, and I got to the press conference, so it was a public press conference, and I'd ask a question and she'd answer the question and emit yes, immediately at the end of it, so she'd been briefed that you don't give any moment where he can get back in. So she was going to be the lead into the TV show and I was dying, you know. Ah, something about the Irish problem, and she said I really don't think that's something we can be amusing about, yes. And I you know I tried everything and in the end I said is it true you've got a serious drinking problem?

Andrew Denton: Ha ha.

Garry McDonald: And she said, and then that stumped her, she was probably thinking of Denis. And she said, no, no only this water. And I said oh, I just thought I'd try on the off chance you know. So I got a come back, but it was that, that was all I got, just that one, and so we just used it as a 10 second tease for the show. But I mean you got the odd person that, that didn't like you, I can't think of too many, I've really wiped them, usually I, being sort of, you know having this sort of mindset that I've got, I usually remember the worse things, but with Norman I seem to only remember the good things. Ah, there's Ken Russell wasn't great, but…

Andrew Denton: Keith Moon was another who was most…

Garry McDonald: Oh yeah, that wasn't, that wasn't so good.

Andrew Denton: But I don't mean to drag you back to that time.

Garry McDonald: Yeah, he wasn't so good, and I mean we showed it, but we had to fit it in with a lot of other stuff, with the with the rest of the band.

Andrew Denton: I mean this is, it's quite shocking I think to all of us to discover that Margaret Thatcher has no sense of humour, I mean this is…

Garry McDonald: No, yes sorry.

Andrew Denton: Something that you could never have guessed at.

Garry McDonald: No, I know it's a terrible shock.

Andrew Denton: Did you stay in character the entire time as Norman when you met somebody?

Garry McDonald: I went out to, say I'd go out to someone's house, this is back in '75 where you could you know, it wasn't so controlled by publicists then, and I got out there, you'd, I'd be dressed like Norman obviously and, but I'd say, oh hello you know nice to meet you and thank you very much for having us at your house and beautiful house you've got here, I better just go and work on my questions. And they'd say okay. Then I'd come back in, cameras rolling and I'd like "hoi", here I am like in character, the only person I decided I wouldn't do that with was Ken Russell, which I just walked in as the cameras were rolling and it was like, oh how do you do Mr Russell, I'm Normal Gunstan. So he didn't get to, I didn't do any of that beforehand, and he was really annoyed. It was much better to let them see the actor beforehand. Really interesting.

Andrew Denton: Is that right?

Garry McDonald: He was really really annoyed.

Andrew Denton: We have other, on other piece of footage here of Norman, which if if it didn't exist you'd find hard to believe ever happened.

Garry McDonald: All right.

Andrew Denton: I can't think of a country which would allow such an historic moment to be so desecrated, watch this.

Garry McDonald: Oh god. (Show video clip.)

Andrew Denton: What was that day like?

Garry McDonald: Who was that tall man? Well yes it was pretty amazing. I mean it's really interesting isn't it, I mean you look at something like that and you think that would not be possible nowadays would it, to get anywhere near them.

Andrew Denton: No. You'd be shot. And this was the most intense political atmosphere in the history of this country and there you were in the middle of it

Garry McDonald: I was a callow youth, I was 25 or something, 26.

Andrew Denton: Did you have a sense of the day though?

Garry McDonald: No, it was…

Andrew Denton: No, Really? Was it exciting to be there slightly taking the piss out of a moment in history?

Garry McDonald: Well, the bit where I talked to the, to the crowd, Gough wasn't there, that was before he came out. And then he came out and I didn't get to say anything really except do you know whistling and all that sort of stuff and then he was gone, so, I think he probably took one look at me and thought, 'Oh no. If it's not bad enough, no, him.'

Andrew Denton: For a man to whom dignity was all, this was the moment for, it never occurred to you that maybe this was going at just an inch too far to be.

Garry McDonald: No, no, no not at all, isn't that funny, yeah. See, stuff like that now, I you know, then I was just like, I really was, I was hungry, hungry for it, you know really hungry for it.

Andrew Denton: Do you look back on Norman with affection?

Garry McDonald: Oh yes.

Andrew Denton: Or is a shudder of delight that you never have to be him again?

Garry McDonald: Oh bit of both, ha ha, yeah oh yeah, I'm too old to do that now. But no, yeah a lot of affection,

Andrew Denton: And I want to take you back, and I know it's often talked about, but let's, to that dark time in your life.

Garry McDonald: Oh yeah.

Andrew Denton: When you hosted 'Rip Snorters'.

Garry McDonald: Ha, or as my son called it 'RIP Snorters'.

Andrew Denton: No, I actually don't mean that, let's talk about the whole.

Garry McDonald: Oh, it was a joke was it?

Andrew Denton: Yes.

Garry McDonald: Oh right, that's pretty good.

Andrew Denton: Yes. Two of us got it.

Garry McDonald: Well, that shows how many people saw 'Rip Snorters'.

Andrew Denton: Exactly right.

Garry McDonald: Thank heavens.

Andrew Denton: And you had the full breakdown and the whole series was canned, and it was a huge public event, most people still don't understand what breakdown means.

Garry McDonald: Well, it's, it's a funny sort of term, it's you know.

Andrew Denton: Yeah, can you take us through the stages of it, how does it begin, how do you know it's beginning?

Garry McDonald: Well, I was getting more and more anxious, but I didn't know what that was, I just thought it was kind of stage fright, I'd be very, very concerned about doing stuff, and you know, worried that it wouldn't go well, blah, blah, blah. And I used to try and get rid of this tension by meditating. But basically what I was trying to do was get rid of it, not confront it and find out where it was coming from. I'd just try and say, 'right I'll do this for 20 minutes, that will get rid of it'. And it would, at the end of the 20 minutes I'd had this huge experience and like it'd just shoot out of me and I'd think, 'oh wow that's great'.

But it'd come back you see, I wasn't dealing with what the cause was. But I, and it was getting slightly worse, slightly worse, slightly worse.

Andrew Denton: And as you, as you go deeper, what does that mean?

Garry McDonald: Well, then what happened was we came in to Sydney to do the show and we'd had a lot of problems, had a lot of problems and the producer-writer walked out just before opening night, about three or four days before. And I went off with the head of programming, I think it was at Channel 7, and John Eastway, who'd taken over producing, had to quickly find a writer, and we went to a restaurant you know like, it was, I think it was all like saying come on Garry, it's going to be fine.

And we got legless, we got so drunk, and one of the worst things you can do with anxiety is to have a really bad hangover. Anyway, so I started the week that was on air, with no writer and with this extraordinary hangover. But, Bill Harding came back to write it, the original writer. And, I got through that first show, and then suddenly I, I found I just couldn't get out of bed. And it was terrible.

Andrew Denton: What's happening?

Garry McDonald: I couldn't get out of bed, I couldn't concentrate, I'd go to work and I'd just, was like a fog. I mean William Stone talks about a fog and there's like a fog there. Nothing goes in. Your brain just seizes and I was trying to do a Prince number and I just couldn't do it. I couldn't, couldn't be, oh no creativity was coming out, I had to sit down all the time.

And I went off to the doctors to see the GP and I remember they said, 'oh you can see him in half an hour'. And I went outside and sat in the gutter, well on the, on the sort of edge you know. And it was like you had this sort of extraordinary hangover. And you know eventually I mean you do, you end up being in the foetal position, it was extraordinary.

Foetal position, just not wanting to work. And you could come good for about an hour or two. I could, you could drag me out there and put up a whole lot of cue cards and I'd come good for about two hours or so and then you'd sort of crash again, it was really interesting. But that's major depression.

Andrew Denton: Yeah, but there you were at the height of your breakdown and you actually did consider suicide didn't you? How seriously did you consider that?

Garry McDonald: Well, seriously enough that it freaked me out. And I rang up the psychiatrist who was very kind and had given me his home phone number and said to him that I'd, I'd had this sort of overwhelming desire to top myself. So you know it's very interesting, people, when you see about people that have committed suicide, and friends and loved ones will say look, it must have been an accident, he just wasn't like that they don't know how it comes across, how it comes over you so quickly, so quickly and so powerfully. And if you have, you were having trouble anyway, that you might be, I mean people with anxiety and depression are often very good at hiding it, and that feeling can just rush over you.

Andrew Denton: There you were, how, how do you turn that around?

Garry McDonald: Well you know with anti-depressants. I took anti-depressants for about 18 months I think, but I, when I started to get much better, when the depression lifted this other thing was still there. This, this thing that I thought was stage fright, this fear. And so I didn't quite understand what that was about. I mean one of the psychiatrists I had to go and see because I had to frustrate the contract with Channel 7, said that I had major depression with phobic anxiety and it was all sort of gobbligook to me.

And then someone sent me a book called 'Anxiety Attack Don't Panic', which has now been re-written as 'Power Over Panic'. And that was like an eye-opener, it was like, oh my god, this is me. This is, and so that's when I realised I had this thing called an anxiety disorder.

Andrew Denton: Because previous to that you'd had all sorts of not very good advice hadn't you?

Garry McDonald: Well you know I don't know about not very good advice, I mean the depression they handled really well.

Andrew Denton: Did you have to, weren't rubber bands prescribed at one point?

Garry McDonald: Yeah, well, I went to different people, I had one psychologist I went to first up and the best bit of advise he gave me was to walk every morning for 20 minutes and I said I haven't got time, I haven't got time to do that. He said, you've got time to sit around all day worrying, of course you've got time to walk.

Walk for half an hour, brisk walk for half and hour. And that's fantastic advise for anyone with depression. Force yourself to do that every morning, every morning, as soon as you get up, put on the walkers and go out for a brisk walk, and about 20 minutes and you'll notice a change, it's very, very good.

And then he sent me to a different psychologist, and this psychologist tried all these weird things, one of them was a session with a psychologist, not cheap. She gave me a rubber band to wear around my wrist, and you wear this rubber band all the time, and when you get a negative thought it's got to be pretty tight the rubber band, and when you get a negative thought, and you start to tell yourself that you're no good, you recognise it as a negative thought, and you go, oh right negative thought, you pull the rubber band, really tight, really tight, and then you let it go and when it hits the inside of your wrist and stings, you swap the negative thought for a positive thought.

My positive thought when I let it go was thank heavens I brought the drugs with me you know. But that didn't work.

Andrew Denton: When you had that depressive episode last year and pulled out of the play, was that a case of still being ill or being cured? Where does that sit on the graph?

Garry McDonald: No, that was kind of a newie. From about September the 11th on, September the 11th really shook me and I kind of thought that when that happened that was the end of the world, we were going to go into sort of the Third World War, and it never kind of, and it's lots of things happened, you know, then Ruth died.

And that really threw me, and it's not like I'd visited her, I'd visited her once in hospital, ah I mean she wasn't seeing a lot of people, it was, you had to kind of make an appointment to get to see her, and I, I didn't crack hardy I'm afraid, I blubbed a bit. So I didn't know whether they probably wouldn't want me to go back anyway.

But when she died I didn't kind of get out of that. I could think about her every day and get really quite emotional, it was very interesting. So I got into a morbid state, and it, it just sort of stayed there and it kind of got worse and worse and worse.

Andrew Denton: You're about to start in a play at the Sydney Theatre Company, 'Amigos', the new David Williamson play, how do you know you're ready?

Garry McDonald: Oh, oh I don't think I haven't been, I think, I don't think I haven't been ready for a long time, It took about three months last time to get over the depression. Actually it was a bit hard to kick, I was a bit lazy with the homework, I couldn't, I just, it's because I'd done it 10 years ago, I thought I shouldn't have to go back to tors and do all this writing out thoughts and challenging them and all that. So that worried me.

It's interesting, I'm playing another character who's obsessed with depression and he's obsessed with the dying side, so I, I have a different spin on it now.

Andrew Denton: Do you think you'll ever find contentment in life, peace, where you won't feel anxious? Is that the, you said at the start of the interview self-realisation, is that what you're looking for?

Garry McDonald: I've got a pretty good life. I don't have any complaints. I've got a really very pleasant life. I don't want for anything. And I've got a good marriage and lovely grandkids and my son-in-law and daughter-in-law are fabulous, I couldn't, you know very, very lucky there.

So my needs are very slight. Oh yeah, oh yeah I do, but I try not to. Ha ha, this is too deep for me, my head's spinning.

Andrew Denton: No, no, in the post-September 11th world, are you a happy man?

Garry McDonald: Well yes as my psychologist pointed out to me, he said how's it changed your life? It's true, has it.

Andrew Denton: Garry McDonald you're a treasure, thank you.


Australian Story - 11th Feb 2002

Happy as Garry
Producer: Vanessa Gorman
Researcher: Vanessa Gorman

Hello. I'm Caroline Jones. Welcome to a new season of Australian Story. Next week we bring you a special report on the Governor-General, but we start the year with a program about a beloved Australian actor and comedian. He's Garry McDonald and he's a legend for all the laughter he's brought us. But in his time, Garry McDonald has wrestled with some fearful demons, and in doing so he's broken the silence around a huge health problem. So this is Garry McDonald's story, and it contains an interview with Ruth Cracknell recorded before her recent illness.

Logies Awards, 1997

RUTH CRACKNELL: I'm going to talk about Garry as long as I want to. 1973, we saw Garry in the 'Aunty Jack' show, and this would probably be maybe the first time we saw that brilliant comic genius, the potential that we were all waiting for and which burst upon us like no-one else.

1975, Norman Gunston is one of the great comic characterisations in this country ever. Garry brought such brilliance, such bearing, such inventiveness, such courage to that role, and all of us here in this room are absolutely on our knees at that particular wonderful brilliance.

Ladies and gentlemen - Garry McDonald.

GARRY MCDONALD: Thank you very much. I must say I was, very surprised when they told me I'd won this award because only a couple of months ago I was on 'Where Are They Now'. Which didn't seem to be a great reflection on my career, especially as I was actually on air in two shows on two different networks at the time! But, you know, you get used to that. One year you're on 'This Is Your Life', the next 'Where Are They Now', until you slip into obscurity in a 20-part drama on the ABC.

GEOFFREY ATHERDEN, writer: Garry has a natural vulnerability which is underneath quite a degree of confidence. Garry knows that he has a high level of ability, but he has a perfectionism that goes with that that creates anxiety, so that he's always worried that he's done something as well as he should have or as well as the moment demanded.

GEOFF PORTMANN, director: And that's what makes him such a good comic. Um, and so, in a way, his strength can sometimes also be his undoing - that strive for perfectionism, that need to make sure every moment works and the anxiety that came with that can also undermine you and destroy you as well, if you're not careful.

GARRY MCDONALD: This week I start 'Stones In His Pockets'. It was my first foray into directing. So I'm remounting it now for the Melbourne Theatre Company.

I'm getting that so much now. It's like you're dead because you're not on television. But I love it. I love theatre. I adore it. It's quite interesting - it's quite exciting - directing. There are two types of boss. There's one where you work and you do your work because you're sort of frightened of the boss, and there's the other boss that encourages everyone to be creative. I'm hoping that when I redirect 'Stones In His Pockets' I will be the creative boss, rather than last time, which was, "Don't do it like that!" The fearful boss. I've had a go at that. It doesn't work.

MORA MCDONALD, mother: Garry - he could always entertain you, even if he was naughty. Always showing off.

REUBEN MCDONALD, father: He was into comedy - it was amazing - at school. It was unbelievable.

MORA MCDONALD: When you look back, you can see that's what he was meant to do. He wouldn't have ever been happy at anything else.

GARRY MCDONALD: I was an extremely attractive child. I had hair. That's enough to make me attractive. I had blond hair. Um, I had... and protruding teeth, unfortunately. I was a bugger of a kid. I had quite a cutting sense of humour as a child. I mean, you could see where Norman came from. And my tongue was my greatest weapon, 'cause I was slight, and yet I was incredibly sensitive and I still am, but I could dish it out.

REUBEN MCDONALD: Garry used to catch the bus, the old double-decker buses, down to Cranbourne, and I believe the upper deck would be roaring with laughter by the time it got to Cranbourne with Garry's antics and his quick wit. He just had it.

MORA MCDONALD: The best performance he's ever done was to meet and marry Diane Craig. If nothing else was great, that was! Yeah.

GARRY MCDONALD: I remember the day I met her. It was like...I couldn't talk. She was just so beautiful. And, ah, and I didn't talk to her from then on. She had a leading man that wouldn't talk to her.

DIANE CRAIG, Garry's wife: I found him very appealing, but he didn't actually say much to me for quite some time, and, it wasn't until the play had actually opened that he did...that he did start talking and that we did get to know each other.

GARRY: But otherwise - oooh, boy - I probably would've gone through the whole run without talking to her. Too beautiful. Should be a law.

DIANE CRAIG: By the time we came back to Sydney we were pretty firmly an item and we've been together ever since - 30 years, 30 years on.

GARRY MCDONALD: Yeah, we were 23 and 22 when we had our first child, David. And then three years later we had Kate. And I guess, in a way, I don't think I was such a great father or such a supportive husband. I mean, once the career took off, I really got into that in a big way.

RUTH CRACKNELL, actress: Garry's Norman Gunston is one of the most incredible creations we have in Australia - extremely daring, extremely bold, vulgar where necessary. I don't know how he did it, nor, knowing Garry as I do, how he had the courage to push into all those situations, and that, of course, is because he had another persona, didn't he? He had Norman Gunston, which can - and did indeed - hide Garry and all Garry's fears very beautifully.

GARRY MCDONALD: Why it was so popular, I don't really know. I think the vulnerability was part of it. There was something terribly Australian about the sort of gormlessness as well.

Yes, Norman hated sex. Hated it! Ooh. There's a lot about Norman that's really interesting, that's like deep down there's some seed there, you know, the whole sort of discomfort with sex. I mean, I quite like doing it. But, you know, it's very interesting. It's just sort of like an exaggeration of myself, in a way. Of course it is. It's my clown.

DIANE CRAIG: There were times when he would get very stressed. Um, I mean, the early shows, too, went live to air and quite often scripts weren't finalised until the last minute. It was...there was a lot of pressure.

GARRY: I had my first anxiety attack when I was 22 after smoking some hashish, and it was pretty bloody powerful. And I think that was the start of the insecurity - that sort of suddenly I became terribly self-aware and lost a certain edge of confidence. And it sort of... it kind of was there on and off for years and it came back very strongly with... when I started by myself, really out there with 'Norman'. The anxiety came back quite strongly. And the more sort of successful I got, the more anxious I got, 'cause I thought there was more at stake.

I got to the stage where, by series three, I got onto tranquillisers for a while there, Valiums and Serepax and Mogadon. It was actually four years before people would think of me as anything but Norman.

But then 'Mother and Son' took off, and that was it. It was the continuity. It's the continuity that the audience need to break the mould. The anxiety started to come back again midway through 'Mother and Son'. I was getting really bad. I mean, really out of all proportion. I mean, that was a bit of a warning. I started to go and see someone then. I went and saw a psychologist about it. And, um...but it still was happening.

GEOFFREY ATHERDEN: He's probably one of the most exacting, personally exacting actors that I've ever dealt with. Um, while we were making the 'Mother and Son' series, quite often I'd drive Garry home, and on the way home the conversation would be mostly from Garry, talking about the moments that he didn't think he'd got quite right. It would often start with him saying, "I missed that! I missed that point. I should have got it." I think the price for perfectionism is the pain that you experience when you don't reach the level of perfection that you hoped to.

GARRY MCDONALD: And it was a fantastic show. I loved doing it. I absolutely loved doing 'Mother and Son'. But there was this little fellow inside of me that was constantly saying, "Oh, everyone just thinks Ruth's funny. They don't think you're funny." And, you know, I mean - I may as well be honest about it. Um... And so I thought, "Oh, I want to do some of the broad stuff again."

I mean, I felt that I was the second banana in 'Mother and Son' I just found it extraordinarily stressful, and because by then I had this perfectionist strain so that in the end nothing was quite good enough. Anxiety and depression are quite closely related and I had been struggling with that and I just got more and more anxious and anxious and anxious and anxious.

And the writer walked out of the 'Gunston' show about three or four days before it went to air. So I had the breakdown and eventually I snapped over into major depression, and that was appalling. I've never experienced anything like that in my life. Um, you'd wake up in the... ..William Styron calls it... ..'Darkness Visible', I think he calls it. And you wake up in the morning in this just dreadful, dreadful fog. And, ah, I'd come good about... I was able to do a couple of shows because I'd come good about six o'clock. But I couldn't rehearse. I couldn't rehearse dance numbers. I just was like... sitting like this all the time. It was just appalling, you know. And it saps you of energy. It's like you've got this monumental hangover without the nausea.

DIANE CRAIG: After the first week or so, once it came to the day of the taping, he couldn't get out of bed in the morning. And it was awful, um... ..and it was an awful thing to try and deal with because having had no experience of, you know, this sort of thing, I didn't know what the best way to handle it was. I was totally at a loss.

DAVID MCDONALD, Garry's son: And it was just like this bedroom in total darkness. Um, like really heavy air too. It was just, like, shit a brick, you know, this isn't good. And it was just this frail little man sitting on his bed and just not there. I mean, he's never been the most physical specimen, but there was just nothing left.

GEOFFREY ATHERDEN: Well, in some ways it was the worst possible thing, the absolute worst possible thing to happen to Garry out of what he was trying to do in getting Norman Gunston back on the screen - to go back and then fail, fail in the sense of having to pull the plug and say we're not going on with the series. I can't imagine anything that would be worse than that.

GARRY MCDONALD: And I was mortified that I was putting people out of work. I mean...and there were some people who'd just joined the show and they'd given up other jobs. You just think, "God." But there was nothing I could do. I...ah...I was a basket case.

I became quite suicidal. You don't just suddenly take away whatever the stress is and suddenly it's alright. You know, you could be going really great guns and suddenly this suicidal thought would come out of nowhere, which was quite freaky. I fell in love with the South Coast and I used to come down here quite a bit. And that's when I decided that was it. I wouldn't come down here on my own anymore because I'd worked out ways of going up into the rainforest and topping myself. So I, ah, I stayed with family, stayed back home.

Most of my life I've always thought I'm different to people. I'm different - I wish I was like other people. And in actual fact, I think, deep down I'm not. I mean, none of us really are. And I think a lot of people drift through life, or you've got the other type of person that tries to control everything in life, and any sort of self-reflection is seen as an indulgence. But I actually think now that it's absolutely obligatory to being a human being - that you are... you are really short-changing yourself and you're being foolish if you don't discover who you are, if you don't actually know how you operate, how your mind works.

It wasn't until the nervous breakdown I found out what was wrong with me. Once I started having the therapy for the anxiety, etc, you started to realise, um... what you'd been doing to yourself, what your mind had been doing to you and how you needed to take, it sounds funny, but you needed to take control. I mean, part of the, control is often the problem. But how you needed to not allow your mind to, ah, to race off in its negativity, in its, in its desire to bring you down all the time and tell you that you're not good enough. I mean, it hasn't turned me into this extremely confident person, but it's certainly far more confident than I was. Much more confident than I was.

It's good, the therapy, because the therapy - you actually start to see how hard you are on yourself 24 hours of the day. I realised this was the simple version of what I was doing with my career. I was doing it everywhere, every aspect of life, anything I was doing. I was putting a time limit on myself. I should be able to do this the best. It's like, even, fishing. I still do it. If I go out I've got to catch a fish, you know. I feel stupid if I can't cast well and all that. That's crazy. You go out there to have fun.

I stopped meditating because of the depression... when I had the depression. And I thought I might try and get back into meditation again. For a long time now I was kind of practising it in the wrong way - sort of running backwards, you know. I was running away from stuff. And yoga's not about running away from stuff. It's actually absorbing yourself in the world. It's definitely the way to go to help the stress levels and the anxiety, but because it really does burn stress off.

Swami Shankarananda - he was the yogi that had initiated me into yoga in 1981. So I decided to get back into that with a much more inquiring mind, though. In actual fact, the way he taught the yoga was much more into self-inquiry. He was much more interested in people questioning who they are and looking at the way their mind works. Because it's spiritual, there's no... I mean, there's no other way. What can you say? You can try and make it mundane. We can try and, I could sit here and say, "Meditation's very good for you. It's all about the control of the mind and it's about relaxation." But it's actually about a lot more than that and it's actually quite powerful and it's quite mysterious, so why not say it's mystical? It is quite mysterious, what happens.

IAN HICKIE: The National Depression Institute is Australia's national response to the major public health problem of depression and other common mental disorders.

Garry did an unusual thing. He didn't try and hide it. He didn't say that he was away with chronic fatigue or a mystery illness or unavailable for a certain period of time. He said it was a mental health problem, and that's really important. It's placed him at a great deal of risk. People's reaction to that is to now see him as a person with a mental health problem. "Can we trust him in the future? Is he gonna fall apart again?" In fact, he's moved from being someone who had a major problem to someone who now has treatments and strategies. He's far less at risk than he ever was. But in our society, he now suffers the consequences of having revealed the problem.

DIANE CRAIG: For the last, oh several years, he's been coping - he's been fine again. And, I mean, I will quite often get people will come up to me and sort of say, "How's your husband? Is he alright?"

GARRY MCDONALD: I wasn't so concerned about... about the breakdown being so public. I didn't think about that so much. And, you know, like, I often say it was the most publicity I ever got. Wasn't a bad career move.

GEOFFREY ATHERDEN: I think Garry's been terrific about it, because when someone is as public as Garry, to come forward and say, "I've been through this and this is what happened to me and here I am, "I've come out of it," is some of the best form of information to people out there, and very reassuring, I think, for a lot of people. I think most people go through at least mild depression at some time in their lives, um, and to have that acknowledged as something that's as common as it is, and to have someone like Garry say, "Here, it happened to me and I came through it," is one of the most useful things and positive things I think he could have done.

RUTH CRACKNELL: For any performer, the nerve it takes to get out there is, indeed, stripping yourself naked. The most public form of indecent exposure there is. No other art form makes you do that. You have no protection. You go out there and you are just alone.

GARRY: When you're younger... I just really wanted to be that successful, that popular in that field, and I got it. So I was very ambitious there, and I seem to be less ambitious now. I seem to be less jealous now - which is good - of other performers. I mean, there's... sometimes there's a twinge. I mean, that's OK. But before it was out of all proportion. And I'm not so much ambitious anymore to be famous. In fact, I find all that, the upkeep on that's all a little bit tedious. I see the breakdown as... I mean, apart from the fact that people, to this day, you know, are constantly worried about me, which is very sweet. But, I kind of see it as this tremendous wake-up call that I had. I mean, it was like... it was like a blast from the cosmos saying, "Wake up, Garry. Stop being an idiot. Get yourself together."

Garry McDonald often speaks to individuals and groups of anxiety sufferers about treatment options.


Norman Gunston


Social and Community Entrepreneurs