The irony isn’t lost on Michael Patrick Thornton.
Doctors saved his life – not once, but twice -and now, he’s playing one on the hit ABC drama Private Practice.
Thornton – a veteran Chicago theater actor and director -just wrapped his first season on Private Practice, playing the brillant, but arrogant geneticist, Dr. Gabriel Fife.
In the show, Dr. Fife is partially paralyzed, and in real life, so is Thornton as the result of a freak and extremely rare condition called a ‘spinal stroke’ he suffered on St. Patrick’s Day in 2003. Only days later, he would suffer another, even more debilitating stroke, that would leave him unable to breathe on his own and fighting for his life.
He was only 24 at the time, and faced the very real and very frightening possibility of being a quadriplegic for life, but after months and months of intensive physical and occupational therapy, Thornton regained some of his mobility, although he still uses a wheelchair.
Thornton, now 31, recently returned to his hometown of Chicago to star in the world premiere of the play, Suicide, Incorporated, for the Gift Theatre, of which he is the Artistic Director.
RadarOnline.com exclusively spoke with the extremely affable Michael — or ‘Mike” as his family and friends call him – about the obstacles he’s overcome, his big break on Private Practice, and his bizarre encounter with one fan who actually cursed him out, thinking he really is Dr. Fife.
“There Needs To Be A Game Changer”
Radar: You’re a Chicago stage actor, so how did you land the role of Dr. Fife on Private Practice?
Mike: “I was getting frustrated in Chicago. A good majority of the stuff I was being sent out for were for, what I call, ‘have you been injured at work’ commercials.. those awful depressing commercials you see on weekday afternoons of some ambulance chasing law firm (laughs) to get some settlement or something, and the movies that did come through, or the the TV shows that I would get a callback, then just wouldn’t get the gig, and certainly I would never say that the sole reason why I didn’t get cast was the producer didn’t want to cast an actor with a disability, but certainly I’m sure it did color perhaps some of the auditions. I was a little frustrated. I talked to Jeff ( Jeff Perry- his teacher at the School Of Steppenwolf Theatre) and said there needs to be some sort of game changer where a role needs to come along and the disability isn’t thee story.. it isn’t what I call ‘what happen to Timmy story’ of triumph of human spirit over adversity, where it’s just another thing that’s there.. like a mustache (laughs)..or the kind of car that the character drives.. so he said ‘let me get on it, and if anything ever comes down the pike down out here, we’ll try to get you on tape for it.'”
(Note: Jeff Perry’s wife is the casting director for such TV shows as Grey’s Anatomy, Friday Night Lights, and Private Practice)
Mike continues: “That conversation was two years ago at (a diner) in Chicago, and we kind of went our separate ways, and I directed him (Jeff) at a stage reading at Steppenwolf, and then, out of nowhere, came this text message saying, ‘there’s this role coming down the pike, and I think you’d be a good candidate for it, let’s get you on tape.'”
Radar: Was the role of Dr. Gabriel Fife written as a character in a wheelchair, or did they incorporate that because they saw you and liked you?
Mike: “To my knowledge, they incorporated it. Because when I auditioned, the script had words like ‘Dr. Fife walks into the room, and what not.’ I’ve heard stuff on set that it was originally written for a woman (laughs), so who knows? From what I got from when I originally auditioned, there was no mention whatsoever of a disability.”
Radar: If it was a woman, that whole love triangle with Naomi (Audra McDonald’s character) would have been much more fun! (laughs)
Mike: (laughs) “That would have been really interesting, yeah.”
“Stepping Into A Well-Oiled Machine”
Radar: What is it like when you join an established cast that’s been together for two seasons and become a family of sorts?
Mike: “That’s a great question. I think in many ways it would have been a mistake to not recognize that, but I think whatever anxieties and fears I felt knowing that I was kind of stepping inside this already well-oiled machine and this cohesive ensemble only helped out playing Fife, you know, because he certainly feels like an outsider as well. The only difference is when I feel that way, I’ll try to make friends (laughs), and when he feels that way, his arrogance reaches top notch, so I think I definately felt that was stepping into the family, but they couldn’t be any more gracious. They’re really wonderful and down to earth people, and that’s the truth.”
Radar: I just realized that you’re cousin Oliver from the Brady Bunch! (laughs)
Mike: (laughs) “Right, right..!”
“A Fascinating, Complex, Messed-Up Dude”
Radar: When Private Practice returns in the fall, any idea what will happen with your character and your relationship with Naomi?
Mike: “I have no idea. The truth is we are all simply just waiting to see what they do. I know the writers are at work, and just waiting to hear what they do. Obviously, I would absolutely love to continue to play him. He’s a fascinating, complex, messed-up dude.”
Radar: Well, they certainly set it up with William (the third person in the Naomi/Fife love triangle) out of the picture. What do fans say to you when they approach you about the finale. I , for one , was not happy about Dell (who unexpectedly died in the season finale) !
Mike: (sighs) ” I know..I know… I don’t think they’re talking too much about Fife with the finale. There was a lot packed in there.
Radar: It was a really good finale..really well done.
Mike: “It was great. It was really wonderful.”
“You’re That F**king Doctor!”
Radar: So, back to what fans say to you…
Mike: “My first kind of lesson in how it’s different to be performing in front of (laughs) nine million people as opposed to 100 people a night in the theater.. I was getting a cup of coffee early, early in the morning at Starbucks by Second City (theater) where I’m teaching a class and it’s about nine o’clock in the morning which means with my disability I’ve been up since 4 o’clock to get there on time. So, I’m geting my coffee, and from behind me, I hear someone go, ‘you f**king a**hole!’ (laughs). I just froze in my tracks. and I’m thinking, ‘did I just hear this correctly?’ And I turned, and there’s this girl..well dressed..early 20’s with four of her friends, staring at me, and I said ‘excuse me?’ and she said, ‘you’re that guy.. you’re that f**king doctor!'”
Mike: “And I said, ‘yeah, yeah..ah..well you talking about the TV show? And she’s like, ‘yeah..yeah..you’re that doctor.’ And I’m like, ‘well, yeah, I’m Mike.’ She’s like ‘no, no, no. You’re Dr. Fife.’ And I said, ‘right, but yeah, but I’m Mike. I play Dr. Fife.’ She goes, ‘oh right!, you’re not really a doctor?’ I go, ‘no.’ (laughs) She says, ‘you’re not a geneticist?’ I go, ‘no, I’m an actor, I’m actually on my way to teach an acting class right now.’ And she really didn’t believe me 100-percent, and her friends were snapping a picture here and there with their cell phones behind her, and that was probably after the second or third episode aired, and after the fourth one, then the email account started to overflow, and I think I started to realize this is a little bit different, and now every time I go out someone will stop and say hi, and for the most part, they’re really excited about the character and kinda love him”.
Radar: That one crazy fan aside, you’ve actually set up a Facebook page so you can interact with fans of Private Practice.
Mike: “That was a little bit of a discussion.. I guess I’m just a little concerned with the premium we place on celebrity, and I was little concerned trying to nuture this idea of like.. this kind of hard to articulate.. but I feel like why not interact until it becomes so unbearable where you just can’t, and it’s taking up hours and hours and hours, because what I think it teaches people in the long run hopefully is that you’re nothing special or superhuman; you’re a human being who does things throughout the day and doesn’t live under the Hollywood sign and being filmed constantly. So the idea for the fanpage, in a long, roundabout way to answer your question, was precisely that.. to touch base and put a kind of a human voice through a wall post on what was happening to kind of manage it a little bit and not let it get crazy.”
“St. Patrick’s Day 2003 – I Had A Terrible Pain In My Neck”
Radar: On St. Patrick’s Day in 2003, that was the day your life changed. Can you walk me through what happened?
Mike: “No pun intended..” (laughs)
Mike: “St. Patrick’s Day was always a day of (laughs) unapologetic celebration of what you thought would be your invincibility. I was always marching in the downtown parade… so I went downtown as usual and had beers throughout the day and by comparision to other St. Patrick’s Days, I was downright sober, and went to my friend’s house and ate some food, and on the way out just really didn’t feel well.. had a terrible pain in my neck..and got into my buddy’s car, and by the time we started making our way to my apartment, it was the most excruciating pain. The only way I can describe it -it felt like an entire football team was standing on my neck with high heels. He drove me to the E.R., and I walked in and I had some trouble opening the door, I was fumbling with the handle and couldn’t curl my fingers properly to open the handle, and they asked if I needed a wheelchair, and I kind of very snootily replied ‘no'( laughs), and you know, a big neon ‘irony’ sign lit up above my head I’m sure, and then I sat down on an examining table and I said I couldn’t breathe, and they initially thought I was on drugs or something, which of course I wasn’t, and I said I couldn’t breathe again, and I really couldn’t, and I was out.. incubated and in a medically induced coma for a few days”.
Radar: It was something called a ‘spinal stroke’, right?
Mike: “They call it a spinal stroke. We don’t know how it happened, or why. It just seems something happened to the vascular system.”
Radar: Was there a history of this in your family, or did it happen out of the blue?
Mike: “It was really out of the blue. My grandmother certainly had mini-strokes in her late 70s, early 80s. They did spinal taps and said it was the clearest spinal fluid they had ever seen (laughs), and nothing showed up, so if it was anything it had flushed out by the time I had tests undergone, and by the time I woke up, I was what they call an ‘incomplete quadriplegic’ …meaning the spinal cord had not been severed, and it’s more of a question mark in terms of regaining mobility.
“When I woke up, all I could really move was my head and my eyes. I couldn’t speak because I was on a ventilator to breathe for me, and very quickly things started actually to wake up. I was taken off the ventilator and could speak. I was moving both my arms, both my legs. Still very, very weak though, and the doctors said ‘look this is something called spinal stroke, it’s unbelievably rare; it’s like winning the lotto, it will never happen again. ‘
Mike continues: “I was transfered down to the Rehabiliation Institute Of Chicago, and started doing rehab, and was just about ready to start to learn how to stand up on my own with a therapist –and this is 12 days after the first one — and then, it happened again. That one sent me across the street to Northwestern Hospital, and that one was pretty vicious, because it didn’t have the decency to knock me out completely, it felt exactly like breathing through a coffee stirrer for two days, and then my breath started to come back, and something called ‘tone’ set in which is muscle tightness on my left side. My left arm was almost glued to my chest, and at that point it became a very slow, glacierly slow, incremental recovery which involved nine months of speech therapy and years of physical and occupational therapy.
Radar: How old were you at the time?
Mike: “This was 12 days after my 24th birthday.”
“A Beautiful Realization”
Radar: while you were recovering, were you frightened that you wouldn’t be able to act again?
Mike: “Yeah, you know one great thing that came out of is it you get a very clear sense of how hard you’re going to have to work if you want to get back to some sort of contributory level of society and what was actually a really beautiful realization was that acting and directing were things that I would unquestionably would fight for, and I think sometimes we don’t know when we’re that young why were chasing this .. if were doing it for altruistic reasons or if we are doing it for more ego-orientated reasons. Stanislawski has this quote that I talk about a lot where he says ‘be in love with the art in youself, not yourself in the art’. And I think as a younger actor, I think the larger percentage of me, I’d like to think was in love with the art, but there was certainly an unhealthy part of me that was self-aware and ego-driven, and I think it was good to realize that no, actually I’m chasing this for the right reasons.”
Radar: We’re so used to seeing abled bodies actors playing disabled roles, like the young actor who plays Artie on Glee. Are people surprised when they see you are actually in a wheelchair?
Mike: “They are, yeah. This woman teared up at the Cubs game right after I threw out the first pitch a couple of weeks ago. After I threw out the first pitch, I was back behind left field in the bowels of Wrigley (field) and this woman said ‘Dr. Fife!’ and then looked at the wheelchair that I have and kind of put two and two together that it wasn’t the one from the show and said ‘why are you in that?’ and it kind of dawned on her, so I think that people are still putting together a little bit that this is not just a prop on the show (laughs).
“Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again”
Radar: On your website, you thank the hospital staff for ‘putting Humpty Dumpty back together again’ — was humor an important part of your recovery?
Mike: “Yeah, I think that if I didn’t have my sense of humor… you know, you have to have a sense of humor about what’s going on..
“On one level, you definately know whats going on and how dire the situation is. You’re surrounded by children who are dying or fighting for their life, and at the same time you have to have a sense of humor about what you’re going through, because if you were too realistic about it, it would be depressingly awful.
“I think that in everyone’s life, there’s going to come a situation where, and it may not be as obvious and demonstrative as mine was, but we’re gonna have to find out how strong we are .. and I think that strength is there. I believe it’s in everyone. It just depends on when, and for what you’re called.”
“A Chair Is Not A Death Sentence”
Radar: One thing that struck me on the season finale of Private Practice, you’re talking to Audra McDonald’s character Naomi about the possibility her daughter will become paralyzed during childbirth and you say very poignantly ‘a chair is not a death sentence’. Was it just another line, or was there so much more behind that one simple line for you, as a message to people?
Mike: “One of the great things about Private Practice, is it’s offered especially in these hospital scenes, a wonderful opportunity for closure. There was a period in my life, a couple years after being sick, I couldn’t be near a hospital without having basically a panic attack that whatever had happened would happen again, and the irony is you spend so much time trying to get away from that environment, and then (laughs) of course, the first huge major break brings you back on set to a hospital. So that line was great, because here you are in this room where the tables are completely turned and it’s very bizarre and surreal, but that episode was definately something special. I think the followup line was something like ‘you know people told me that all the time and as much as I wanted to punch them in the face, they were right.’
“Definately, there’s a point in your life when you’re in the rehab hospital and someone comes in to give some motivational speech about the life you can live and they’re in a wheelchair.. they’re the last f**king person on earth you want to see. You want to see someone walk in in running shoes and be like ‘hey, I beat it!’ You don’t want to see someone who’s disabled because that may means that might happen to you.. that might be a possibility, and there’s a fight-back in that.
Radar: Although you do use a wheelchair, you can actually stand, right?
Mike: “I spend quite a bit of time in the walker. I have a couple of them in the house. I stand and walk around the house . I stand cooking and I stand in the walker when I teach sometimes, and we’ll go out for a real long walk, which actually isn’t long distance-wise, only about a quarter of a mile or a half mile, but it takes hours and hours, and that is definately exhausting, it’s like the equivalent of someone running a marathon. But that’s a very large part of the recovery.”
Radar final note:
Mike is still waiting to find out if he’ll be asked back to Private Practice, and if he is, he expects to return to Los Angeles in September to start shooting.
In the meantime, he’s back in Chicago, teaching improv at the School of Steppenwolf, the legendary theatre company founded in 1974. Ensemble members include founder Gary Sinese, as well as John Malkovich, John Mahoney, Laurie Metcalf, and Joan Allen, among many others.
In addition, Mike is currently on stage at the Gift Theatre, acting in the world premiere of Andew Hinderaker’s Suicide, Incorporated. Then, in late July, he’ll be back on stage in Chicago at the Theater on the Lake in a remount of Gift’s hit production of The Ruby Sunrise and back onstage at Steppenwolf in 2011’s Middletown.
Then in August, he’s shooting a movie called Cheaters, directed by Ron Howard and starring fellow Chicagoan Vince Vaughn and Kevin James.
He’s also planning his wedding next April to Chicago actress/director Lindsey Barlag.
For more information on Suicide, Incorporated, go to http://www.thegifttheatre.org/
For more information on The Ruby Sunrise, go to http://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com
Check out Mike’s fan page on Facebook!
Interview conducted by Neil Woulfe, News Director for RadarOnline.com. Neil is also an 8-time Emmy Award TV News Producer and recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Award.