We meet at a lovely Parisian-style bakery, ‘Faubourg’, on West 41st Avenue in Vancouver. The coffee is excellent. The chocolate croissants are delicious, and the service is terrific. Everyone greets Mackenzie as he walks in. He is one of those people that lights up a room. His story is one in a million. Maybe one in a billion. There is no question that this kind, brilliant man, was touched by the healing power of creativity.
His mother always made fantastic costumes for Mackenzie’s adventures as a child. His dad was also very creative and built sets for the theatre, among other things.
Mackenzie smiles at me and begins recollecting. “My mom danced in Winnipeg in the 1930s, and she was the 1st female scholarship recipient to go to Queens University and graduated ‘with honours’ in 1947. She spoke 6 different languages and worked in Canadian Embassies around the world.” “My father was an architect and an interior designer, and after saving the life of a top antique dealer, he ended up designing sets for films and met Sir Alec Guiness on the movie The Mudlark. They became great friends.”
“One time, in grade 2, my mom had made me a fabulous cape for the play at school. She was an amazing costume maker. Halloween was always a blast at our house.” “Well, the girl playing the princess had forgotten to bring her cape, and they asked me if she could borrow mine. Apparently, at seven years of age, I said: “Let her get her own bloody cape.” At that point, my father knew I would be an actor.” “I actually filmed my own version of ‘Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid’ when I was 11.” “Around my 13th birthday, I was diagnosed with diabetes. I came very close to dying. They told me I’d have to give myself a needle daily for the rest of my life. I was shocked. I started crying.”
“The nurse came in. She was a big Jamaican woman. No nonsense, but great fun. She saw me crying. She used creativity to turn it around for me.” “Do you know how many famous people have diabetes?” She asked. “Hockey players. Movie stars. So many.” “The next day she came in with a typed-out list.” “Names like Lou Nanne. Bobby Clark. A Canadian Prime Minister. So many. She showed me creative people that had accomplished so much.”
“Later my dad came to the hospital to visit me. He had done some research.” He says to me “Only one in 250,000 people get diabetes, so that makes you very special!”
These fantastic people redefined how Mackenzie looked at things and helped him live his incredible journey to its fullest potential.
“The very 1st play I did was Peter Pan. I was Captain Hook. My mom made me a brilliant costume with this fabulous silver hook. The school wouldn’t let me use my grandfather’s military sword (probably wise), so my father made me a wooden sword I could use. It was always a team effort. They always encouraged any creative endeavor of mine.”
“At six, I sang Brahms, Mozart and Dvorak for the Saint Paul’s Choir with a choirmaster named Dr. Charles Peaker. He was an amazing man.”
“I was terribly shy and slightly frightened of life, but somehow I discovered myself through the creative singing and by the age of 10 or 11, I was one of the head boys. I was getting paid $4 a month in 1966. I was a professional at seven years old,” he says with a laugh. “If we did a wedding, We’d get paid with a silver dollar. I still have some of those.”
“Dr. Peaker said I had a lazy mouth, so when I was nine years old, he asked me to read Shakespeare to help me with my articulation. Dr. Peaker then proceeded to do Ariel’s Full Fathom Five speech from the Tempest, by memory.” Not surprisingly, Mackenzie then performs it for me in the coffee shop. He still knows it 54 years later.
“Being in that choir gave me a sense of performance, precision, a sense of discipline, and thanks to Dr. Peaker, I fell in love with Shakespeare at nine years old.”
“Singing in that choir was great – it was work, but always fun!”
“When I got diabetes at thirteen, I was face-to-face with my mortality. I had to inject myself with a needle every day to survive. I couldn’t eat garbage food. I couldn’t eat sugar or pop. I had to discipline myself my entire life because I knew it could all end tomorrow.” “I formed a theatre company in high school, wrote plays, and moved to England to become an actor. I just never stopped.”
“In England, he met some incredible mentors.” “I went to London in 1975. I worked at ‘The Royal Court Theatre’. I sold art at ‘Harrod’s’. I was incredibly blessed and got coached by Sir John Gielgud for my audition for ‘The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts’. He asked me to do it backstage at ‘The Royal Alex’. I asked him right here? Do it now?”
He said: “My dear boy if you’re going to be an actor and someone asks you to act, you should act.” He told my dad: “He has the presence of an actor. I think he’ll do well.” So his father set him up to meet sir John Gielgud, but his mom and uncle (Robert Barclay) got him to meet Christopher Plummer when he was 15.
“I went to see him doing Cyrano De Bergerac with a letter from my mom and my uncle Robbie. He agreed to see me. He took me to see everything backstage. He was so lovely.” Plummer said: “You want to be an actor, but do you need to be an actor?” and I replied: “I don’t know if I need to be an actor, but it’s all I want to do.”
He said: “Well, that’s a start. That’s good. It’s a tiny room, and many people want to be in it. So you need to need it, to deserve to be there.”
“Can you promise me that you will always give 100%? Can you make me that promise?” “I can.” Plummer shook my hand and said “Then I look forward to sharing a stage with you one day!” “In 1991, I did a series called ‘Counterstrike’ opposite Plummer. He taught me so much. ‘Take a moment to think. Take a moment to breathe.’ I learned more from him in a few hours than I learned in all my years prior.”
Mackenzie’s fantastic career has led him to work with some of the greats. Malcolm McDowell has become a dear friend. Meeting Peter O’Toole in London was inspirational. “Malcolm is always trying to make people laugh on set. He told me: ‘We always do our best work on the edge of hysteria.’ One time I cracked him up on camera.
He didn’t like that as much. We’re still friends. Creative people make the best friends.” Mackenzie’s love for Shakespeare only grew over the years. He has been involved in dozens of plays by the Bard, including ‘Macbeth’, ‘Romeo & Juliet’, and ‘As You Like It’. He even played Shakespeare himself in ‘Boxing Shakespeare’ by Justin MacGregor.
He has won numerous awards over the years and has been incredibly supportive of independent films and worked to develop young actors/performers, emulating the support and inspiration he received from the Gielgud’s and the Plummer’s of the world.
He has appeared in over 200 films and TV shows as a lead or a guest star and has worked on stage in over 100 plays in Canada, Britain and the US. Highlights include ‘Man of Steel’, playing ‘The Eye’ on ‘Legion’ and Lex Luther on ‘Smallville’.
A few years before the pandemic, Mackenzie began to experience problems with one of his feet. Part of the foot had to be removed, but that didn’t stop him from acting. And a year ago, it struck his lower leg, and he had to have his leg amputated from the knee down.”I have been enormously helped physically and spiritually by my girlfriend, Brandi Maclean. She has been a rock.”
Did he sulk? Did he cry?? No. He became a shining example to everyone around him.
“Since the amputation, I’ve had to rediscover the strict discipline I had when I was 13. It’s harder to stay busy these days.”
And yet, throughout the ordeal, Mackenzie has been incredibly positive. He made the nurses laugh at the hospital and shared uplifting posts on Facebook that inspired thousands. Creativity has helped Mackenzie deal with incredible adversity his entire life. Still, in his mid-sixties, with only one fully functioning leg, he makes pirate jokes and uses his creativity to inspire and help others.
Mackenzie Gray is more than a successful actor/ writer/producer/ director. Mackenzie Gray is a national treasure.
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