Whether you recognize John C. McGinley from hit TV shows like Scrubs or Hollywood movies like Platoon and Office Space, you’ve definitely seen his famous face before.
Since starting his career on the stage, and in soap operas like Another World, McGinley has established himself as one of Hollywood’s busiest stars. The actor has appeared in more than 50 movies, and is still making us laugh on shows like Stan Against Evil.
But if you ask McGinley what his biggest role was, he would probably say being a father.
When McGinley and his wife Lauren Lambert were expecting a child in 1997, they were seriously taken by surprise. For one thing, the couple both thought they would be having a girl, and had only picked out girl names.
Not only did they have a son instead, but doctors quickly told the couple their son had Down Syndrome.
The news came as a shock to McGinley, and his bizarre exchange with the doctor didn’t help.
“She asked me if I thought we should tell his mom,” he remembered. “I was like, "Yeah, I think we probably should." As if there was any question. Then this guy from the state, who I guess was charged with telling you adoption services are available, came in.”
But of course McGinley and his wife didn’t put their child up for adoption. The couple named him Max, and they devoted themselves to him during the weeks he spent in the NICU.
“The first couple of months it felt like we had been hit over the head by some kind of cosmic hammer,” the actor remembers. “Because there were no indications going in… that Max had any challenges.”
McGinley hadn’t just been blindsided by his son’s diagnosis, he was also completely in the dark about his new son’s condition.
“‘What’s Down Syndrome anyway?’” he asked the doctor. “‘What do you mean his 21st chromosome tripled?’”
The challenge of raising a son with Down Syndrome never went away, but McGinley rose to meet them quickly. He’s proven himself to be a loving father, and Max managed to repay his kindness by helping McGinley land one of his biggest roles.
Just four years after Max was born, McGinley and Lambert divorced. The actor hadn’t stopped taking new projects after his son was born, but suddenly needed to find steady work close to home.
He auditioned for a part on the sitcom Scrubs, as the cranky but lovable Dr. Cox. Not only did McGinley land the part, it went on to be a career-defining role for him, earning the actor awards and accolades.
The stroke of good luck is almost symbolic of McGinley’s career after Max was born: not only did his acting talent shine through, it helped him prove that he could be a devoted father and a famous actor.
While McGinley was making time for his family off-screen, he was also dedicating himself to a number of Down Syndrome charities.
McGinley is both a board member of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation and a spokesperson for the organization. But he also raises awareness for the National Down Syndrome Society.
You may remember seeing Dr. Cox wearing a blue and yellow bracelet on Scrubs. That’s actually McGinley’s own “buddy walk” bracelet, part of a fundraiser for the NDSS that the actor helps to promote.
McGinley has also been an advocate and spokesperson for the Special Olympics, and helped raise awareness for the event’s “Spread the Word End the Word” initiative.
He’s even won awards for his incredible devotion to the cause, including “Parent of the Year” from ivillage.com and the GDSF’s Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award.
But, above all, McGinley has shown the world that children with Down Syndrome have something to teach us all, and his experiences with Max offer some very sweet lessons.
While McGinley and his wife Laura Lambert went their separate ways when Max was a toddler, the actor quickly re-married to yoga instructor Nichole Kessler.
Max played a big part in the couple’s backyard wedding ceremony as their best man, but also had them worried when he disappeared into their home shortly after the ceremony began. He surprised them moments later, by coming back out with the family dog, Harley, by his side.
“The sweetest thing was Max walking back with Haley, then sitting down, thinking, ‘Okay, now I’m done.’” Kessler remembered.
McGinley also mentioned his son in his vows, which is when the waterworks started.
“I start talking about Nichole and Max in the same sentence and I’m gone,” the actor told People. “It was the most private thing I’ve ever done in public.”
Jan Barton, one of the couple’s close friends, told the magazine “I’ve never seen a man love his son more.”
Max is in his 20s now, but McGinley is still helping him live the best life he can day-to-day. But the actor says their relationship goes both ways, because Max reminds him how to be “present” and focused on what really matters.
Raising his other two daughters - who don’t have special needs - has also proven to be challenging, and the differences between his children reminds McGinley that everything is relative.
“[My daughter Billie's] biggest strength is language. She's extraordinarily verbal, and Max's biggest challenge is his lack of spoken language. He can read at a certain level and do arithmetic, but he doesn't form sentences. So parenting Max and parenting Billie represent two polar opposites on the spoken-word spectrum. How we parent them in the same household and find a happy middle has been really interesting and continues to be.”
"Max has taught me that people with Down syndrome are more LIKE the rest of us than they are different. They have feelings, talents and dreams just like everyone. And they deserve to be accepted and appreciated for who they are and what they contribute to our communities,” the proud dad said.
What an inspiring man! Max is very lucky to have such a devoted dad!