Maine’s about as far from Hollywood as you can get. And we mean that metaphorically, too. Celebrity simply doesn’t matter as muc
- By: Kathleen Fleury
When actor Patrick Dempsey rides his bicycle down the streets of Lewiston in the Dempsey Challenge on October 4, the surroundings will look a bit different than he’s used to. His usual route — he tries to cycle at least a hundred miles a week on his Specialized bike — takes him through the hills of Brentwood to Malibu. The actor will be joined in Maine by professional cyclists George Hincapie, David Zabriskie, and thousands of other supporters biking, running, and walking to raise money for the Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing at Central Maine Medical Center (CMMC) in Lewiston, founded by the actor in March of 2008.
Dempsey dreamt up the idea for the center after he and his family endured his mother’s decade-long battle with ovarian cancer. During what for many is a confusing landscape of diagnostics, treatments, and insurance, the Dempseys relied on Mary Dempsey, Patrick’s older sister, who has worked for more than twenty-five years in the healthcare industry. “If it hadn’t been for Mary’s ability to navigate the system, we would have been completely lost,” says Dempsey. It was that experience that convinced the Dempsey family to find a way to make medicine less “clinical and cold,” and to offer other Maine families concentrated and compassionate resources and support. “Medicine has to evolve to be much more personal,” says Dempsey, “like coming into someone’s home.”
When a new patient walks through the doors at the Dempsey Center, currently located in a pre-existing office suite on the CMMC campus, he or she doesn’t pay a dime, thanks to Patrick Dempsey’s generous donation, outside grants, and other fund-raising efforts. Patients are offered counseling for themselves and their family members. They have access to a growing library of cancer resources. Massage, Reiki, spa services, music therapy — these are just some of the kinds of treatments available as part of the goal to make the center as integrative and comprehensive as possible. Plus, the center’s services — from support groups to transportation assistance — extend beyond the Lewiston city limits to rural outposts including Bridgton and Rumford. “We bring the whole show on the road,” says Kerry Irish, the program director for the Dempsey Center. “We serve folks who are at risk and who would not otherwise have access because they live too far away.”
The Dempsey Center has given the busy Hollywood actor a great excuse to come home to Maine, too, both to his vacation home in South Harpswell and to his old stomping grounds around Lewiston. The actor was born at CMMC in 1966 to Amanda and Bill Dempsey, secretary to the principal at Buckfield High School and an insurance salesman, respectively. His myriad interests and outgoing personality shaped his rural childhood and helped him struggle through a diagnosis of dyslexia around the age of twelve. His most passionate pursuit was downhill skiing. “My real goal was to be an Olympic skier,” admits Dempsey. “That’s all I really wanted to do.” After many years of practicing at nearby Titcomb Mountain, he won the Maine State Slalom Championship. (Though he did not continue with ski racing, Dempsey’s need for speed has not dissipated, as he sports an intense passion and talent for race car driving. His team, Dempsey Racing, recently finished ninth in a Ferrari F430 GT at June’s “24 Hours of Le Mans” race in France.)
But travel back to the streets of Buckfield, where the Dempseys moved in the late seventies, and you will also see a young Patrick riding the unicycle, juggling, or practicing ventriloquism in his driveway. “I ran away with the circus,” says Dempsey. He’s not kidding.
Randy Judkins, the famed Maine clown, juggler, and all around funny guy, forged a close relationship with the young Dempsey while teaching clown classes at Fred Garbo’s Camp Wekeela in Turner. “He was very personable when I first met him,” says Judkins. “He had a twinkle in his eye, he was light-spirited, and he just seemed to be an excitable young man.” Judkins also recalls Dempsey’s work ethic: “He stood behind what he was passionate about. He went home and mastered a new trick, or worked on a comedy bit — he really was serious about this.” Dempsey devoted himself to utterly perfecting these unorthodox skills.
As Dempsey improved, his love for performing became more and more evident. When Judkins drove his protégée to a juggling convention in Ohio during the summer of 1981, Dempsey unexpectedly received second place in the junior competition. “The one thing that I noticed from watching him was that he was totally at ease on stage,” recalls Judkins. “He was completely in his element, and he had this love of the audience’s reaction. It was very, very obvious that he had found another home on the stage.”
Dempsey began performing in traditional theater productions as well, serving as an intern at the Theater at Monmouth in the summer of 1983. “I was a typical apprentice,” Dempsey recalls. “I was the third spear carrier. I swept the stage. I took care of the props.” It was on and off the stage at Monmouth that Dempsey says he learned one of the most important lessons of his professional life: “The doing is the most important part,” says Dempsey. “The fame isn’t.”
This former juggler and stagehand is now emerging as one of the most recognizable actors of his generation, a status that was slow to develop for the forty-three-year-old despite a massively successful start. At age seventeen, a year before his father passed away, Dempsey dropped out of St. Dominic Regional High School and headed west for a San Francisco production of Torch Song Trilogy. His breakthrough silver screen role eventually came in 1987 in the hit Can’t Buy Me Love, followed by Loverboy in 1989. But the years that followed Dempsey’s shot into young stardom brought few celebrated performances.
It was during this interlude, when Dempsey was in his own words, a “typical working actor,” that he and his wife, Jillian, bought their house in South Harpswell in 1998. For Dempsey, getting back to Maine regularly was essential: “I had had enough time away from Maine to appreciate it and see it in a new way,” he says. “Coming home calmed everything down, my whole life, because I didn’t run away from myself. I embraced myself, and who I was, and where I came from. And by doing so I relaxed.”
Shortly after reconnecting with Maine, Dempsey hit it big in 2005 with his role on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, currently one of the most successful dramas on TV. “I’m extremely grateful for what Grey’s has done for me,” says Dempsey, whose hunky character, nicknamed McDreamy, has become a highly recognizable pop culture icon.
“To have a hit show is very rare. But it’s tough work — fifteen hours a day. You give your life up to the show.”
Nevertheless, Dempsey makes time not only for his increasing roles in films, such as 2007’s Enchanted and 2010’s Valentine’s Day, but also for returning home when he can. The Pine Tree State continues to serve as a rejuvenating sanctuary to the man who grew up reaping the benefits of its natural beauty. “I spent a lot of time in the woods by myself, exploring,” recalls Dempsey. “Those are the most formative years, finding out who you are on your own. It’s sort of the church for me.” Now with children, the father of three doesn’t want to lose that part of himself, “and I want to make sure they have that, too,” adds Dempsey.
The actor also has a personal stake in the success of the Dempsey Center — and he has high hopes. Currently the hospital departments at CMMC that treat cancer patients are spread out over the whole campus. Peter Chalk, the president of CMMC’s parent company, Central Maine Healthcare, says that the “vision for the program is to consolidate radiation, oncology, hematology, etc., in one free-standing building with the Dempsey Center.” In order to get there, though, the center will need to raise more funds.
Its founders are very pleased with its progress. “We’ve been at this fourteen or fifteen months,” says Chalk, “and I am amazed where we are today. Patrick has been nothing but supportive and has been out there drumming up support. He can leverage his name and reputation to get others to support us as well.” One of the ways he is doing just that this year is through the Dempsey Challenge.
Dempsey’s dedication to the center — and to anything else he chooses to pursue for that matter, whether it’s acting, racing, or, once upon a time, juggling — is passionately fierce. His bedside manner, however, is nothing but soft and supportive. “He’s very humble and very gracious and very generous,” says his sister, Mary, now the center’s coordinator. “And I love the interactions he has with the patients and their families — he’s very genuine.” Judkins, his childhood mentor, agrees. “I think his heart went out to that cause quite naturally and instinctively,” he says, referring to Dempsey’s personal connection to cancer through his mother. “I think he really is thankful for his roots here in Maine,” Judkins adds.
Though Dempsey can’t make the long trip from Hollywood to Maine as often as he’d like, the state’s influence remains embedded in his real life character. “All my actions stem from growing up in Maine,” says Dempsey. He hopes to spend more time here in the future, and, pending improvements in the state’s incentives for film and TV production, he says he’d “love to come back and work.” As the old cliché goes, you can take the boy out of Maine (even as far as Hollywood), but you can’t take the Maine out of the boy. “I’m proud of where I come from,” says Dempsey. “I am really proud of the state of Maine.”
It’s safe to say the state is proud of Dempsey, too.
If You Go
The Dempsey Challenge, Simard-Payne Police Memorial Park, Lewiston. October 4 at 8 a.m. 866-990-1499. www.dempseychallenge.org
- By: Kathleen Fleury