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‘Second’ chances: Actor’s recovery inspires others

October 7, 2016
by Tom Valentino, Senior Editor
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Tim O'Malley

On the precipice of the opportunity of a lifetime in 1993, actor Tim O’Malley admits now he had a myopic view of the world and wasn’t prepared for any outcome other than seeing his dreams come true. Reality had other plans, however, and the results sent him spiraling.

A college dropout who had struggled to find a career path years earlier, O’Malley discovered a niche for himself when he began taking acting classes at The Second City in Chicago. He spent the next five years training at the venerable comedy institution and other theaters around town before joining the Second City Resident Company. He performed with the likes of Chris Farley, Steve Carell, Bob Odenkirk and Tim Meadows.

Writers and producers from Saturday Night Live came calling in 1993, in search of new cast members. O’Malley was one of three performers under consideration and thought his big break had arrived.

From left: Tim O'Malley, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Joe Liss and David Pasquesi at Second City in 1990. | Photo courtesy: Tim O'Malley

“I had gotten my hopes up because I was told, ‘You’re scoring really high,’ ” O’Malley says, “but they ended up hiring two other people.”

O’Malley was crushed. Worse, he was unprepared. As others around him had trained to give themselves other career options—learning how to direct, write sitcoms, sing or dance—he had remained focused on one goal: acting under the bright lights of television.

Bottoming out

With his dreams of SNL dashed, O’Malley says he began to double down on cocaine and alcohol abuse. He parted ways with Second City and left the entertainment business entirely for three years.

“I prayed all the time. I would say, ‘God, make this stop. Please make this stop.’ ” the 59-year-old O’Malley says now. “I thought I was praying for my own end, that I wouldn’t wake up, like a passive suicide.”

O’Malley’s turning point came in January 1996. Despite numerous attempts to help offered by family members, including his 10 siblings, O’Malley says he was living in his father’s basement when he received a phone call from his younger sister, Jean. When she visited for the holidays a month before, O’Malley says he stole money from her to pay for crack.

“She said she knew I had stolen money and she saw the crack pipe (in my room),” O’Malley says. “She had dated someone who gotten into that and fallen apart. She cried and said, ‘I don’t care about the money. I just don’t want you to die.’ ”

His sister’s plea was a moment of awakening for him, O’Malley says. He sought counseling and went into residential treatment for 90 days at a Gateway Foundation center in Lake Villa, Ill. It was a strict environment, but it gave him the structure necessary to begin turning his life around, O’Malley says.

Second act

Two weeks after leaving Gateway, O’Malley was welcomed back to Second City, this time as a teacher. His start was less than smooth: Once in his first year, he recalls boiling over and shouting at a student who, in his mind, had asked too many questions. (He later apologized to the student.) But by regularly attending meetings—two per day in his first year out of Gateway, O’Malley says—he developed a sense of spirituality that helped foster a mindset of love and patience, tools that have continued to carry him.

O’Malley gradually ramped up his teaching workload at Second City, instructing as many as five classes. In 2003, O’Malley says he felt the time was right to pour his experiences into a one-man show. “Godshow” became a hit, playing to sold-out audiences for four years at The Second City Etc. Theater, with additional performances at the IO Theater in Chicago and the Beverly Hills Arts Center. O’Malley says he received a lot of positive feedback from others in recovery who related to his message on stage.

“I still get people who watch it on YouTube and send me an email or a message about how it changed their lives,” O’Malley says. “It achieved much more than I ever could have expected.”

More than expected, but again, not quite as much as he dreamed of. O’Malley hoped “Godshow” would be adapted by HBO, but while network representatives enjoyed the production, they informed him they were going in a different direction with their programming.

After HBO passed, O’Malley says he became depressed and dealt with bouts of anxiety. Unlike a decade earlier, however, O’Malley didn’t spiral. Instead, he began treatment with a psychiatrist and rebounded.

Today, O’Malley splits his time between teaching at Second City and other theaters around Chicago. He is also acting, writing and directing, and says he feels fulfilled in recovery, attending three to four meetings per week.

“I feel very useful and very in tune with the world,” he says.

Tom Valentino is Senior Editor of Addiction Professional.