DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE
Ten years after "Achy Breaky" heart trouble, Billy Ray Cyrus now operates as a TV star
Story by Bob Paxman -- Photo by Chuck Jones
Billy Ray Cyrus is shivering in the cold of Toronto, Canada, on the set of his hit TV series, Doc. He's poring over pages of dialogue for his character, Dr. Clint Cassidy, while sporting a white lab coat and nervously twiddling a pen in his right hand.
He's a TV star -- and it's something he could never have imagined a decade ago.
"I never expected this," declares Billy Ray. "Ten years ago, I didn't even think I'd get a record out."
But back in 1992, Billy Ray did cut a record -- "Achy Breaky Heart" -- that took him from unknown bar singer to national phenom. That same year his debut album, Some Gave All, sold nearly 10 million and held the top spot on the charts for an astounding 34 weeks.
"It's been like a blur," says Billy Ray of the decade milestone, shaking his head. "What it brings to mind is that 11 years ago, I was basically living in a Chevy Beretta, playing four sets a night at a club in Richmond, Va., wondering if things would ever turn out for me."
Wonder no more. Billy Ray can now claim success on two fronts -- music and television. The family-oriented Doc is more than a national hit, it's the highest-rated show on the PAX-TV lineup.
"I love acting as much as I love music," reveals Billy Ray. "But I didn't expect to. I had never been to acting school, never had an acting coach. The people on the show told me to just be myself -- and that's what I'm doing. I'm learning every day."
Billy Ray has plenty of time to learn the craft. It takes 14 hours a day, five days a week, to film just one episode. Even when he's not in front of the camera, he's practicing his lines -- and that shocks him.
"I never did my homework in school, obviously documented by my grades," he says with a hearty laugh. "But now, if I don't do my homework, I'm a dead man. So I study this stuff."
Billy Ray ... five minutes! blares a bullhorn on the set.
In moments, the Kentucky native will find out if his studying has paid off. He changes into "civilian" clothes -- jeans, casual shirt and wide-brimmed hat -- and gets ready for his next scene.
Director Larry McLean pumps Billy Ray with some last-minute instruction. "Walk through the corridor like it's a normal day -- then stop dead in your tracks." That's because the first sight Billy Ray's character sees is Dr. Weston (played by Nancy Sakovich), which triggers an embarrassing moment.
"And ... action!" shouts the director.
"Oh ... no!" exclaims Clint, remembering the planned date with his fellow doc that he'd forgotten.
"Oh ... yes!" she fires back.
"Was that OK?" Billy Ray asks, shrugging his shoulders.
The director nods, but offers a suggestion: "Don't anticipate her being there. You have to be taken completely off guard."
Billy Ray gives it another shot, and this time he's dead-on perfect. His co-star smiles and leads the cast in a round of applause.
"This crew is great," says Billy Ray after he wraps the scene. "They're all experienced, professional actors, but they go out of their way to help me out and encourage me."
As Billy Ray heads to the wardrobe trailer, he steps out of his Doc character to talk about music. He's excited about his upcoming album, due this spring, which he plans to call -- appropriately -- Time Flies.
"It reminds me of Some Gave All -- pure, unadulterated bar-band music," says Billy Ray. "I can't wait for people to crank it up!"
He has high hopes for the new album. But Billy Ray knows he needs support from radio to make it as successful as Some Gave All.
Call it the curse of "Achy Breaky." The song that made him a superstar also became, ironically, a bit of an albatross. The overwhelming success of the tune led to resentment and disrespect from radio and even fellow artists.
"I think there was a point a few years ago when I thought I would never get over that," he admits. "I probably got a little bitter about it. You know, 'Why did this have to happen to me?' -- that kind of thing. But now I realize that I didn't commit a sin -- I had a song that made people feel good."
Billy Ray put the fallout of the tune behind him for good -- in, of all things, the pilot episode of Doc. "We did a scene where the song was playing on the radio," he explains, "and originally, I was supposed to say that I really like that song.
"But I asked the director and the writers if it wouldn't be funnier if I said, 'Man, I hate that song.' They thought I was kidding, but I was serious, and they let me do it that way. I think that helped me psychologically."
Now 40, he has another emotional burden on his hands. During production in Toronto, Billy Ray lives in an apartment by himself. Though wife Tish and their children -- Trace, Destiny Hope, Braison, Brandi and baby Noah -- are only a phone call away, he misses them to the point of trauma.
"I have dreamed a couple of times," begins Billy Ray, his voice starting to quiver, "that the world had broken out into war and I couldn't get home to take care of my family. The first time was in Toronto, and I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. The second was in Nashville last summer, while I was at home."
Now for the weird part: "Our first day back for filming was Sept. 11," Billy Ray recalls. "We're getting ready for work and then -- bam! -- the skies are locked down, a war has started, and I'm stuck in Toronto -- just like I dreamed! Only it was real."
Okay, everybody we're ready! blares from a speaker, snapping Billy Ray back to reality. The crew hustles to place cameras and check lighting, while the cast assembles around a conference room table for the next scene.
Billy Ray spends a peaceful minute alone, drawing a deep breath. "I used to get scared to death to do this stuff," he confesses. "If I had a lot of dialogue, with all those big doctor words, I'd go, 'No way I can get this.' Now," he adds, grinning confidently, "I feel like I can."
Viewers are also convinced. Billy Ray actually receives mail -- mostly addressed to "Dr. Clint" -- asking for medical advice.
"It's unbelievable!" he declares, darting up from his chair. "They ask me all kinds of medical questions. But what's so weird is that I'm the most uncomfortable examining someone's mouth, or their ears, just for a scene! I dread it.
"But evidently," he adds, "people believe I'm a credible enough doctor -- and that's good!"
As good as the acting life is, though, Billy Ray vows that he'll never abandon music. "Music will be a part of my life until the day I die," he says emphatically.
He pauses and slowly stares upward.
"Right now," he says, "I just want to keep my focus on both careers. I ain't getting any younger -- and time keeps going faster and faster."