Nearly three years since suffering a massive stroke that nearly took his life, beloved TV vet Timothy Omundson (Psych, Judging Amy) returned to the small screen last week via a recurring role on NBC’s This Is Us. In a direct parallel to the actor’s own life, his character, a curmudgeon named Gregory who befriends new mom Kate (Chrissy Metz), is also recovering from a stroke.
And early next year, Omundson’s odds-defying comeback will continue when he reprises his role as Santa Barbara Police Chief Carlton “Lassie” Lassiter in Psych 2: Lassie Come Home. In another instance of art imitating life, Lassie will also be on the mend from a debilitating stroke.
Below, Omundson candidly divulges sobering details of the devastating April 2017 stroke that brought his career to a standstill, explains the critical role Galavant played in his triumphant second act and reveals why he agreed to share his “warts and all” recovery with the world.
TVLINE | How did the role of Gregory come about? Obviously you have a history with This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman from Galavant…
It was a big team effort. Two of the writers/producers from Galavant, John Hoberg and Kat Likkel, were keeping Dan apprised of my recovery. Dan had mentioned that when I was ready he would try and find something for me, and as I slowly got stronger, John and Kat let him know that I was ready. John, Kat and Chris Koch, one of our [Galavant] directors, came to my birthday party and I gave a speech thanking all of my friends. And Chris was like, “If you can give that speech after five Old Fashioned [drinks], you’re ready to go.” I think he literally called Dan and was like, “Tim’s ready to go.”
TVLINE | How did Dan describe Gregory to you initially?
Dan texted me and said, “I’m thinking the character is deep in recovery from a stroke, because it’s such an important story to tell.” And I was all for it. I was really excited to dig into this stroke recovery story, and just tell it warts and all. Because up until that time I had kept my current disabilities under wraps. I was in a wheelchair for months. The [doctors didn’t] know if I was ever going to walk again, let alone walk onto a set. I had done the [second] Pysch movie, and that really helped me get my confidence back up. And I’ve been so inspired by so many people out there who have been having difficult times. [Psych] star Dule Hill actually suggested that I start putting myself out there.
TVLINE | What has the reaction been from viewers so far?
I’ve gotten so much lovely feedback on Twitter. People who are in there own recovery reached out to me and said how happy they are to see [this story being told] on TV. That was incredibly gratifying. And just being back with Dan has been…incredible. He’s one of my favorite writers and directors. And we had such an amazing time on Galavant. I knew I had a great safety net with him. Him throwing me jokes in between takes and me being able to pick them up and throw them back was incredibly gratifying. It’s like, “Oh, I can still do this.” It can’t be overstated what Dan has done for me, in writing this character and giving me a chance to get back in front of the camera with supportive, loving people. And spreading the word that people can hit horrible speed bumps in their health and recover. There is hope.
TVLINE | Are you and Gregory at the same stage, recovery-wise?
He very much mirrors where I’m at, in terms of physicality and speech. Luckily, I had a right-hemisphere stroke, so [I didn’t lose] my speech. I’m getting stronger every day. I go to a therapy clinic every day. So as the show continues and Gregory continues, we’ll get to see my recovery [unfold] in real time. It will be interesting to have this record where 14, 15 million people can watch my recovery. That’s a little intimidating… There’s a scene coming up where we talk more about specific issues of recovery from a stroke, which I’m really happy [the show] is bringing up. In many ways, this show has helped my recovery. Emotionally, it’s been incredible. And not just for me. For my wife and kids to see me go back to work and doing the thing I love has been so healing for them.
TVLINE | What can you tease about Gregory and Kate’s burgeoning friendship?
I don’t really know where it’s going to go. But right now they’re providing emotional support to each other.
TVLINE | You mentioned on Twitter that you almost died from this stroke. How critical did things get?
Early on I joked that it was “Just a wee touch of a stroke.” But it was a massive stroke; I came really close to [dying]. After a stroke, your brain tends to swell. And if unchecked, it will kill you. So they had to crack my skull open like a walnut to relieve [the swelling]. And, to get graphic, they took the two parts of my skull and they tucked it into my stomach. They attach a blood vessel to the bone so it stays viable and the body won’t reject it. So I had that with me for safe keeping for months. And then several months after healing they said it was time for me to put it back on. That surgery itself is incredibly dangerous. But I’m really lucky that I had the stroke in Florida, because the surgeon [that treated me] was one of the top stroke guys in the state. So I was lucky every step of the way.
TVLINE | Is there an understanding of what caused it?
They don’t quite know. But I had injured a carotid artery in my neck from what I think was a really rigorous workout. And eventually that wound [is what likely triggered] the blood clot which hit my brain and took me out. But we’re still trying to figure it all out.
TVLINE | What’s your prognosis?
Everyone is so different. You just don’t know. But I’m feeling very optimistic about it. I’m slowly getting some movement back in my arm, so I’m optimistic that that will continue to get better. And they say you don’t really plateau; you just continue to get better. So all I can do is just continue with the physical therapy and walking and rewiring my brain. Sort of teach it how to work my body.
TVLINE | You mentioned that the Psych sequel was actually the first significant project you shot post-stroke. First off, how cool is it that the title of the movie bears your character’s name?
I love that. I credit [my Psych family] with so much of my recovery. Right from the beginning with the first Psych movie, when they rewrote the character to give me that cameo… was just incredible. And [star] James Roday and [series creator] Steve Franks were visiting me in recovery all the time to see how I was coming along. And just knowing that they were going to take care of me on the set and in the script and to write the story around my disability was [incredible]. That was a huge learning curve to go back to that show. It was the first time I had been back on a set and I quickly realized the challenges of trying to do something I had done for eight years. A character I knew so well. I had this superpower where I could just highlight my lines once and have them [memorized]. That’s not the case anymore. They were very patient with me, and really gave me an opportunity to fall and pick myself up. In fact, Steve and James came to my hotel room one day and we reworked a scene the day before we shot it. Because on Psych we often make changes as we go, which, cognitively, is a little too difficult for me to do. So we worked out the changes the day before so I could have the lines down before we went to set.
TVLINE | Have you seen the Psych sequel?
I got a sneak peek at it. It’s really great. It’s pretty wonderful. I’d say this one is even better [than the first movie] — and not just because I’m in it more!