A Work in Progress

UPDATED: November 2, 2011
PUBLISHED: November 2, 2011

If you wandered into Mission Hills, Calif., in the late ’60s and early ’70s, you wouldn’t peg the little Hispanic boy named George Lopez as the successful comedian, actor and talk show host he would become. Neither would anyone else, especially Lopez, himself.

“I grew up in a house where I couldn’t do anything right,” Lopez recalls. “I wasn’t going to be successful, I was told. But I just continued to challenge myself, even though ‘no’ was the most frequent word I heard.”

Rejection was something Lopez grew accustomed to early in life. His father left when he was an infant, and his mother abandoned him when he was 10. Lopez, left to be raised by his strict maternal grandmother, found love, encouragement and attention in short supply.

“When I was a kid, no one ever came to us and told us we could be anything other than laborers or people who worked with their hands,” Lopez says. Faced with such negative influences, Lopez struggled to embrace his love of comedy and connecting with people. He was terrified to try and petrified he would fail at anything he pursued.

“I used to quit when something got hard. The minute something became difficult, I quit,” Lopez says. “I blamed other people, but I was only hurting myself. The one thread that comes through with successful people is that when times get hard, they don’t quit. I’m not a quitter [anymore], and I try hard in everything I do. I always do my best. And if it doesn’t work out, I know when I lay down, I always did my best.”

But before Lopez could be an international success, he had to swallow his fear, hone his craft and forge his path to stand-up stardom. It wasn’t easy. Stand-up comedy is a notoriously difficult business to gain a toehold in, especially for someone afraid to get onstage.

“I grew up afraid of everything. I was afraid of different circumstances, different environments, of speaking up for myself,” Lopez remembers. “I loved comedy so much. I wanted to see what I could do because I felt [the talent] was in there. But it tortured me to be onstage.”

The talent, indeed, was inside of Lopez, but he had to identify the source of his fear to let the genius come out. In the end, public speaking had little, if anything, to do with his paralysis.

“The biggest obstacle I had to overcome was that fear of failure,” he says. “I had to identify that I was afraid of failing—that people wouldn’t laugh. I thought of all the people I’ve admired—Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby—they all had to start somewhere. I took it back to that. I equated my start to the starts of comedians I admired. I told myself they weren’t who they are now right off the bat. I decided I wouldn’t put much weight on not laughing. I wouldn’t look at it as failure if someone didn’t laugh; I’d look at it as a learning opportunity.”

Lopez was a quick study. By the late 1980s, he was playing in sold-out clubs across the United States and appearing in television comedy specials. By 1990, he took the leap to film. And in 2002, with the help of producer (and Academy Award-winning actress) Sandra Bullock, Lopez brought his brand of comedy to television. George Lopez debuted that year and found immediate success as the only Hispanic-oriented show on mainstream television. In 2004, Lopez capitalized on his success by publishing his autobiography, Why You Crying? , which found its way onto the New York Times top 20 best-seller list. Lopez was on top of the world. That’s when the pain started.

In April of 2004, Lopez was suffering from severe fatigue. He had hypertension, and he felt bloated. Doctors told him a genetic condition was, in effect, poisoning his kidneys, which were then barely functioning. They had shriveled so much they didn’t even register on an ultrasound, and a transplant was a must.

But before Lopez would consider an operation, he demanded to finish the current season of his sitcom so some 170 employees wouldn’t suddenly be unemployed. He struggled through the season’s final 24 episodes. Now all he needed was a new kidney. His wife, Ann, volunteered without hesitation.

After more than seven hours of combined surgery, the couple was recovering comfortably. The effect on Lopez was almost instantaneous. He was suddenly full of energy, his pain gone. Almost without effort, he dropped 45 pounds and felt better than he had in decades. He also found a purpose.

Lopez incorporated his condition into the show by giving his fictional son Max the same condition. As the father, Lopez acted out the ways he wished a parent had comforted and guided him. He set up the Ann and George Lopez Foundation, which supports a variety of causes, including helping underprivileged children and military families, and raising awareness about kidney disease and organ donation.

Lopez talks eagerly about the foundation’s projects, including a summer camp for kids who have kidney disease. “When I send these kids to kidney camp, they have kidney disease, but their spirits are so bright,” he says. “They’re warm, and they’re not down because they’re sick. They’re not like other people who say I’m fat, or my hair’s bad, or I don’t look right today. These are kids with real, life-threatening issues, and they’re beaming. I see that and I’m inspired. You don’t see that from people every day.”

Despite his restored health and purpose, Lopez’s life hasn’t been without disappointment. Last year, after 17 years of marriage, he and his wife divorced. In interviews, he continues to speak of Ann with devotion and love. “I don’t want to blame entertainment,” he said on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight. “I don’t want to blame creativity, but when you grow up a certain way, unfortunately, I was not equipped with a lot of the tools that a person would need to be a partner.”

By his own account, Lopez remains a work in progress. Though his talk show recently ended, he already has several projects in the works, including a Smurfs sequel. It’s his personal life, however, that Lopez seems to be focusing on. He works on finding peace and calm by utilizing meditation techniques he learned from longtime friend, musician Carlos Santana. He deals with getting older and realizing his body doesn’t respond like it used to.

But mostly, he works to battle the quitter inside him.

“I’ve been trying to play guitar since I was 15. I have more than 20 guitars, and I’ve always wanted to play, but I quit playing,” Lopez says, laughing at himself. “I’ve also quit on some very special people who aren’t friends anymore, and now time has gone by. People I wish were my friends now. And all it would have taken is a call or staying connected. It wouldn’t have taken a lot.”

The same things that challenged him as a child are now his strengths, something Lopez relishes. “I wasn’t connected to a lot of things or people, but I was connected to my sense of humor and myself,” he says. “I looked at myself as my own best friend, and I knew that I was feeding something inside of me that was empty. The harder I worked, doing stuff others weren’t doing… I was feeding something inside me that was very deep and needed to be filled. When I got a bite at anything, I pulled myself up and promised to work even harder for that next bite…. There is a determination in me that I didn’t see in anyone I grew up with.”

The quiet quitter from Mission Hills is long gone. What remains is laughter—and resilience.