Patrick Dempsey sometimes finds it embarrassing to have his name on the cancer center he founded in Lewiston six years ago, especially when other people do most of the work.
But the Maine-born actor is pragmatic. He knows his fame as star of the hit ABC drama “Grey’s Anatomy” helps bring attention and money to the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing. And that’s also why he’s coming to the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland on Saturday to accept the Maine Creative Industries Award.
“Anytime I can bring attention to our great cause, I will,” Dempsey said during a phone interview last week. “It is embarrassing, at times, to have your name up there, because no one individual is responsible for all this. But the reality is, I am visible. Acting (in “Grey’s Anatomy”) has been a blessing for me and has allowed me to do all this. But it’s transitional for me right now. I’m looking forward to the next thing, creatively.”
Dempsey, 48, says he plans to leave his starring role as Dr. Derek Shepherd – referred to as “McDreamy” by admiring fellow characters – in the near future, but can’t yet say exactly when. He says he’ll continue to pursue acting, but he also wants to produce TV shows and films. He’s particularly fond of documentaries, and said his recent favorites include Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts” and the food industry exposé “Fed Up.”
In the meantime, he’ll continue to pursue his passions, which include working with the cancer center and promoting health and wellness throughout Maine.
He started the Dempsey Center because his mother, Amanda Dempsey, had the disease. The center provides free support, education and other services to cancer patients and their families. Amanda Dempsey died in March at age 79 after a 17-year battle with cancer.
Though his mother’s death was a “body blow” to everyone involved with the cancer center, Dempsey said it has strengthened his resolve.
“We have now gone through the entire journey and come out the other side, like so many other families,” Dempsey said. “What’s shocking to me, after all this time, is that there are not more centers like this around the country. There is such a huge gap between the treatment and what is needed when patients go home to families. There is so much more of a preventative nature that can be done.”
Dempsey said that after his mother’s death, he considered not coming to Maine for the annual Dempsey Challenge biking event, which raises money for the center each fall. Dempsey, who grew up in towns around Lewiston, including Buckfield, said he thought it would be too painful for him to come back so soon after his mother’s death. He also sold his mother’s home in Harpswell, partly because of his sadness.
“I did not want to come back and walk down the streets where I grew up and feel that sadness,” Dempsey said. “I went basically because my kids wanted to ride in it. But when I got there, I found it very cathartic. And doing it with my family was transformative for me.”
The Dempsey Challenge was held in September around Lewiston and Auburn and raised $1.1 million.
The Maine Creative Industries Award is given biennially by the nonprofit Maine Center for Creativity. It recognizes people and groups who exemplify Maine’s reputation as a state where “arts and enterprise” thrive. Dempsey is co-winner of the award this year along with Jackson Laboratory, a genetics research facility in Bar Harbor.
Both winners share a “creative approach to bringing comfort, care and a cure” to cancer patients, Jean Maginnis, executive director of the Maine Center for Creativity, wrote in a news release on the awards.
Dempsey intends to continue coming to Maine often and says he will buy a home here soon. He also will stay involved with the Dempsey center. He says his mission with the center includes getting involved in broad issues of health and wellness. For instance, he’d like to see more affordable opportunities for Maine families to be involved in skiing. He was a competitive skier in his youth, and first got involved with skiing at Lost Valley in Auburn.
“On Friday nights my mother would go to the laundromat, and while she was there we’d be skiing at Lost Valley,” Dempsey said.
He said his departure from “Grey’s Anatomy” will happen “very soon,” but he’s not ready to announce details. He’s been on the show since it began in 2005 and has been a big reason for its longevity. Before the show, Dempsey’s biggest successes had come in 1980s teen movies, including “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
He has acted in films and other shows while on “Grey’s Anatomy,” including starring with Amy Adams in the family fairytale “Enchanted.” But he said “Grey’s Anatomy” takes up most of his time.
“I do want to act (after “Grey’s Anatomy”), but I might take a break and go race and travel first. I haven’t found a piece of material I want to do yet,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey is eager to try his hand at producing. He likes the idea of acquiring material and then finding the actors and directors he wants to work with.
When asked what kind of things he might produce, Dempsey mentioned that he loves documentaries, especially ones about history or current affairs.
“I’m dyslexic, and I don’t have the attention span to read about a lot of these things, but I can download a documentary or a book on tape, and I love that,” Dempsey said.
Besides raising money and awareness for the Dempsey center, his passion is endurance car racing, something he’s been doing for more than a decade. With his Dempsey Racing team, he competes in races that last anywhere from two to 24 hours, all over the world, driving a modified Porsche.
Dempsey says driving a car at 185 mph doesn’t scare him.
“I guess it goes back to my ski racing days in Maine. The inner child, the competitive part of me, is reborn when I race,” he said. “It gives me a mental focus. I have to be completely present. I like the physical and emotional challenge.”