How does he maintain a balance between his double lives of scribe and thesp?
"I don't," he laughs, speaking by phone from his home in Manhattan. "It has no real balance to it, no real logic."
It keeps him busy, though. He's now an editor at large for National Geographic Travel, and he won a Folio Award last year, as well as a silver medal in the Lowell Thomas travel-writing awards (to accompany his 2010 gold). This year, he'll publish a memoir titled, appropriately, The Longest Way Home, and he's shaking all sorts of bushes - "You know, funding," he chuckles ruefully - to bankroll a movie he wants to produce and direct.
"Directing increasingly attracts me," McCarthy says. "As I've gotten older, I've become more interested in the entire creative process, top to bottom. Plus, I'm drawn to the notion of seeing the whole sweep of the story, rather than, as an actor, being confined to my sole point of view. Directing is a way to tell more of the story."
Wow. Could this be the boyish McCarthy who sat starry-eyed next to young Elisabeth Shue in a 1983 Burger King commercial (http://bit.ly/cKztT6) as she announced, "Burger King has switched to Pepsi!"? Could this be the Larry Wilson of Weekend at Bernie's of 1989, who uttered far-famed lines such as "I mean, it's not bad enough that he's trying to kill me. Now he's trying to turn me into a drag queen"?
No, actually, it couldn't be. McCarthy's half-accidental career in writing speaks to maturity and creativity he didn't know he had.
"I just started reading travel writing," he says. He was inspired by the early books of Paul Theroux: "They showed me how travel writing can tell a story, capture the essence of a moment, of yourself in that moment."
But most travel writing disappointed him. "Most of it was talking about places, 'the top 10 beaches,' and while I realize you have to write about those things, I also knew travel isn't about places. I don't get off on seeing buildings. Travel is something that really changed my life. And I wasn't finding that life-changing thing in the travel writing I was seeing."
At a party, McCarthy met Keith Bellows, editor of National Geographic Travel, and pitched a story. "I told him I'd never written travel pieces," McCarthy said, "but that I knew how to tell a good story. And he liked my answer." That started a new career.
"I'd been trying to keep a journal," McCarthy says, "but frankly, the entries embarrassed me. But from my stage and movie life, I knew about scenes, and I knew I could write those." Like the scene about a guy who offered him a ride on his moped through Hanoi: "It was a blast and showed me this beautiful city in a way I never would have seen it."
From there, McCarthy hewed out a writing voice - and a persona in his many video and TV travel appearances - of the sparkly-eyed, personable traveler, never more himself, never more at home, than when far from home. It's a persona he had to grow into and discover.
What does travel change in the traveler? McCarthy says, "It taught me not to be afraid." The United States, he says, "is, where travel is concerned, a fear-driven place. Only 28 percent of Americans have passports, and only half of them use them. We'd be a lot better, a lot different country, if we got out and traveled more. The world as a whole would be a much different, less fearful place. I travel to see myself in new settings. I really think I become a better person when I travel."
A self-described "shy" person, McCarthy says: "Travel taught me how to talk to people. Travel writing involves me in the story I'm in, engages me in the people, makes me alert to the world." He has described one trip in particular - a two-month journey along the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route in Spain - as his turning point, a lonely, terrifying, miserable trip that turned into revelation, the moment when, as he said in one interview, "I had, for the first time, the experience of being unafraid in the world."
Once again, it's the pleasure of the story, whether we're in Qatar, Ireland, Austria, Ethiopia, or Southeast Asia. "Acting prepared me for it in one way," he says. "You get good at being observant." The traveler discovers a world full of surprises. "I was in the north of Sudan," he says, "and those people are the gentlest, kindest, most generous people I've ever met. And I never would have found that out had I never traveled there."
Did we say career "track"? Andrew McCarthy's other gig has been a ride on wheels through a world of wonder - with that signature twinkle in his eyes.
Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406, firstname.lastname@example.org,
or @jtimpane on Twitter.