For nearly thirty years, Tommy Burke’s life was Hollywood. Born in Boston and raised by Depression-era parents, his family had other plans for him. “My family didn’t want me to get into the business,” he told me. “My father was on welfare, he was a hard worker and persistent.” When his dad dreamt of his son’s future, he didn’t want his son to just scrape by as he tried to break into a famously difficult industry.
But Tommy was determined. After graduating from Boston College, he got his first job in television as a Production Assistant. To make it on his meager TV industry wages, he also kept odd jobs – everything from bar bouncer to golf caddy to factory assemblyman. But it was one of those side hustles that took him deeper into the TV world: he landed a gig loading grip trucks for Powerhouse films, which further stoked his curiosity and desire to explore commercials and film.
As Tommy worked his way up the ladder, becoming the “go to” guy of Production Assistants in Boston and working every motion picture produced in Massachusetts, he knew he had to make the leap: the only way up was Hollywood and, so, in 1990 he crossed the country and made Los Angeles his home.
A decade later, Tommy’s tenacity had led him to Assistant Director credits on big shows like Jerry Bruckheimer’s acclaimed TV series Skin; CSI Miami; and Desperate Housewives. The thing about life, though, is just as we feel we’ve reached new heights, we often come face to face with our vulnerabilities and challenges. In 2003, in the midst of pushing through rigorous 14-hour shoots, Tommy’s life shifted, upending his sense of certainty: Tommy was diagnosed with Hodgkinson’s Lymphoma.
Tommy saw cancer not as a crisis to fear, but a problem of time. “I didn’t have time for cancer,” her said. “I would work 14-hour days on shoots and then get chemo at midnight.” Always a fighter, he was determined not to let it derail his life.
It didn’t. Eventually, he battled back his cancer and went into remission.
In life, many of us are faced with pivotal moments that threaten to bring us to our knees or make us reckon with who we are, with our hope, our faith, and our resilience. Too often, cancer is that moment for us or a loved one. But, for Tommy, this pivotal, life-altering moment wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime deal.
In 2017, about a decade after overcoming Lymphoma, Tommy once again found himself on a TV set, this time working on the hit show Chicago PD, persisting through the harsh Chicago winters and long days of production when his life was upended again. Tommy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
I wondered how Tommy felt upon receiving this second diagnosis: did it feel like a blow? Was he angry at his fate? Heartbroken? “When I found out,” Tommy told me, “I immediately said, ‘What are we doing about it?’” He wanted to spring into action. “There’s no option,” he said. “And I didn’t want pity. I didn’t want to hear ‘Poor Tommy.’ I don’t have the complaining gene; I wanted to do something.”
Though Hollywood was his first love, Tommy eventually decided to step away from the Chicago PD set and focus on his wellbeing. “I realized I’ve been through hell. I don’t need to prove anything anymore.” He felt secure in his ability to walk away in order to understand PD and rally through this new chapter.
These days, Tommy treats Parkinson’s like a job. “As a Production Assistant, I was mostly an independent contractor, so I was always looking for work, starting new jobs. With Parkinson’s, I do the same thing: I look for leads, I put in the effort. If I discover something new, I make a change. I schedule, I manage, I become the expert, and I learn to adapt, just like I did on every TV set.”
“Because I’ve been through cancer, I don’t spare any expense on taking care of my body. I box with a trainer every Saturday morning. I get massages. I run on the beach. I walk The Strand with 50-pound weights on my back. I never give up, which is a testament to my Boston roots.”
“Are you hopeful?” I asked him.
“Dying doesn’t bother me. Being incapacitated bothers me more than anything else. But I’m very lucky. I feel like I have a stubbed toe compared to other people. I always worry about them, how everyone else is doing.”
Through it all, Tommy relies on his “wicked sense of humor,” just as he did on TV sets. “Humor always made everyone work harder and faster.” Laughter is medicine.
What’s powerful about storytelling is that, through it, we discover ourselves in someone else; we realize we’re not alone. Today, Tommy is choosing to tell his story in a new memoir. “My book is a call-to-action. I invite you to do something. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Even if you have to change your course of action, just get going. Just jump in.”
“Do not fear failure but rather fear not trying.”
― Roy T. Bennet
We ended our conversation by talking about resilience. For Tommy, resilience is not poetic or elusive: it’s persistence. “Resilience means never giving up. Sharing my story means holding myself accountable – it calls on me to rise to the occasion and take my own advice.”