Gift of Life From a Comedian's Wife

May 12, 2005 — -- Several weeks after receiving a kidney transplant, comedian George Lopez says he's doing great.

"I feel better than I ever have in my life," he told "Primetime Live's" John Quiñones in his first public comments since his surgery. "It hasn't even been a month and I feel alive," he said. "It's unbelievable. Everything has changed."

Lopez is playing golf, joking around with his pals Andy Garcia and Cheech Marin, and even entertaining well-wishers during lunch.

Before the surgery, his health was failing. "I was toxic, man. I could have died," he said. "I could have shut down in my sleep." Now he makes sure everyone knows who is responsible for his new lease on life: his wife, Ann, who donated the kidney.

"She's it, man, she's it. And she's been telling me she was it forever and it took me a long time to believe her but she's right," Lopez said.

Ann is modest about her contribution: "You know what, having a baby is harder than giving a kidney," she said.

Lopez is grateful, but his wife says: "He doesn't need to thank me. For what? I love him."

Neglected Childhood

The comedian's gratitude is especially strong, he says, because this is the second time his wife has saved his life over his 44 years.

Like many other comics, Lopez comes from a tough background. His father was a migrant worker who left when he was just two months old. His mother was 20 years old and had her own troubles.

"She was there but she wasn't maternal, she had her own problems," Lopez told Quinones. "I saw her try to take her own life … No kid should see that."

He was raised by his grandparents in a modest, working-class neighborhood outside Los Angeles, but still faced family problems. He says his grandfather was an alcoholic, and his grandmother expressed little love for him.

Lopez told Quiñones how his grandparents neglected to provide him with things as basic as a raincoat. "Even a plastic bag with holes cut out in it, they didn't offer that," he said. "You know, I wasn't asking for Gucci, man."

More importantly, Lopez rarely saw a doctor as child. And no one ever found out that he had a serious problem with how his kidneys drained until it was almost too late.

"I would wet the bed as a kid, and you know, they'd yell at me and I mean nobody tried to figure out why I did it," he said.

'A Cry for Help'

To escape from what he says was a painful childhood, Lopez dreamed of becoming a comic. In the barrio, that seemed farfetched, but Lopez persevered.

"I didn't want to be nobody, and that was the only way I could be somebody was to do stand-up," he said.

He became a favorite on TV shows like "Arsenio Hall." His painful childhood provided plenty of material.

Then, he caught the eye of casting director Ann Serrano, whom he eventually married. They had a daughter, Mayan -- but Lopez was not exactly a family man.

"I didn't know how to love because I didn't see any good examples of it," Lopez said. "I was not a good person then."

He was drinking and staying out late. "I think he was trying to destroy himself," Lopez's wife said. "I would hear things but I was busy being a new mom. And I think it was a cry for help."

Counting the Crises

Ann kicked him out. "In the middle of the night I filled up his car with all his clothes, all his toiletries, a frying pan, toilet paper," she said. "It was like, buddy, you're not coming back. And I changed the locks."

Lopez hit rock bottom. His career was floundering, and he was living apart from his wife and new baby. He began to realize that he had to change and begged his wife to take him back.

She accepted, but told him: "That's it. You've had your mid-life crisis, you've had your 50s crisis, you've had your 60s crisis, your 70s crisis … you can't have any more crisis."

But even then, another crisis was brewing. Lopez's kidneys were failing, but he kept on performing.

His star rose again. Actress Sandra Bullock spotted him in a comedy club, and helped him create a sitcom based on his life -- that would eventually become "The George Lopez Show" on ABC.

Life Follows Art

Lopez's life was an open book, except for one thing: his kidney disease. "In Hollywood, man, if you're not well, they label you damaged goods," he said.

But he couldn't stop thinking about it, and even created an episode where his character's father, who had run out on him, had the condition. In the episode, Lopez's character volunteered to donate a kidney to him -- but his fictional father died before it could be done.

Life followed art. Lopez's doctors told him he would need a new kidney soon. But there was a five-year waiting list. His wife quickly volunteered.

"There was no question," Ann Lopez told "Primetime." "When you are put in that position where you could possibly lose someone you love, it's a very easy decision."

Calling Mr. Ace

On April 19, Lopez checked into the hospital under the assumed name of Tom Ace, accompanied by his wife. The surgery was a success -- even yielding a joke to the comedian.

"Coming out of surgery, they're screaming at me, because you're under so much anesthesia," he said.

"They're yelling, 'Ace, Mr. Ace. Tom, Tom, breathe, open your eyes, Tom' and I'm kind of coming out, I'm like -- who the hell? Would that dude respond to them?

"And I think -- and then I go, 'Oh, that's me. That's me.'"