Matthew McConaughey almost died while mom watched, “sink or swim” made him Hollywood icon

When Matthew McConaughey was only four, he recalls almost crashing down the rocky waterfalls of a river, while his mother watched him from the banks, refusing to help.

Instead of feeling angry over his near-death experience, the Oscar-winning actor says the “sink or swim” lesson is what helped him become one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors.

Despite the “bloody, ugly, sometimes violent” childhood delivered by his hard-handed parents, The Gentlemen star says he grew up with a lot of love. But now that he’s a father, he admits that he does things differently when it comes to parenting his own kids.

Keep reading to learn more about McConaughey’s childhood!

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For the first five months of her pregnancy where she was carrying her youngest son, Matthew McConaughey, Mary (Kay) McCabe, thought she had a tumor growing inside her.

It wasn’t a tumor, instead she was about to give birth to a future megastar who has been named the Sexiest Man Alive.

In his revealing book Greenlights, the Oscar-winning actor, 53, dives into “adventures that have been significant, enlightening, and funny, sometimes because they were meant to be but mostly because they didn’t try to be.”

Greenlights is a “playbook,” he says, a collective of diary entries over 36 years.

One of the most significant memories include his tumultuous childhood in an environment that might be considered abusive, though it’s not how he sees it.

Speaking with TODAY, McConaughey was asked if, as a kid, he thought his parent’s behavior was wrong. He replied, “I was scared at the moment, but even then, and immediately after that, I didn’t ever question the love that Mom and Dad had or the love that they gave us.”

“I tell these stories that are bloody and ugly and sometimes violent. And I think the reason I tell them is that those were times where the love that we had – that was never in question – was most challenged, but never had a chance of being beat.”

Parents Mary and James

His mom and dad, who divorced each other twice and married three times, were frequently battling one another.

In the book, the Texas-born actor recounts one night in 1974 when his mom was provoking his dad by repeatedly calling him “Fat Man.” James flipped the table, Mary broke his nose with the phone, she grabbed a knife, and he was flipping ketchup all over her. With their sons as the audience, the parents faced off by circling one another, until exhaustion broke them down. 

“Seconds later, they moved toward each other and met in an animal embrace. They dropped to their knees, then to the bloody, ketchup-covered linoleum kitchen floor…and made love,” The Dazed and Confused actor shares.

These violent expressions, he explains, is how his “parents communicated.”

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But there were also a lot of happy memories. Like when his father resuscitated Lucky, the family’s pet cockatiel, who was found floating lifeless in the toilet.

What James did for Lucky is quite wild.  

After cradling the bird from the water, “He opened his mouth wide and slowly put Lucky into it until the bottom half of her wings and her tailfeathers were all that was outside it.” The Interstellar actor continued, “He started to give Lucky mouth-to-mouth resuscitation…that’s when we heard, coming from inside my father’s mouth, a small chirp. Now, with tears of pain turning to tears of joy, Dad gently removed Lucky’s torso and head from his mouth. Lucky twitched some toilet water and saliva off her head.” Lucky lived for another eight years.

In August 1992, the star was five days into shooting Dazed and Confused when his mom called, telling him that his father died.

Speaking of his father – who told his son “don’t half ass it” when he started acting – McConaughey said, “I lost my hero; I lost my crutch. I lost the man that I now today would love and dearly miss sharing a script with, talking about a character, ‘What do you think about this dad?’ Talking about films.’”

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As for Mary, she invited a tabloid TV crew into the family home and dished out dirty little secrets, like the bed where he lost his virginity. The two didn’t speak with her for eight years.

The Magic Mike star shared on the Howard Stern Show that though his mother is “not perfect,” he’s forgiven her and set “some boundaries” to hopefully combat their “strenuous relationship.”

Setting an example for forgiveness, he’s allowed his now 90-year-old mother to live with him and his brood, which includes wife Camilla Alves and their three children, son Levi (born 2008) and daughter Vida (born 2010), and Livingston (born 2012).

“I don’t raise my children the same way my parents raised me…but I don’t dare judge how my parents did it because every single time I got in trouble or got the belt or whatever, I earned it,” the handsome actor told TODAY.  

“I choose in our family to have much more dialogue than my parents choose or their parents choose,” the actor continued, “My wife and I do a little more explaining. ‘OK, let’s debate this out..’ And even today, my mom goes, ‘Geez, y’all talk about it too much.’”

Sink or swim

Despite everything that’s happened, he still credits him mom for the confidence he exudes today.

Matthew McConaughey and mother Kay McConaughey (Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage)

Speaking with the Wall Street Journal, the star of Dallas Buyers Club shared a valuable life lesson when he was only four years old. “I was four when my mother left me to sink or swim. That summer, at the house of her friend in central Texas, we waded into the Llano River. I’d already had a few swimming lessons.” McConaughey continues, “Within minutes, I wound up in water over my head. Mom backed up and got out. As the current slowly began to take me downriver, she walked along the bank at the same pace.”

“I flailed and Mom shouted, ‘Swim! Or you’re going over the falls.’ I panicked, but quickly lowered my head in the water, kicked and used my arms to reach the bank. Coming out, I wasn’t angry. I was proud of myself.”

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McConaughey said this situation was his mother’s way of reminding him that he has the skills to do anything he wants.  “Mom prepared me to be an actor long before my first audition. She’d say, ‘You don’t walk into a room like you want to buy the place. You walk in like you own it.’”

It’s safe to say that Matthew McConaughey does own every room he walks into!

What do you think about the tough love environment this incredible actor grew up?

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If you enjoyed reading this story about Matthew McConaughey’s childhood, you’ll definitely like the one about him as a loving, devoted husband!