ANDY Gray recalls his arrival home from hospital earlier this year to discover his sister had stuck a Post-It note on his front door. “It read, ‘Welcome home, Mandy!’” he laughs very loudly, indicating the actor had been at one with the sentiment. Which he had, it transpires. But it makes me wonder, Andy. Could neighbours have spotted this and assumed the actor to be in the post-operative stages of gender realignment? After all, he has played a few camp roles. And he’s been a woman on stage more times than Cinderella has lost slippers.

He grins again: “No, I think the neighbours had a idea what was actually going on. But the ‘Mandy Gray’ label was entirely appropriate and you’re right to hint at gender realignment because in a way I had become a woman.” How so?

“You see, my own DNA was gone as I had been given my sister Michelle’s stem cells. For a couple of months I was my sister.” A light bulb appears in his head. “And isn’t that a good plot for a comedy play?”

It certainly is, and there is little doubt Gray could carry it off. The actor has been making us a laugh fit to burst since he exploded onto the theatre scene with Perth Rep back in the early 1980s, his Borderline Theatre work a delight to behold. And who can forget his contribution to BBC Scotland sitcom City Lights, or indeed his more recent work playing a grown-up artful dodger in River City.

The temporary sex change, of course, needs explanation. Last summer Gray had begun his run at the Edinburgh Fringe, starring alongside best pal Grant Stott in a new comedy, Junkies, when the final curtain almost came down for good.

After just one performance, Gray realised he was ill. Very ill. “During the Fringe I felt so bad I couldn’t climb stairs and I assumed it was heat stroke. Then when I went home after just one after-show glass of Prosecco I knew there was a serious problem.”

He adds: “That all came on top of problems while working on River City. I have quite a strong work ethic but I was having a sleep in between scenes, then when I got home I was exhausted.”

Gray’s career had been defined by his madcap energy, on stage and in real life, which is reflected in his speech; he’s too busy rushing through life to deal with diction. But that fateful Wednesday, a doctor revealed the worst fears. “He told me I had MDS [Myelodysplastic syndromes, a group of disorders in which a person's bone marrow does not produce enough functioning blood cells]. It’s a form of leukaemia. And as he told me this I found myself listening to the detail of it all and what would happen – or not – and I heard myself saying ‘Yup, yup.’

"After the diagnosis was complete he said to me, ‘I think you’re being very stoic.’ But he didn’t know the reality of what was going on in my head. Or what I would be like when I went outside. And sure enough that was a different story.”

Outside the consulting room the tears flowed. Andy Gray was aghast. He could imagine the BBC obituary compilers pulling together a tribute, containing clips from the likes of Naked Video, Two Thousand Acres of Sky and Rab C Nesbitt.

It was all too much to bear. Andy Gray didn’t do thoughts of mortality. His birth certificate may have said 59 years old but his head told him he was 28. This is the man who before this chat had been posing for pictures outside his Perth ‘mancave’, which is essentially a nice back garden hut filled with lots of Batman memorabilia. Next to his mancave is a large statue of Oliver Hardy. And inside his cosy bungalow there are stacks of comic book memorabilia. Indeed, Andy Gray’s business card reveals the Bat symbol. It doesn’t take an expert on JM Barrie to realise Andy Gray is a man who never really expected to grow old, never mind face death in the face.

“I had to then go away and phone my daughter Clare who had just had a baby girl. She said, ‘Well, Dad, now it’s my turn to take care of you,’ and that cracked me up. I called my sisters and partner, who were so supportive and then on the Saturday Grant called me and he began to cry. And he couldn’t stop. I was the one who was talking him down. Then I had to cancel my Fringe show and panto and call River City and tell them I wouldn’t be coming back. It wasn’t easy.”

Meanwhile, doctors were encouraging, prescribing chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. Yet Gray was (as you would expect) terrified. He says it made him think about when his late mother got cancer and had chemotherapy.

The doctors also told him about the risk that comes with the transplant. “At one point I wondered if I should just stick with the chemo. And I asked what would happen if I didn’t have the transplant; what would be the prognosis? But when they told me I had about two years to live at that point it became a no-brainer.”

He adds: “I also came to realise my mother’s chemo situation had come about ten years ago when these transplants were not really available to people over 50.”

He sighs: “I was so lucky as well in that my sister was a 100 per cent match.”

The days and weeks after commencing treatment, Gray went through a huge range of emotions. “There have been times when I’ve been down.” Yet he refused to see the spotlight dimming. Gray took Dr Dylan Thomas’ prescription and determined to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’.

“All I could do was go with the doctors, and I always felt I was in good hands. I never really doubted them when they said I would come out the other end.”

Meantime, he reflected on the life he’d lived. Andy Gray was never an actor who at the end of a theatre show would take himself home for camomile tea and slip into a cosy pair of winceyette pyjamas. It’s fair to say he didn’t always take himself home.

“One of the first things I asked the consultant was what I had done in my life to cause this? I told him that I’d enjoyed a wee drink over the years and I was a smoker for a long time and I did party a lot. But he said I could have done nothing. He said I could have been an athlete and I’d still have got cancer. But it was a tough time. So was getting transfusions every week and I felt like s***.” He smiles, “I’m not a very patient patient.”

His partner, actor Tamara Kennedy, he reveals, has been “amazing” throughout and she presented him with a s*** card.

“What this meant was that I was allowed to be a s*** when I had to be. But you know, after the treatment was over she said to me I hadn’t had to use the card once.” He adds, with a thankful smile, “She’s seen how low I’ve been at times, and basically she still likes me.”

Gray’s immune system had been wrecked by the chemotherapy, hence the injections of his sister’s stem cells before he had his transplant in Glasgow. After the bone marrow transplant he figured he’d have the energy of the Captain Hook he once played in panto. “But that wasn’t the case. After that I had glandular fever. But gradually my strength has been coming back.”

As we walk to the local cafe, Andy Gray walks a little slower than usual, but otherwise looks great. In fact he reveals he’s set to return to the stage in Andy Gray; An Evening With . . . in which he’ll be talking about his life and times. And he will be returning to the panto stage at Christmas, starring alongside Grant Stott and Allan Stewart in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. And despite having much of his sister’s DNA, Gray won’t be starring as Goldilocks.

He’s excited at the very idea of returning to his spiritual home. “I don’t intend to spend too much time in the dressing room while the others are up on stage getting laughs. I’m not putting up with that for a second. And I’m already thinking about how I’ll enter the stage. Obviously I will acknowledge that I’ve been ill. Perhaps I’ll arrive on a trolley bed, with a drip in my arm,” he jokes.

Yet, he won’t be quite the Andy Gray of old. Some of the physical panto routines will have to go by the wayside. “I can’t be doing the wall routine, whereby you throw yourself off a wall 20 times. But I’ve gained a new-found sensibility in recent times. If the doctors tell me what not to do I listen to them.”

There was a time when Gray’s excitement levels would have been soared at the notion of meeting for “a wee supperette and a glass of fizzy wine.” These days he’s sparkling at the prospect of getting all his inoculations again, given the impact of chemotherapy is to leave them flatter than a week-old bottle of uncorked Irn Bru. The comic book superfan wants to feel like Superman again.

But how dramatically has being seriously ill changed his outlook on life? “I want to work. That’s for sure. I miss going on stage, but I think I’m not going to do things professionally that make me unhappy. I’m going to be a bit more choosy because I’ve certainly realised life is all too short.”

He pauses for a moment. “I’ll enjoy doing panto and the Fringe show in the summer. And I’ll go back to River City – but just for a few weeks to sign off the character. I don’t see myself going in for the long term because it’s quite exhausting.” He sighs: “I really don’t know how someone like Una McLean managed those early rises.”

Gray has other plans.” I don’t see myself jumping into a big ensemble theatre piece and touring any more. Yet, at the same time it will be hard to turn down work. But I think I’d like to direct more. I enjoy getting our Fringe shows together.”

Does he have a bucket list? “Not really. Although one of the things I’m doing in January is taking my daughter and granddaughter to Disneyland in Florida. And I want to be able to spend time with Tamara and my close friends.”

He says the love he’s felt since becoming ill has been incredible, especially the support from pals in the business such as Elaine C Smith. Yet what’s really terrified him has been becoming a grandfather. It’s another note to remind him he’s not 28 any longer.

“Yes, I’ve had two very clear reminders I’m not 28 any more,” he laughs. “But people I know will be thinking, ‘That’s a good thing. We’ve been trying to tell you that you’re not 28 for years’”.

Gray has always said he was a committed atheist. Did he shift in the direction of a heavenly being during the darker times? “There was no time when I was ill did I think of turning to a deity, and that’s maybe because I realised the wonders of medical science and how wonderful the NHS is.”

There’s also the fact he lives in Actorworld, which is heavily populated by a number of deities here on earth. Like Elaine, for example. He laughs hard. “You have a good point. I’m very lucky to be working with the gods. And more to the point, I’m very lucky to be getting back up there on stage.”

And the change in Gray’s anatomy has been a small price to pay. “I’ve been very happy to be a Mandy,” he says, laughing. “She’s kept me alive.”

An Evening With Andy Gray at the Penny Cars Stadium, Airdrie on November 8 at 7pm.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, November 30 to January 19.