JUST OFF MULHOLLAND DRIVE, high in the Hollywood Hills, is Runyon Canyon Park, the celebrity dog-walking spot in Los Angeles. One gorgeous day in June, two funny Erics and their respective pooches come face to face. The elder, Eric Idle, looks a bit dishevelled with his messy hair, faded golf shirt and English pallor - not to mention the scruffy dog, Bagel the beagle, at his side. The younger, Canada's Eric McCormack, could have just walked out of a J. Crew ad, tan and handsome in khakis and an olive green V-neck, with two shiny-coated mutts, Katie and Molly. They talk kids - McCormack mentions his first is due in a matter of weeks (Finnigan was born on Canada Day) and says to the former Monty Pythoner, "You have a couple, right?" And the shtick begins. "Yeah, 29 and 11. After the first, you don't feel like rushing back in." He pauses before nailing the laugh, "And you might want to get a new wife in between, like I did." McCormack, a little in awe and scrambling to keep up, mumbles, "Yeah, they can get a bit tiresome." As he heads into the canyon, Idle turns and congratulates the 2001 Emmy-winning sitcom star on "a very funny season." McCormack, who plays gay lawyer Will Truman on NBC's Will & Grace, lowers his head, smiles shyly and replies, "Thank you, sir."
McCormack knows the show is something to be proud of. As a prime-time sitcom with two openly gay male characters, on a major network, consistently rated in the Top 10, with an average of 23 million viewers and the approval of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Will & Grace is groundbreaking. Even though last season it was sometimes trounced in its time slot by the new drama, CSI, NBC renewed Will & Grace until 2005. The network's confidence stems from the fact that the show remains No. 2, after Friends, with the all-important 18-49 demographic, meaning it can charge the highest advertising rates going. The series, starting on Sept. 26 this fall, is the network's linchpin, with Friends ending after this season, and Frasier the next.
And McCormack, 39, is becoming the face of NBC, like Michael J. Fox or Ted Danson. In some ways, he's the perfect prime-time star for this century - a just-gay-enough hetero guy who combines hunky good looks with suaveness, and sweetness. McCormack has also benefitted from great timing. He took the role of Will at a cusp in pop culture: homophobia had waned, allowing homosexuality to acquire a certain chic, with shows like Ellen helping to lead the way. And the industry has accepted him as so much more than Will. He did The Music Man on Broadway, NBC has him singing and dancing in its network specials, and he's a favourite at AIDS charity fundraisers. He's become a Hollywood sweetheart.
At home in the valley - where neighbours include Andy Garcia and Damon Wayans - McCormack, Molly and Katie jump out of his BMW SUV. While undeniably pretty, he looks a bit more rugged than he does on television. Apart from the sun-blast smile, two things stand out - the boyish cowlicks and a Cindy Crawford-like mole on his right cheek. The mailman shouts, "Is there a baby yet?" McCormack beams and gives a wave, "No, not yet." The Ward Cleaver moment continues inside McCormack's modest-looking house, which he shares with his wife of five years, Janet (née Holden), and, since July 1, Finnigan Holden McCormack. First he apologizes for not introducing me to Idle - "I was so excited I totally forgot." Then he says, "You don't have to take your shoes off, though I know you will - it's the Canadian thing to do."
Born and raised in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, McCormack - who went to high school with Mike Myers and names fellow Scarberians the Barenaked Ladies as his favourite band - revels in sweeping generalizations about his native land, perhaps as a way of saying he's still an outsider in California. When it came to his career, he believes he was too Canadian in his approach, too respectful of the system. "I dreamed locally," he explains. "I would never have taken off at 20, gone to New York and said, 'See me, I'm genius.'" Instead he went to theatre school in Toronto, apprenticed at Stratford, did guest spots on bad Canadian television, landed his own Canadian series, Lonesome Dove, did guest spots on bad American series and then, at 35, scored big time with Will & Grace. Even then, McCormack still had a Canadian trait holding him back - a hint of a beer gut. "Max [Mutchnick], our producer, told me I'd have to do something about it if I was going to be gay on TV. He said, 'No man would sleep with you.'" McCormack's been seeing Dirk, a personal trainer, three times a week ever since.
In terms of image, McCormack is willing to let L.A. have its way with him - even if it means answering to his wife. "I married a really good Canadian girl, Alberta stock, and this town has in no way gone to her head," he says. Janet, now 36, was born in Dawson Creek and raised in Edmonton, and the couple met on the set of Lonesome Dove - she was an assistant director. They kept the relationship a secret. "It was kind of cool," says McCormack. "But it was strange to have your girlfriend call you Mr. McCormack all day." He had been dating actresses before meeting her, and found Janet less self-centred. "And she had that Alberta tight jeans and cowboy boots thing going, which was just fine by me."
Janet doesn't love L.A. - she hasn't worked since moving here four years ago to join Eric. But she enjoys it more since getting involved with charities, and since they bought and decorated their dream house. It's two floors, three bedrooms, with a downstairs screening room, and loaded with trinkets - Janet's a bit of a collector. Kitschy flea market items, many in the shape of pineapples and monkeys, line the walls and all available shelf space in the kitchen and connected TV room. The rest of the house is more subdued, thanks to help from Peter Gurski, set designer for Will & Grace. The dining and front sitting rooms are full of bright artwork and dark furniture and antiques. A small wooden cabinet discreetly holds a karaoke machine - Eric's not-so-secret passion. The guest bedroom is done in a Western theme, a nod to Janet's homesickness (Eric's boots from Lonesome Dove are part of the decor).
The nursery also has many personal touches. Painted on the walls are scenes from books McCormack and his wife loved as children. He points to a mural from Bread and Jam for Frances, his absolute favourite bedtime story. "Janet," says the actor, "is a little worried about having Hollywood kids - the kind that know they're getting a Porsche when they are 16." It's a valid concern: when their son was born, at least a few NBC departments each sent over a red wagon filled with gifts. Other deliveries included a four-feet-tall Eeyore with a removable tail from Elton John and his partner, David Furnish (McCormack's friend from high school). Despite it all, this baby will forever wear his parents' national identity in his name, Finnigan, which he happens to share with the puppet on Mr. Dressup.
Turns out, McCormack credits Mr. Dressup himself, Ernie Coombs, as his earliest acting influence - due mostly to his tickle trunk, which held those wonderful costumes. "All three children watched Mr. Dressup," says McCormack's mom, Doris, "but Eric was the oldest, and he loved it." Keith and Doris McCormack, 71 and 69 - he's a retired financial analyst for Shell, she a homemaker - still live in the house where Eric and his two younger siblings grew up, complete with the '70s wallpaper. This is their first interview regarding Eric, yet they come across as media pros - no truly embarrassing stories are told, and no dysfunction is detectable. Mostly, they seem genuinely proud of all three of their children. Ellen is a dental office administrator, and Bryan, the youngest, a teacher. Eric gets no special treatment, even if he did fly his mom to New York for Mother's Day. "Three days together, just him and I," she says, "and his entourage."
As for their eldest son's love of dress-up, the McCormacks say he was the kind of kid who always ran around in a cape or cowboy outfit. But the desire to don a costume just never went away. "In high school we'd all be rocking out to Rush in the basement, doing heavy-duty air guitar," says McCormack. "Then one day I brought down some Geddy Lee-like, long-haired wigs, and everyone was like, 'No way, that's going too far, man.' " And childhood friend Chris Wright, one of those guys rocking out in the basement, says that McCormack was dressed up as Captain from Captain & Tennille the first time they met. "Thankfully," says Wright, "it was Halloween."
When it came time for professional acting gigs, dress-up was still McCormack's preferred methodology. "We did a Dracula play together in Vancouver in the mid-'90s," recalls actress Molly Parker. "Eric was Dracula and I was his damsel in distress. He loved the cape, teeth, all of it. I hadn't done much theatre and was so nervous, but he was having so much fun that it really put me at ease." McCormack agrees that kind of thing was right up his alley. "At theatre school, people were talking about De Niro and Pacino and finding the truth. I was like, 'Hell, no, let's dress like pirates.' "
Stratford seemed an obvious choice. "It was tickle-trunk heaven," says McCormack of his five years acting in Shakespearean productions and other classics. In 1989 he landed two lead roles there - Tusenbach in Chekhov's Three Sisters and Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream. John Neville, then Stratford's artistic director, praises McCormack's work as both unusual and brave: "He wasn't just going to say the words, he was looking for a character." The actor remembers his interpretations were not always appreciated. "I was playing Tusenbach, and halfway through rehearsal one day Neville says, 'He is not Woody Allen, he is a baron, a Russian Baron.' Another director, David William, said, 'I can't stand the way you play lovers.' I was trying to find the comedy in the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream. I was finding my own style." Which turned out to be more Seinfeld than Olivier.
The following year Neville left Stratford, and McCormack wasn't asked back. It was time for television. In 1994, he got the starring role on Lonesome Dove, a CTV period drama which left critics cold but still has a cult audience. His role as Mosby, a former Confederate colonel, remains his mother's favourite. "I think he had far more acting to do. It was less like him - the Southern accent, the outfit, he grew a beard. And he was evil. But then I would see the good Eric come through." It was cancelled after two seasons.
There's a "glamour shot" of Eric and Janet from 1996 on display in the couple's home. He had just shaved off the Lonesome Dove beard and had a moussed hairstyle appropriate to the time. It seems to be announcing that the tickle-trunk era is over, and the L.A. years are about to begin. The actor went to Hollywood alone while Janet stayed in Calgary. The next two years, during which he auditioned for TV pilots, were difficult; McCormack realized that to be successful he'd have to find a character close to himself. He got pretty far auditioning for the role of Ross (David Schwimmer) on Friends. But he was cursed with pretty-boy looks. "When I would audition for the single guy that has a messy room and doesn't understand women, I could always get the laugh," he says, "but I wouldn't get far 'cause when I walk into a room, people don't see that guy. When I wear a baseball cap backwards, people say, 'What's the matter with you?' " Instead, McCormack came across as single, thin and neat. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Turns out, he's been called gay since he was in Grade 2, although his parents say he hid that from them.
He was never into sports, and in high school he was, you know, a theatre guy. "I wasn't beat up on a regular basis," he says. "Just a couple of times." The one instance where he felt shaken by his gay vibe was in first-year theatre school at Toronto's Ryerson University. "I was a pretty cocky guy at 19. I had done dinner theatre and went to the Banff fine arts school. I went in for an evaluation thinking the professor was going to say, 'Of course, you are very good.' Instead he said something like, 'With you I get a very light, I can't, it's like on the fence ... Are you gay?' I was so thrown. I thought that was something I left behind in high school, in public school."
One of his mom's favourite stories is of Eric and Janet's 1997 wedding. "They got married on a lovely August day on a boat in Vancouver," says Doris. "We were touring the harbour when all of a sudden we heard cheering and yelling. We turned and there was a little dock, and it was filled with young men. There was a big sign and my other son Bryan said to Eric, 'I can't believe you got married on gay pride day.' " Six months later, it would all come full circle. "When I came in to audition for Will & Grace the producer said, 'Just so you know, you never need to be more gay than that. That's exactly what we want.' I thought I guess that's good, I'm gay enough."
But is he? Critics of the show say McCormack's character is sexless. A straight actor playing a gay male who doesn't have any sex at all. How safe. "I took that personally the first year," says McCormack, "but now I feel 20 million people can't be wrong." McCormack points out that showing a gay man who is picky, monogamous, relationship-oriented and going through a dry spell is actually daring. "The letters I get from gay men say gay portrayals over the last 10 years are either people dying of AIDS or being incredibly promiscuous. But gays don't see that many 'straight-acting' - to use a gay term - gay men."
Still, viewers want to see Will fall in love, much like Grace did this past season with guest star Woody Harrelson. McCormack insists guests like that take their toll. "Woody's a known commodity, he needs jokes and storylines and it was suddenly a five-character show. That was hard." But with four years behind them, syndication starting this fall and the creators focusing on a new show, it may be time to tackle the hard stuff. Even the actor's father says Will & Grace should stop coasting. "They built up a following, but they've got to maintain it now. The writing has to be not only maintained, but maybe stepped up as well."
The show will also be judged by tougher standards this year as, according to Hollywood insiders, the cost per episode rises from $1 million to $4 million, most of which is salary. Money is a topic McCormack enters into cautiously. "These networks are making huge money from advertising off our shows," he says, "so you kind of want a little piece of that." As a result McCormack and co-stars Debra Messing, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally are hovering just outside of Friends territory. The actors on that NBC show make $1 million each per episode.
Unlike the cast of Friends, the Will & Grace foursome doesn't negotiate together and hasn't made an all-or-none pact. Three of them have Emmys, while Messing doesn't - but she's nominated again this year. There have been reports of creative differences on the set. Yet their chemistry is undeniable. "The first time Eric and I read together," says Messing, who plays Grace Adler, "it just was effortless. We laughed at each other genuinely; it was like it was play and not work. That's why I wanted to sign on and do the show. It was absolutely because of the chemistry with Eric."
In mid-August the cast of Will & Grace was back at work. The first order of business was to look at baby pictures. "I literally started crying when I saw the first picture of Eric holding his son," says Messing. "He is a born father, and just seeing them together is so beautiful. To use one of Eric's favourite words, it's 'gorgeous.' " So, as another season begins, Will Truman may still be looking for love, but Eric McCormack seems to have it all.
Maclean's September 23, 2002