Canadian kid Eric McCormack kept his youthful acting dreams local because he was too ignorant and afraid to figure out how to get to Los Angeles or New York, where he could go for bigger roles. The theater-trained thespian began his career with Canada’s Stratford Festival and traveled to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, paying his dues after the festival closed at the end of each year. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that he moved further west, to Vancouver, to begin his television career in earnest. It all paid off, and McCormack now stars in two series — the “Will & Grace” revival on NBC and “Travelers” on Netflix — and will receive his star Sept. 13 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“I was doing plays in first grade, so for me, it was always that or nothing. I had no fallback position,” McCormack admits.
It was McCormack’s earliest experiences on stage that he feels best prepared him for longevity as an actor. He appeared in high school theater productions such as “Godspell” and “Pippin” and attended Ryerson U. School of Theatre in Toronto to further study his craft.
“Somebody can hate what I do on a series, but they can’t take away from me that I didn’t get there from some lottery,” he says. “Those 10 years in the theater meant something, and I got there because I earned it.”
That’s why McCormack still advises young actors to do theater today, despite so many new ways of getting into the business, from YouTube to social-media outreach.
“That’s where you can really hone your skills,” he says. “When I did ‘King Lear’ in 1985 I had no lines, but the guy who was playing King Lear was the biggest, most robust English actor of all time. I’m not going to carry on his style, but I got to watch him for 100 performances and take from that what I could and learn from that about how things were done. So, learn from great actors and learn from awful actors, and learn from great directors who will inspire you and from ones who don’t know what they’re doing. All of that is important.”
McCormack learned from a number of talents he saw and heard on-screen, as well. The first he recalls is Mel Blanc, who voiced all of the Looney Tunes and taught a 7-year-old McCormack that “there’s something to this” playing characters as an art form and a business. A few years later, he would also be inspired by Don Adams in “Get Smart,” as well as Woody Allen, both performers from whom he admits to borrowing a lot when it comes to comedic style.
McCormack booked his first television roles in the late-1980s but considers “Street Justice,” the 1992 cop series in which he starred opposite Carl Weathers as his big television break. “I was the least-likely cop show lead, I think, because I was still sort of getting the theater out of me — the tights and the dovelets. It was hard to be as macho as Carl,” he recalls with a laugh.
“I was the least likely cop show lead, I think, because I was still sort of getting the theater out of me.”
Subsequently, he landed roles in the made-for-TV Christmas classic “Borrowed Hearts,” as well as comedy and drama series alike, including “The Commish,” “Lonesome Dove,” “Dead Like Me,” “Trust Me,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and “Perception.”
It was “Will & Grace” that proved to be McCormack’s biggest break — one that came about in 1998, after he had already been a professional actor for more than a decade. The role of lawyer Will Truman garnered him four Emmy nominations (he won once), as well as eight consecutive seasons of employment on a top rated broadcast series. Now he’s seeing similar success in a revival that launched last fall and will be continuing for at least two more seasons.
McCormack never could have imagined he’d revisit the role two decades after it first launched him into sitcom stardom — nor that he would do so at a time when he was also juggling a drama. But being able to play different sides to his craft is what he considers “the biggest luxury of all.”
“I’m doing two series right now, and they couldn’t be more different, and a lot of people ask how I go back and forth, but that’s what I always used to do: I used to do a comedy in the afternoon and a tragedy at night, and that was the fun of it,” he says. “Turning on a dime like that was the point. It was taking off one costume and putting on another.”