A stint of much needed rain was falling outside The Whitefire Theatre when a petite woman ducked inside the lobby. She was wearing a bright pink shirt under her coat that popped her piercing blue eyes. The same blue eyes that helped her win the role as Rhoda Penmark in the 1956 classic film, The Bad Seed. As she threw her bags down on the chair she said, “Sorry honey, before we start I have to go to the restroom.”
I was thinking I was meeting, I don’t know, like Ann-Margret or something. This petite woman who was shuffling off to the restroom had been the youngest Oscar nominee ever. She held the record for six years until Mary Badham was nominated for To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962. She had worked with an endless list of legends: Orsen Welles, Clint Eastwood, Peter Fonda, Burt Lancaster, William Shatner, Ron Howard — really the list goes on and on.
When she returned from the loo, this petite woman sat down and looked at me with those blue eyes. I was taken to someplace else. I remembered being on the Cote d’ Azur. She looked right at me and I saw a little girl who was at home, safe in the theatre.
Patricia Ellen Russo was born into a middle class family in Brooklyn and stumbled into her showbiz life. “My aunt was real outgoing and said to my mother that we should go to one of those baby things where you win a modeling contract.” Well, Patty’s mother took her and after a year of speech therapy and changing this little Italian girl’s last name to McCormack, Patty was ready to try her hand at show business. “This woman that was helping with my lisp knew some people who knew some people and eventually I got an audition. It was for this Broadway play. Well, I got it. I was six,” McCormack says.
Two short years later, Patty was an old pro. “When I got The Bad Seed I was eight and did eight shows a week for a year. Then we made the movie and which has snowballed into all the rest”, McCormack says. “I just loved it. The smell of the script fresh off the mimeograph, the number two pencils, getting reactions from the audience. It all just made sense to me. It still does.”
Now, with those same blue eyes, that little girl is a petite woman with a lifetime of experience that she so courageously continues to explore. “I have been very fortunate to play the little girl bouncing the ball in the park, the ingenue, the wife, the divorce’, the stoic woman and now I play the grandma,” McCormack says. “This job is the same in every decade. It’s just pretending with all of your heart.”
McCormack still has her childlike innocence in spades. She has so gracefully allowed her smile lines to grow which allows us a safe place to remember that little girl who stole so many hearts. “I love my work but I learned at a very young age that success is not everything”, McCormack says. “My favorite times throughout my career have been when I have put my personal life first. That’s when it feels like life is working for you, not you working for it.”
As McCormack enters her seventh decade, she has agreed to do a limited run of a new comedy written and produced by Howard Skora called Miserable with an Ocean View opening this month at The Whitefire Theatre. “Oh honey, it’s been ages since I’ve done a play. It’s funny, the longer you stay away from the stage the bigger the elephant gets”, McCormack squeals. “But I love this play and I get to build all sorts of interesting obstacles for myself.”
McCormack plays Rhoda Shapiro, a character with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. “The physical nature of the disease will be a challenge to create honestly on stage as will our schedule,” McCormack says. “We are only running Saturday nights for now but that’s what makes doing theatre in LA even more special! Keep ‘em wanting more!”