Actor Eric McCormack recalls the role his high school drama teacher played in giving him the grit to step into the spotlight and become a star.
By Richard Ouzounian
Photos: Jens Kristian Balle
What every teacher dreams of is being in the right place at the right time for the right student. That’s what happened with Mort Paul and Eric McCormack.
McCormack, the Scarborough-born actor, is a household name in entertainment, thanks to the starring role he occupied on the wildly successful TV series Will and Grace for eight seasons.
But this wasn’t always the case. Flash back to 1977 and you’d see a reserved teenage McCormack walking the halls of a new school with as much on his mind as was likely in his backpack. The big question weighing on him? Should he pursue his dream of becoming a performer, or go into the teaching profession, as his parents had gently suggested?
Luckily, he didn’t have to navigate this path on his own. “Though I knew I wanted to be an actor, Mort gave me wings early on,” he says.
At the time, Paul was a 30-year-old Toronto native who had once faced the same kind of career decision in his teens as the young McCormack.
“I wanted to be a performer but I also thought I might want to go into medicine,” the former teacher recalls from his home in Nanaimo, B.C., where he and his wife have retired. “So I enrolled in a science program at the University of Toronto, got my teaching degree and became a teacher. I thought I’d become an actor after a few years.”
He never made the change. Paul was hired as a drama and science teacher at Sir John A. Macdonald Collegiate Institute in Scarborough; although he admits it was an odd combination, he appreciated the freedom it afforded him. It also gave him the chance to work with a number of talented artists at an early stage in their development — producers like David Furnish and Damon D’Oliveira.
But it’s safe to say that of all the skilled students Paul helped guide over the years, none would make quite the same mark on the world of show business as McCormack. And, the fascinating thing is that they might never have met if it hadn’t been for the instinct of another teacher.
“I was taking Grade 10 drama,” remembers the Hollywood star, “but in the first week, my teacher, Lois Kivesto, came up to me and said ‘I don’t think you should be in this class. You should be in Mr. Paul’s Grade 11 class.’”
The scene that would soon unfold once the two met was charged with comic energy that would define their relationship. “This guy came up to me and said ‘Call me Mort,’” recalls McCormack. “He looked like Groucho Marx — you know, with the glasses and the big moustache. It seemed that if you moved his glasses, the nose would come off too.”
Paul asked his students to prepare a monologue for an upcoming class, but McCormack was so green that he didn’t realize that his teacher was expecting a two- to three-minute speech at most.
“I took a Stephen Leacock story that I thought was funny and memorized the whole thing — it was 22 minutes long,” says McCormack.
"[Mort] taught me that the most different thing I can give the world is me, and that’s something every young actor should learn."
Almost four decades later, the memory of the scene still makes Paul chuckle. “This brash young kid comes into my classroom and does My Financial Career. All of it. After 10 minutes, I tried to stop Eric but he said, ‘I’m only halfway through.’ He was amazing.”
“What Eric did in many ways was set the tone for the rest of the students. Everyone upped their game immediately and, in short order, they became the class of my dreams.”
A genuine warmth fills the actor’s voice. “There was no right way to do things with Mort. There was no wrong way either. He was open to everyone’s talents.”
And when it came to McCormack, Paul had already identified a few of the talents that made this student unique. “He had such terrific presence and focus. He worked so hard that you just sat back and let him do it.”
Then it was time for the parent-teacher meeting. McCormack’s mother and father went to see Paul because they weren’t sure about which direction they should point their son.
“I didn’t discover this until years later,” says McCormack, “but they went to see Mort that night with a real agenda. They had always been supportive of me, totally, but they were also getting nervous. They knew how tough show business could be and they didn’t want me getting hurt or throwing my life away.”
Paul continues the story: When Eric’s mother wondered about her son’s acting career choice, “I put my hand on her shoulder and replied, ‘I think he wants to be a performer. Don’t stop him.’”
By the time the next school year rolled around, Paul had something special in mind for McCormack and his classmates. “Rather than doing the usual big cast musical,” says McCormack, “Mort decided to do Godspell with a cast of 10, with everybody else making the sets and running the box office.”
Although the drama teacher selected the show with this specific group in mind, he wasn’t sure who was best suited for each role, so he held individual auditions.
“I didn’t know a lot about musical theatre,” laughs McCormack, “so I came in with the Deep Purple song, ‘Child in Time.’ It was a really long song. I remember standing on-stage, with Mort sitting there — the only person in the 1,000-seat theatre.” “I gave it all I had and at the end of the audition he said, ‘Good!’ And, that was it. I didn’t know what this meant until the next day — when I found out that I was Jesus!”
It’s no surprise that a career-changing moment like that would still reverberate with McCormack after all these years, but it remained equally important to Paul. “I remember that whole period like it was yesterday. The class’s devotion to the project was incredible. The student council gave us a limited amount of money to do these shows and the rights for Godspell cost a lot.
“So the class decided to do an all-night dance-a-thon to raise money. They asked me to supervise and they went at it from 10 at night until 6 the next morning.”
One of the things Paul had taught his students was that it’s not just what you do, it’s how you sell it, and this class had learned that lesson well. McCormack laughs gleefully as he recalls what they did.
“You know how before the opening of a school show, the cast performs a couple of songs at assembly to raise interest and the audience usually yawns their way through it? Well, with Godspell, it was different. We started out with ‘Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord’ and then we went right into ‘Save the People,’ and man, we nailed it!” “I remember how we hit that last big note, the music stopped and the school went bananas — the way they never did before. It was Mort at his very best.” The show ended up being such a hit that they even took it down to Toronto’s Harbourfront for a weekend.”
Godspell wasn’t the last time Paul saw McCormack perform on stage. He happily showed up to see his former student star in The Music Man on Broadway and, more recently, in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Arts Club in Vancouver. “I’m proud of all my students,” says Paul. “What I essentially wanted to do was encourage that wonderful potential that everybody has, that so often gets quashed.”
McCormack took away an additional message from his years with Paul. “What I learned from Mort was that my instincts were good and that I should trust them. He taught me that the most different thing I can give the world is me, and that’s something every young actor should learn.”
In this department, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have successfully embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are Care, Respect, Trust and Integrity.