New TV drama and Broadway hit for Mary McCormack

May 28, 2008 7:52:12 AM PDT
Mary McCormack is not just another attractive blond actress - she's a smart actress. Smart enough to illuminate characters who, for whatever reason, don't make their attractiveness the most important thing. And maybe aren't even aware of it. Their minds are focused elsewhere. Like counseling the president of the United States about security matters (on "The West Wing") or managing chaotic married life with hubby Howard Stern (in McCormack's first feature, "Private Parts").

"Sensible" is how McCormack sums up such women, and she mines them for authentic, rich portrayals. McCormack is an actress with more to offer than gloss.

But now a hearty new crime drama, "In Plain Sight," gives her license to be a little flashier. Not as outrageous as her Tony-nominated German stewardess in the Broadway revival "Boeing-Boeing," but a departure from sensible all the same.

In this USA series (premiering Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT), she stars as Mary Shannon, a U.S. marshal in the federal witness protection program who relocates secret witnesses (some of them criminals, some of them innocents) into a new life in the Albuquerque, N.M., area, where the series takes place.

Shannon is tough, peevish and prone to sarcasm. She bickers with her fellow marshal and pal, whose given name is, aptly, Marshall (played by Frederick Weller).

She is "one of the angriest, most controlling, most toxic women I've ever encountered," a gangster in her custody complains. "And I work for a female assassin!"

Meanwhile, crashing at her home are her loopy mother (Lesley Ann Warren) and party-girl sister (Nichole Hiltz), who add to her emotional disarray.

Mary Shannon would not be described as sensible. "This role is different," McCormack, 39, agrees. "There's a lot more comedy than most things I've done. And it's action-y, which I've always wanted to do. I'm sort of built for action, and I've never really had the opportunity."

When she read the pilot script, the character seemed tailor-made. The character was already named Mary and hailed from New Jersey, as does Mary McCormack (along with her actor-brother Will McCormack, by the way, who appeared in FX's "Dirt").

"In Plain Sight" creator David Maples "didn't write a superhero," says McCormack. "Instead, he wrote someone who's flawed and real. One of my favorite details: He made her cheap. I just love that she's cheap - it's SO unattractive!"

Another revealing detail: In a bold attempt to impose some control on her frenetic life, Mary keeps a things-to-do pad suction-cupped to her car's dashboard.

"I'm a list-keeper, too," McCormack confides. "Look at this." And from her handbag she produces a college composition book with page after crinkly page inscribed with subsequently crossed-out things to do. Crowding the margins are secondary lists, like the guests for an upcoming party, and the answers she's preparing for a magazine Q-and-A.

Tucked into the notebook is a sheet of photo-booth snapshots of her husband (director-producer Michael Morris) and their daughters, ages 1 and 3, mugging for the camera.

Could it be that McCormack doesn't know there are hand-held, electronic gizmos that can digitally store all that stuff? "Oh, I HAVE a BlackBerry," she says. "But I need to feel things being written down on paper, or I won't do them."

Happily, McCormack has had plenty to do since her series' 12 episodes wrapped last December. A month ago, she opened on Broadway in a hit revival of the 1960s farce "Boeing-Boeing," the dizzy tale of a high-flying bachelor and three stewardesses, each of whom thinks she's his one-and-only.

There's plenty of action when, thanks to a screw-up in airline scheduling, all three "fiancees" crash at their boyfriend's love nest the same day.

Stars of "Boeing-Boeing" include Bradley Whitford as the bachelor, Christine Baranski as his cranky French housekeeper and, as the girlfriends, Gina Gershon (the Italian babe); former "Crossing Jordan" regular Kathryn Hahn (the American); and McCormack, whose performance as the German is bursting with physicality and overflowing with Teutonic theatrics in her skintight uniform and towering blond wig.

An impressive part of her performance: She carries off her antics while perched in high heels. "Oh, women are used to that," says McCormack with a no-big-deal shake of her head. "I can do almost anything in heels. I did the whole season of 'In Plain Sight' in high-heeled boots - running, tackling people. I can do anything in heels and, now that I have kids, do anything one-handed."

What she plans to do June 15: attend the Tony Awards. "I get to GO!" she announces with a laugh. "It's thrilling. It's crazy!" But it's not hard to imagine even more than that happening. Like, McCormack winning a Tony. A single-handed victory.

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EDITOR'S NOTE - Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)