Not many child stars go on to enjoy long, successful careers in show business – and fewer still have earned a prestigious Academy Award nomination before they turned 18. Patty McCormack has achieved both. The actress, who made her first film appearance in 1951 and went on to star in THE BAD SEED (’56, for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress as the murderous Rhoda at age 11); THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (’60) and THE YOUNG RUNAWAYS (’68), continues to work in Hollywood and shows no indication of slowing down.
I had the pleasure of speaking with McCormack recently about some of these titles and more, including the delightful film KATHY O’ ('58) in which she plays a famous child star – an apt springboard for a discussion about growing up on screen and transitioning into more mature roles over her incredibly long, accomplished career.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
I was watching KATHY O’ last night, and I really enjoyed it. In that movie they talk about your blonde pigtail braids as a trademark, and I realized it kind of was; you had that hairstyle in THE BAD SEED and ALL MINE TO GIVE (’57), too. Do you know how that style came about, or was it something you did that caught on?
Patty McCormack: It seems to be! I believe I even had them early on in Mama, which was an old live TV show that was a weekly event. I don't know how that [trademark] happened. I think it just happened because of THE BAD SEED – I think it was the hairdo that I went in with or they just decided on. When you see the original artwork on William March’s book, there’s a very long face drawing of Rhoda, his Rhoda, and there were braids in it. I don't know if they were looped or what, but that could have been it – or I honestly don't remember if it was chosen by my mom because it was easy, but it stuck!
I loved KATHY O’ because I got to live the dream. I loved the notion of them cutting my hair off – except it was a wig that they cut. After a while it felt like I didn't want to look like an older person with braids – you have to get rid of them eventually. As soon as I could, I wanted hair that was like, in that era, a page boy or something like that, where it landed on your shoulder. But I carried that long hair for a long time. And then you know how you revert back to certain hairdos years later?
They come back in style.
PM: Yes, they come back, but now I have shortish hair, and I'm growing it one length. So I got over the braids – just in the nick of time!
Circling back to Rhoda, you originated the role on Broadway before the film version, so you obviously had a lot of practice and familiarity with the part before you took it to the screen. Since she's such a chilling character, how did you get into that mindset at age nine, especially when you had to play the part multiple times a week?
PM: I always go back to the source, and the source was the director, Reginald Denham. He was so good with directing me. He made it fun, because I learned when I'd get an audience reaction on a face I’d make or something, I'd look forward to doing that again – you know, that kind of joy.
He made it so clear and simple, and his point of view was that Rhoda was always right. I know I've said this before, but it's the truth. No matter what anybody says, Rhoda is correct, and anything she wants, she feels entitled to – not using that word ‘entitled’ – but I really wasn't thinking of myself as a bad person, or especially not a murderer. I just thought it was their fault, which is classic, I guess. I had to kill him [the little boy] because he was so mean. So I think that was how I learned to be that character. I was aware of the murders – people were dead because of me, that I knew – but somehow it wasn't disturbing to my mind. If you take a look at it knowing that, you see it. I'm not coming from some sort of evil place, I don't think.
You were nominated for an Oscar for THE BAD SEED, which is amazing; it's a true testament to your talents, of course, but it’s also such a big accolade to have at such a young age. Do you remember there being any pressure on you for your next role?
PM: Well, the role was so odd for a kid to be so noticed, in that era anyway. I can't think of any jobs I didn't get after that that somebody else got, you know? What happened, though, was that each year I grew, and so I just experienced the typical kid actor dilemma which is going from category to category and establishing yourself in that category and learning how to be in that category. I did do something on Playhouse 90 – I did a few PLAYHOUSE 90s back then – and I did a lot of television –
You played Helen Keller [in the original 1957 Playhouse 90 teleplay “The Miracle Worker”].
PM: That's what I was going to say! That was after THE BAD SEED. But mostly, as far as movies went, there was KATHY O’ and a few here and there and at different levels of development. I was always aware that it had been a while since I worked, that I felt, but I didn't think business, like “What will I follow up that with?” I didn't have that kind of mentality, and I really don't think my mother did either, so it just sort of went the way it went.
As you mentioned too, you were still growing up. So, you’re a child, then a teenager, then young adult. You probably wouldn’t be thinking about the business part of it.
PM: No, it's so strange. It's not an easy transition, and as you know famous people go through really hard things. You don't get to sit and relax in a certain mode for too long because before you know it you're in the next one. And then you go through your ‘ugly period’ in front of everybody, which is horrible.
The movie that you mentioned TCM is going to air, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, when I see the headshots from that I just think, “Aw, I looked uncomfortable!” I could see it even in my body. I felt like I was at the awkward time – you know, part of me was getting bigger, developing – and that hairdo they gave me didn't help; it was still the braids but wrapped up.
I want to ask you about that transition. Did you find anything difficult or surprising about navigating Hollywood and growing up on screen?
PM: The most difficult part, honestly, as a person growing up – I think at the time I always say Sandra Dee was the person we all looked to. She was just so beautiful, and no one else looked like that – maybe Carol Lynley a little bit – but the bar was set very high. With that, you’re insecure anyways because you’re at that age, and more than anything you don't want to be different. I think that's true for a lot of kids. So the maturing, that part of development, was difficult when I look back. You don't have the confidence that you had as a little kid when you don't think about anything. You become all self-conscious about how you look, if you're thin enough, if you’re pretty enough, if your hair looks nice. It's a little bit of an adjustment to get through all that and go back to what you like to do, which is to pretend, and take the focus off what you look like or who you look like or any of that stuff. I don't know if other kid actors had the same experience, but usually people grow out of a look that made them known – most of us anyway, not all of us.
I know when you left Hollywood you went back to Brooklyn and finished high school there. What was that experience like for you?
PM: Well, I took my real name back, and I was going to the high school that my mother and older sister went to, so I was really excited. This is going to sound so weird, but it was almost like playing a part – I was playing the part of a high school student. My real name is Russo, so I was Patty Russo. The experience was really kind of shocking, because I think they expected me to be very conceited, and so I had to hide in the cafeteria in the early days, because it was Brooklyn and they were pretty tough – they were on me! But I made a best friend who helped me navigate through it, and it turned into a nice experience finally. I was glad to have had that.
Then I came back out here [Los Angeles], and I stayed with a friend of my mother's family for a while. I wound up leaving Utrecht [her Brooklyn high school] – it’s a long story – but I did a soap opera in between while I was going to Utrecht, and that was kind of tricky because they weren't flexible like California was. In California they were used to kid actors, and in New York at that time, they really weren't. Then when I came out here, I went back to finish high school at Hollywood Professional and got my diploma that way. But I'm so glad I got to go back to Brooklyn. I'm pleased about that.
It sounds like you had a pretty grounded childhood, especially in attending a regular high school. Do you think that helped how you adjusted when you returned to the film industry?
PM: It was a little bit too grounded, I think! I came from a really good family. I never thought that I was a big deal, and they [her mom and dad] made sure of that. So, coming back to the industry after, I really didn't know the ropes. People handled all that before – the only thing I knew was what I did, and so some things maybe didn't get handled so well, but I learned on my feet when I came back out here. Then I married my childhood boyfriend and we had our children, and I kept working.
Yes, you’ve worked steadily since then.
PM: I did work a lot! It’s true. Nothing on the level of nominations, but I was a journeyman, I like to say.
You've spent six decades in the industry, which is really astounding, especially since you started as a child. I read an interview from 1974 that featured a humorous quote from you that I’d like to share. You said that you lamented that you never got the guy in movies and just once you wanted to “kiss the guys instead of kill them.”
PM: That is funny!
But throughout your career, you played Helen Keller, you played a career woman in THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (’70), you played Pat Nixon more recently in FROST/NIXON (’08), so you've had a lot of experience with different characters. Was there any genre or any type of character that you wish you could explore further?
PM: Well, I'll tell you the truth, it's actually seven decades from when I started, although if you want to make me younger, I don't mind! At this point in time, I'm so grateful when I work, because there could be nothing now, you know? I do enjoy what comes along. The only thing I never got to do, which I would have loved, was to have been in a habit – I would have loved to have played a nun in a habit.
PM: Isn’t it? It’s the Catholic school thing.
We’ll have to find you a role like that!
PM: I know, wouldn't that be fun? And it would be a nice way, in your later years, to go from a killer to a nun, you know? I think it would be a good idea.
Going in the right direction!
PM: Yes! But anyways, little things change here and there, and I sometimes do voiceovers, and I did something recently that I had never done, which was so much fun. Did you notice on Netflix a show called ARSENE LUPIN [working title for LUPIN]?
I haven’t heard of it, but I know there’s an old movie with the same name.
PM: Yes, this is a remake. It's in French, and I dubbed a French woman into English, and it was so much fun to do, to have someone else's face up there. I know some people watch foreign movies and they say, “Oh it's so unfair to dub the other actors,” and I probably wouldn't love it if somebody dubbed me either, but I had such a ball doing it. So, if you catch that show, you'll see somewhere in there I'm speaking English for a French woman.
I wanted to talk about two of your more recent roles. I know you starred in MOMMY in the 1990s, kind of a grown-up Rhoda, and you played a psychiatrist in the Lifetime remake of THE BAD SEED in 2018. This story has been filmed a few times; what do you think resonates with people, and how did it feel going back to that character and story but from different perspectives?
PM: Right. Well, to be honest, the Rob Lowe production [for Lifetime] was really a totally different story. There was no mom – he was the mom character – so the writing was really different.
There were two MOMMY movies: MOMMY (’95) and MOMMY’S DAY (’97). Those were written by a writer who lives in Muscatine, Iowa: Max Allan Collins. This is a long time ago now, but it was fun to grow her up, you know, physically. I talked to you about how that is the strange thing about transitioning, and it was so enjoyable to do that. It really was a journey for me internally.
There was also something about shaking hands with that, because in my day, it was never a good thing to have something so long ago be talked about all the time. I got that impression by other people's opinions, not my own, and as time went on, the world changed and people started knowing actors’ work from 20 years ago. So, the appreciation for that old work came back, and I learned to feel good about it through other people's feelings about it. I do have such a different perspective on it now, and it's a character that was so special. That really changed my ability as to how I could hold it [the role].
It’s nice to be able to do that.
PM: Yes, it is.
I have one more question for you. I know we’re in a pandemic and many productions are halted, but do you have any upcoming appearances that I can share with fans to look out for?
PM: Aw, I wish! It's funny, I did some Hallmark Christmas movies. Well, I did one, and then last year I was supposed to do another one, and they cut our parts because of COVID. So, I'm rooting for [the next one], and I have a good feeling, you know, when we have our vaccinations. Also, a downside was that they shoot in Canada, and they have to bring you up there, and at that time you had to stay in 14 days.
A lot of rules!
PM: Yes, a lot of rules. So hopefully there will be a new one. I can't honestly say, but there's no reason there shouldn't be!
My dad loves the Hallmark Christmas movies, and I watch a lot of them because of him, so I'll be rooting for you and looking out for you!
PM: I know, there's so many. People have blankets and all these things! There are real hard-core fans – it's amazing.