Eric McCormack channelled his theatrical training into a spirited tribute to the Stratford Festival as the Will and Grace star was honoured by the stage company he credits for helping prime him for future stardom.
McCormack returned to his hometown of Toronto for a glittering gala at the Four Seasons Hotel Monday night where he received the Stratford Festival's Legacy Award.
The award-winning actor was a member of the festival's acting company from 1985 to 1989, when he appeared in 17 productions including Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Henry V.
The actor catapulted to international fame with his Emmy-winning turn as lawyer Will Truman on Will and Grace, and is in the midst of filming the reboot of the American sitcom. He is also a producer, director and star on the sci-fi series Travelers.
But on an evening celebrating both McCormack and Stratford, he had nothing but praise for the role the famed festival played in propelling him from stage to screen and beyond.
"The strange thing is doing classical repertory theatre doesn't necessarily prepare you for sitcoms or television; but what it does prepare you for is a life of fighting uphill," McCormack said in a brief interview ahead of the presentation.
'Doing classical repertory theatre doesn't necessarily prepare you for sitcoms or television; but what it does prepare you for is a life of fighting uphill.' - Eric McCormack
"I can do 1,000 auditions and never get anything, but the one thing they can never take away from me is I have five years at the Stratford Festival. It gives you a foundation of artistry that is always there."
McCormack launched his acting career in Canadian theatre, performing at Stratford and across Canada, including stints with the Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Theatre New Brunswick, the Citadel Theatre, and Canadian Stage.
His stage success extended outside of Canada to the U.S., where he starred in the title role of The Music Man in 2001 on Broadway, and opposite stage and screen legends James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury in the Tony-nominated The Best Man.
After an introduction by his longtime friend, actor and playwright Michael Healey, McCormack eschewed the podium for his acceptance speech. Instead, he opted to take the mic and paced buoyantly about the stage, speaking with great enthusiasm, passion and humour about memorable moments during his stint at Stratford.
McCormack spoke of seeing the late Stratford legend Douglas Campbell perform as King Lear. He also recalled serving as a understudy for Colm Feore, and poked playful fun at the veteran actor as he described and demonstrated the dramatic fashion in which Feore bows to laughs from the assembled guests.
'At the Stratford Festival I was never scared'
In a speech laden with teasing and self-deprecating moments, McCormack took a slightly more reflective tone towards the conclusion where he mused about following in the footsteps of other acting titans who previously received the Legacy honour.
"As excited as I was to receive this award, I was freaked out by the name of it because ... I understand what the legacy of Maggie Smith is, or Gordon Pinsent, or Chris Plummer, or Bill Shatner," McCormack said.
"I played a few small roles a really long time ago. So I have to ask myself: 'What is my legacy?' And I'd like to think that it's a legacy of youth, of the hope, and the drive and that crazy combination of ambition and naivete that makes young people thrive and grow and learn in this business.
"There's a lot of things in this world that scare me now more than ever. But at the Stratford Festival I was never scared," he added.
"I wasn't scared to try things, to learn from other people, to make mistakes, to fall flat on my face and fail because I felt safe, and I felt nurtured. And when I left, I felt ready and I felt respected — and that is something no L.A. casting director could ever take away from me."