By Michael A. Lipton
October 26, 1998 12:00 PM

When Eric McCormack signed on last January to play a gay attorney named Will Truman on NBC’s Will & Grace, he hesitated before breaking the news to his parents. “I was nervous about their reaction,” says McCormack. “And sure enough, the first thing my mother said was, ‘No, Eric! Not a lawyer!”

Relaxing in the backyard of his two-bedroom Hollywood Hills rental, McCormack grins mischievously. Back home in Toronto, his parents—Doris, a homemaker, and Keith, a retired financial analyst for Shell Oil—insist they’re “very proud” of their son the former Shakespearean actor. It’s obvious why. Will & Grace, in which McCormack, 35, and Debra Messing (Prey) play roommates (but not lovers), has charmed the critics. The Boston Globe called it “a smart new comedy that pays homage to pure friendship between the sexes.” The show is also TV’s version of My Best Friend’s Wedding and other trendy, gay man-straight woman buddy films.

On Will & Grace, the costar repartee (Will, watching ER: Honey, I don’t need your man. I got George Clooney. Grace: Sorry, babe, he doesn’t bat for your team. Will: Oh, yeah? He hasn’t seen me pitch) reflects the good chemistry between the actors themselves. But the most intriguing element is McCormack, who happens to be happily married to Janet Holden, 33, an assistant film director. So why cast a straight actor in a gay role? “First, he looked exactly how I pictured Will, with a great head of hair and a million-dollar smile,” says Max Mutchnick, the show’s executive producer, who is gay. “But he was also able to play gay without any affectation. It takes so much skill to do that. Even a gay actor could have trouble with that.”

Still, McCormack felt apprehensive last spring, when the Will & Grace pilot was shot. “My biggest fear,” he says, “was that the gay community wouldn’t accept me playing the part.”

He needn’t have worried. “Eric’s representation is fair and accurate,” says Scott Seomin of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. And even though Will’s love life is downplayed, Seomin isn’t complaining. “This is not The Gay Show,” he says. “It’s more, ‘He’s single, he’s an attorney, he’s got a friend named Grace. And, oh, by the way, he happens to be gay.’ ”

But is McCormack concerned that viewers will assume he’s something he’s not? “I’ve been acting practically since I was in kindergarten, so all my life people have been going, ‘Oh, he’s gay,’ ” says McCormack, the oldest of three siblings. Spurning sports for school plays, he was taunted by other kids. “By the time I got to high school [in Toronto] and was doing plays there, the taunts didn’t bother me anymore,” he says.

After graduating in 1982, McCormack enrolled at Toronto’s Ryerson Theatre School. Then, in the mid-’80s, he embarked on a four-year stint with the Stratford Festival, performing Shakespeare. By 1993 he was playing a cop on Street Justice,, a syndicated series shot in Canada.

In 1994, McCormack landed the meaty role of Col. Francis Clay Mosby, the sinister town baron on Lonesome Dove: The Series, a syndicated sequel to the miniseries shot in Calgary, Alta. There he and the show’s assistant director Janet Holden soon fell in love. But because she supervised the actors, they kept their affair a secret. Says Holden: “There was a little bit of mystery and danger, which was fun.” After one season, though, Holden moved on, and the couple proudly turned up arm-in-arm at the ’95 wrap party.

But while Holden remained in Canada, McCormack, who had relocated to L.A. in ’93, began landing TV movie roles like 1997’s Borrowed Hearts: A Holiday Romance, with Roma Downey. The courtship survived their commute, and they tied the knot in August 1997. Five months later, McCormack was offered the part of Will—and balked. “This wasn’t a gay issue,” he insists. “It was just fear of success. I thought, ‘What if I get pigeonholed?’ ”

For now, though, he has settled into the role (while turning up as a bad guy in Eddie Murphy’s new comedy Holy Man). “If after three seasons, the attractive gay lawyer can’t get a date, clearly we’re avoiding an issue,” he says. “I would love to get to the point where grandmothers in Kansas are saying, ‘I just hope that Will finds a nice man.’ We’re not a political show, but that would be a real coup.”

Michael A. Lipton

Craig Tomashoff in Los Angeles