In the Wall Street Journal’s weekend Mansion section, Marc Myers interviewed the actor Dylan McDermott to construct the first-person narrative published under the headline “Sitcoms Taught Dylan McDermott Everything He Knew About Family.” McDermott had a stunted childhood. His father was an alcoholic; his mother was murdered when he was five. McDermott’s narrative account opens:
My parents married young. My mom was 15 and my dad was 18 when I was born in Waterbury, Conn. But their relationship didn’t last. A year and a half later they split up.
My mother, Diane, didn’t have the means to raise two kids. Neither did my father, Richard. So after they separated, my younger sister, Robin, and I went to live nearby with my mother’s mother, Avis. She was a “swamp Yankee” from Maine and as tough as nails. She worked two jobs—one in a factory making machine parts and the other as a caterer.
My birthname was Mark. I became a latchkey kid early and watched a ton of TV. Sitcoms weren’t just entertainment for me. They were educational. I learned everything about how families were supposed to behave. I mirrored what they did.
My grandmother was only in her 50s, but her tank was always empty. She had raised three kids on her own and then inherited my sister and me.
I doubt that McDermott expresses any political opinion that is out of step with the Hollywood crowd, but his praise for 60’s sitcoms stands out all by itself. I have never seen anyone render unironic praise to them for their educational value. You have to love it.
That caught me by surprise, but so did McDermott’s account of the life-saving role played by playwright Eve Ensler — she of The Vagina Monologues. Ensler became his father’s third wife when his father was 34, Ensler was 25, and McDermott was 17. Ensler entered McDermott’s life just in time:
Eve became my life. She had this fierceness. She always knew who she was. And she was the first person to see me for who I was. I loved making her laugh. One day, she decided I should be an actor. I didn’t know what that meant. I thought the people on TV were reality. I never made the leap that they were acting.
Eve gave me books to read, and Eugene O’Neill plays. She is proof that all you need is one person to believe in you.
I soon began studying acting at HB Studio in New York. After high school in Waterbury, I attended Fordham University. During my freshman year, I saw a sign that read, “Eugene O’Neill, Scene Study.” I walked into the class.
The head of the department was there, Dave Davis. He gave me a scene to read from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” When I said O’Neill’s words, I was finally home. The poetry and honesty of his dialogue and the drunken Irish brawling was a place I knew well. When his words were inserted into my mouth, my whole life made sense.
When I was 19, Eve adopted me. She knew I needed a mother and she was kind enough to do that and love me.
In 1986, I landed my first role in a movie, “Hamburger Hill.” Around this time, Eve miscarried. I changed my name to the baby’s name they had chosen—Dylan—out of my love for her.
And he remembers his mom:
I still have a deep connection to my mother, Diane. My first memory is shoplifting with her. She needed clothes for me. We got busted and were taken to the back office. She blamed me for taking the clothes. The store detective looked at me and let us go.
I wish she had made better choices and was still here. Unfortunately, family karma is a real thing. It’s up to us to break it.
Saved by Eve Ensler and Eugene O’Neill. What an improbably inspirational story.