What's a nice Catholic school doing in Howard Stern's "Private Parts"?

When Mary McCormack first considered playing Howard Stern’s wife in Private Parts, she had doubts. And who could blame her? For a stage-trained actress with a regular role on ABC’s acclaimed drama Murder One, making out with The Artist Formerly Known as Fartman on the big screen didn’t seem like the classiest move.

Over lunch with then-Murder One costar Stanley Tucci, she shared her concerns: ”I said, ‘Am I going to be blacklisted? I want to make careful choices for my film career,”’ McCormack recalls. ”Stanley looked at me and said, ‘Mary, do you have a film career?’ I was like, ‘Uh, no.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you go get one first, then worry about it?”’

Thanks to Parts‘ $14.6 million opening, McCormack now has one. As Stern’s eternally (some would say unbelievably) patient spouse, Alison, McCormack is the heart of the movie no one expected would have a heart. ”Many actresses wanted the part because there are few good roles for women,” says Stern, sounding like the feminists who often bash him. ”Most roles for women are looking up at the karate expert adoringly.” McCormack, 28, does a lot more than look up adoringly in Parts, playing Alison over almost 20 years as she experiences marriage, separation, a miscarriage, and motherhood.

Oddly enough, one thing McCormack doesn’t have to do in Stern’s movie is bare all. ”There were enough naked ladies running around,” says the actress, who does share a few discreet love scenes with Stern. While his famously prominent schnoz didn’t get in the way, his fake mustache was ”often in my mouth,” she remembers. ”I ate quite a bit of that thing.”

Stern has nothing but praise for his costar — at least his version of praise: ”Mary’s very sweet but sexually naive. So many girls are so trampy. The idea that she doesn’t know a lot about sex is refreshing.”

”He’s just teasing,” says McCormack coyly. ”What does he know?”

This much we do know about Mary Catherine McCormack: She was raised by her salesman father and therapist mother in Plainfield, N.J., a typical suburban childhood with ”tree climbing, all that stuff.” She attended Catholic school (”There were some scary nuns and some nice nuns, like everywhere you go”) and studied creative writing and painting at Connecticut’s Trinity College. Her lifelong hobby of theater turned serious when she moved to New York City and did the starving-stage-actress-slash-waitress routine for four years.

McCormack broke into movies with 1994’s Backfire!, a cheezoid spoof of Backdraft starring Robert Mitchum. ”I said, ‘This is my first time on camera, so be gentle,”’ McCormack says. ”And he said, ‘Ugh, it gets better than this, baby.”’ Small roles in the TV series The Wright Verdicts and Law & Order led to her Murder One audition.

Originally asked to read for the role that went to Grace Phillips (no longer on the show), McCormack lobbied for the juicier part of junior attorney Justine Appleton. Executive producer Steven Bochco demurred ”and then he saw the size of my hands, which are really large,” says McCormack. ”He said, ‘You should come back [and read] Appleton.

McCormack’s fingerprints were soon all over the role. She had only one complaint: No love interest. “Everyone was getting play left and right around me,” says McCormack. “Appleton was high and dry.” Her prayers were answered this season: McCormack’s unapologetically aggressive character has started a romance with the firm’s new head honcho, James Wyler (Anthony LaPaglia). “It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it,” says LaPaglia.

When the chronically low-rated Murder returns for a make-or-break six-hour miniseries beginning April 13, Appleton and Wyler’s affair will heat up. But if that’s not enough to save Murder from ABC’s ax, McCormack now has her film career to fall back on. Not that she’s getting used to movie stardom. “I spend more time riding in limos. It’s the bizarrest thing,” she says. “But soon, I’ll be back to the subway.”

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