By Christophe Trahan, Executive Director of the Wood County Economic Development Commission
The clock struck midnight and Christmas Day, 1949 began. As eager children in Quitman, Texas were doing their best to stay awake and possibly catch a glimpse of Old Saint Nick, a star was being born—a child that would prove in her lifetime to be vivacious, unearthly in her talent, and unequivocally down-to-earth as she navigated an illustrious career in the American entertainment industry.
On Christmas Day, 1949—just three minutes after midnight—Mary Elizabeth Spacek made her earthly debut in the heart of Wood County.
Born to Edwin Arnold Spacek, Sr. and Virginia Frances, and endearingly nicknamed “Sissy” by her two older brothers, the young Ms. Spacek had what she herself has described as a childhood bordering on idyllic. In a 2012 interview with the Toronto Star, she remembered, “...I would lie in bed at night and hug myself, and thank God I lived in that house in that town with that family, and that I’d never want to go anywhere else in the world.”
Sissy’s father served as the Wood County Agricultural Extension Agent with Texas A&M University for almost 30 years, during which he also served as a president of the Quitman Chapter of Rotary International. Edwin also played key roles in the restoration of the historic Stinson House and the development of the four public lakes in Wood County.
As a result of her father’s work and good standing in the community, Sissy and all of her family are still looked upon fondly by residents of Quitman today. Even still, despite how enraptured in the perfection of her childhood environment as Sissy was, there were still moments during its course that served as glimpses of the path she would ultimately take in life—rifts in the veil of her true aspirations.
Finding Her Calling
One day, Sissy’s parents took her to see a local cheerleading group perform. As Sissy watched The Coquettes perform their intricate choreography in their glistening outfits, she began to form a new fascination with entertainment and show business. This fascination continued to blossom when, a few years later, Sissy went to see a film titled Come Blow Your Horn at the historic Select Theater in Mineola. She found herself particularly taken with the actor Tony Bill and even projected herself “mentally catapulting” onto the silver screen.
It wasn’t long before Sissy sought out ways to share the love of life that existed inside of her with others. Her first noted stage appearance was in a local talent show in her hometown where Sissy took the stage at the age of just six years old to sing and dance for her already adoring audience. Sissy's innate talent and joie de vivre followed her into her years as a young adult, where she was crowned homecoming queen while attending high school in Quitman.
Sissy’s cousin, Rip Torn, was already a successful actor in his own right. When Rip would make trips home to see his cousin and her family, Sissy would inundate him with every question she could devise regarding his career and every aspect of the life and experiences of a bona fide actor.
For all of these influences and epiphanies driving Ms. Spacek toward show business and away from the East Texas country paradise that she called home, it wasn’t until 1967—and a moment that would define her life forever—that she would take the plunge and pursue her dreams in earnest. Sissy’s brother, Robbie developed leukemia and lost his battle with the vicious cancer when he was only 18 years old. Sissy, who was 17 at the time, was heartbroken at the loss of her beloved brother. She credits the power of that experience as the impetus for her career and credits her mother, Virginia for being the foundation that brought her whole family through the loss. Ms. Spacek shared, “My mother made us accept it and mourn for Robbie and then come out the other side, where we would be better and more fearless because of it.”
Trading Wood County for the Big Apple
Sissy wasted no time in putting into action the lessons she learned as a result of the loss of her brother and moved to Manhattan to live with her cousin, Rip and his wife, Geraldine Page. While her initial efforts were not met with immediate success, this didn’t daunt Ms. Spacek in the slightest. Initially aspiring to a singing career under the name Rainbo, her music sales never really found a strong foothold, and she was dropped by her label.
Ms. Spacek also auditioned for Decca Records and was told that the label liked her, but she was too similar to another artist they had on their label at the time, so they passed. Sissy switched her focus to acting and enrolled at the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute while simultaneously working as a photographic model for Ford Models and as an extra at Andy Warhol’s Factory. This resilience, coupled with Ms. Spacek’s ability to transform herself into whatever she needed to be in the moment, would go on to serve her very well as her acting career began to develop.
Sissy floated from role to role during the early 1970s with moderate success, but her first truly prominent role came in the form of Brian De Palma’s movie Carrie, in which she played the titular character—a troubled high school senior with telekinetic powers. The film (which was coincidentally the first film adaptation of the first novel that Stephen King had ever published) solidified Sissy’s uncanny ability to morph into different iterations within the same role. Pauline Kael of the New Yorker wrote, “She shifts back and forth and sideways: a nasal, whining child; a chaste young beauty at the prom; and then a second transformation when her destructive impulses burst out and age her.” In a single role, Ms. Spacek was able to captivate, illicit sympathy, and terrify the audience with her chameleon-like performance.
Tuning in to Country Music
Carrie undoubtedly put Sissy’s talents on the map, but the role that she is perhaps best remembered for is her recreation of country singer Loretta Lynn in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter. Sissy was initially reticent to take on the role, despite Loretta’s insistence that she portray her. Sissy detailed, “I had never even met Loretta, but she was going on every TV show telling people I had to play her in the movie.” Sissy, equally as intent on defining her own path in her career, began to let the word out that she wasn’t on board with the concept of playing Lynn. All that changed when the two women finally met. Sissy stated “...from that second, I was dumbstruck by her personality and knew I had to make the film.”
Coal Miner’s Daughter became a resounding success for Sissy, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Lynn. She also received a nomination for a Grammy Award for her singing on the film’s soundtrack album. As a matter of serendipity, it was Loretta Lynn herself that Decca Records’ executives had referenced when they told Sissy that she was “too similar” to another singer on their label, and it was her portrayal of Lynn’s life that garnered her national acclaim. Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice wrote that Sissy was “simple and faithful as Lynn” and that she “made her [Lynn] exist” on the screen. Sissy was also praised by renowned film critic Roger Ebert who wrote, “With the same sort of magical chemistry she’s shown before... Spacek at 29 has the ability to appear to be almost any age on screen. Here, she ages from about 14 to somewhere in her 30s, always looks the age, and never seems to be wearing makeup.”
Sissy’s career in entertainment has continued to blossom over the years with her becoming the first actress to appear in a film nominated for Best Picture in each of the four most recent decades, starting with Coal Miner’s Daughter in 1980 and continuing with JFK in 1991, In the Bedroom in 2001, and The Help in 2011. Ms. Spacek has also had starring roles in a variety of television shows produced for top-of-the-line streaming services, such as Netflix (Bloodline), Hulu (Castle Rock), and Amazon Prime (Homecoming).
Ties to Family and Community
For all of her success, Sissy Spacek has maintained an immaculate family life throughout her career. She married production designer and art director Jack Fisk in 1974 after they met on the set of Badlands, and they went on to have two daughters together. Sissy’s eldest daughter, Schuyler Fisk, followed in her own footsteps to pursue a career in acting and singing.
Through everything—her life’s loves and losses, her move from her home of Quitman in East Texas to the bright lights of Manhattan—Sissy carried with her the lessons she learned from her family and community that were instilled in her as she matured. Authenticity is what she attributes her success to, now that she can reflect on her career from a place so far removed from its starting point—putting into practice the trait so often ascribed to closely-knit communities like Quitman.
When discussing the loss of her brother Robbie, Sissy was quoted saying, “That’s what I love about acting and love and drama and art. That humanness we all share. Right now, I’m telling you about the most meaningful event in my life, but it’s not a confession or a bid for sympathy. I’m simply saying to you, ‘This is who I am.’”