Sissy Spacek Takes Quitman Roots to Hollywood Fame and an Ordinary Life in the Hills of Virginia
Sissy Spacek left her roots in Quitman for New York in hoping for a singing career and found success there but became more famous as an actress staring in hit movies and winning top awards for about 40 years now.
Sissy Spacek’s memoir, My Extraordinary Ordinary Life premiers this month. It’s divided into four sections: Texas, New York, California, and Virginia. Texas, as in Quitman, Texas, is the biggest section, perhaps because in Sissy’s words, “All the things that are most important to me, I had before I left that little town.”
Born Mary Elizabeth Spacek on Christmas Day in 1949, her brothers began to call her “Sissy” and it stuck. She lived a simple, family-focused life with her parents, Edwin and Virginia (Gin) Spacek, and her two brothers Ed and Robbie in a small ranch house on the Winnsboro Highway, a quarter mile from the center of town. Growing up in Quitman, she gained the small-town roots that helped shape her life and career as she soared to Hollywood fame.
“My values were formed in a community where material possessions didn’t count for much, relationships were everything, and where waiting for something you wanted could actually be better than having it,” Sissy said. “...every experience, every story I heard as a child, every person who crossed my path, was like a gift that I would carry with me for the rest of my life.”
East Texas neighbors and fans will enjoy Sissy’s walk through memories of living in Quitman and the surrounding area. Always adventurous, she and her brothers and friends would ride their bikes or walk to find entertainment in places like the town dump and the county courthouse and never lacked for anything fun to do. She remembers longing for the first warm days of spring each year when she could take off her shoes and socks and go barefoot for the rest of the summer.
“The grass was soft and cool, and my feet were tender and white,” Sissy said. “Soon I would be walking up and down blistering hot oil roads that crisscrossed the town, leaving temporary footprints in the soft tar. By the end of summer my feet would be as tough as leather and stained black, and it was always a challenge to squeeze into my Sunday shoes.”
Sissy shares colorful history of Wood County in the book and details of what she remembers about Quitman from the bank and grocery store to the Westerner Cafe. The family drove to Mineola for “good” clothes at Hirsch’s store, and ate at El Chico’s in Tyler and her school class visited the salt mine in Grand Saline. She reminisces about people like the old men in overalls she called the Spit and Whittle Club and telephone operator Gaynelle Rushing that Sissy later used as a role model for her character in Raggedy Man.
Sissy’s interest in movies started in Quitman at the Gem Theater.
“I could lose all track of time and forget everything else for an hour or so, sunk down in the dark seats and pulled into the flickering world on the screen,” Sissy said. “I sometimes had a hard time focusing my attention on any one thing for a long time, but at the Gem I was completely absorbed.”
As a teenager Sissy remembers going to the Select, a bigger, more modern theater in Mineola. There she saw her favorite movie of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird.
“The fictional town of Maycomb reminds me so much of the Quitman I knew in the 1950s and ‘60s. And the way the story is observed through the eyes of a young girl resonates to my bones,” Sissy said.
Sissy was six years old when her parents took her and her brothers to the nearby community of Coke, Texas, to see a performance by the Coquettes.
“It was the day I decided to go into show business,” Sissy said. “As soon as I saw them on that stage, boys and girls twirling their batons, dressed up in shimmery silver cowboy outfits, hats, and white majorette boots, I knew show business was for me.”
Ulna McWhorter was a majorette at Quitman High School when she began to teach little Sissy Spacek how to twirl a baton.
“She was real quick to learn,” Ulna said. “She picked that twirling up really fast.”
Later Ulna and Sissy were both in a “guitar and singing group” together that performed folk music “like Peter, Paul, and Mary” and Ulna noticed Sissy’s talent and how much fun she was having and sees now that was a preview of things to come.
“It’s happened gradually and it’s exciting to have someone from your little town that’s done so well,” Ulna said.
In researching her book — written with Ghosts of Mississippi author Maryanne Vollers — Sissy and Maryanne made a trip to Quitman, researching history books in the library there and visiting with Ulna who helped in remembering details of life in Quitman when she and Sissy were growing up there.
“Sissy always gives credit to Quitman for all the little things that affect us and mold us as we are maturing,” Ulna said.
In My Extraordinary Ordinary Life Sissy engages readers with her warm and witty East Texas style and it is packed with intriguing anecdotes of her 17 years in Quitman.
After a stint as homecoming queen and high school graduation, Sissy headed to New York initially in hopes of being a successful singer/songwriter. She was given much support from her famous cousin Rip Torn and his famous wife Geraldine Page. The “poor country cousin” sponged in Broadway and soon her talent as an actor emerged. She studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute while also pursuing work as a model and singer.
According to her commentary on the DVD of Coal Miner’s Daughter that would come later, Sissy auditioned for Decca Records during this time. The label liked Sissy but told her she was too similar to another artist they had on their label by the name of Loretta Lynn.
Sissy eventually broke into film and one of her first roles was as Holly in the classic Badlands (1973). The art director on that film was Jack Fisk, whom she married in 1974. They ultimately collaborated on eight films and are still married today.
Sissy followed this landmark film with a star-making and Oscar-nominated performance in Carrie in which she played a humiliated prom queen who goes postal with her telekinesis.
From that film to her Academy Award-winning portrayal of country singer Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, in which she sang all of Lynn’s songs and earned a Grammy nomination, her acclaimed guest role on HBO’s Big Love, and her uproarious turns in The Help, she has enjoyed an enduring career in movies and television.
She and her husband live on a large horse ranch in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. They have two grown daughters, Madison and Schuyler.
“It looks like the whole family is destined to live the ‘art life,’” Sissy said.
Schuyler lives in Los Angeles and acts in films but her main gig these days is her music. She performed at South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin this year and has released two albums, The Good Stuff and recently, Blue Ribbon Winner currently available on iTunes and Amazon. Her pure sound and soulful lyrics grabbed the attention of producers and she has written and performed for numerous movies.
“I am in awe of her musical talent,” Sissy says. “One of the best moments of my life was performing with Schuyler and her band during a huge concert at Wolf Trap National Park in Virginia. But most often I am happy just to sit in the audience, watching her live out my old fantasies of being a rock star.”
Madison studied painting and sculpture at California Institute of the Arts and Virginia Commonweatlh University with a yearning to become an artist and filmmaker. She paints, writes, and directs short comedies. She lives in Texas near Sissy’s brother Ed and his family.
“I love her use of color and the way she captures the spirit of her subjects,” Sissy said. “Madison’s paintings are expressions of the world around her.”
Sissy Spacek’s career has spanned over 40 years and earned her a reputation as one of the most gifted and versatile actresses working today. She continues to work steadily as an actress, to sing a few songs, and has expanded her credits this year with My Extraordinary Ordinary Life. Readers will get to know her true East Texas spirit as she opens up about her personal, as well as professional, life that took her from her roots in Quitman, to moving to New York to begin a singing career, to her career in film working with such directors at Robert Altman, David Lynch, and Brian De Palma, and her decision to live about as far away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood as one could get, in the hills of Virginia.
Sissy will be in Texas this month as part of her book tour.
See her for a talk and signing in Dallas at 7 p.m. Monday, May 7 at Authors Live!, Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, and in Austin in conversation with musician Shawn Colvin at 6 p.m. Tuesday May 8 at the LBJ Presidential Library.
Sources: My Extraordinary Ordinary Life, Hyperion Publishing, IMDB, and Ulna McWhorter.