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Published Oct. 16, 2005

Quite a pair, these two. The headline stars of Neil Simon's Rumors took different routes to the same destination, and they couldn't be happier.

One of them spent 16 years as host of a celebrity game show that has become a pop-culture icon. The other was a child actress who received an Oscar nomination for her performance as an 8-year-old murderer.

Peter Marshall and Patty McCormack will arrive for a weeklong run of Simon's door-slamming farce, which opens Tuesday at Festival Hall in Tampa.

The basic plot involves four couples who arrive at a house in Sneden's Landing, N.Y., for a 10th anniversary bash honoring their hosts. The fun begins when the guests learn that one of their hosts, a well-known New York politician, has tried to commit suicide. There ensues a kind of focused chaos, with multiple entrances, exits, wisecracks, garbled rumors and a bungled cover-up fueling the comedy.

Marshall and McCormack portray Lenny and Claire Ganz, who are the second couple to arrive, and who inevitably become part of the farcical deception.

Tampa begins a long stretch of one-week engagements for Rumors, which will stop in Dallas, San Antonio, New Orleans and points west.

Marshall, 59, has appeared in more than 120 performances of Rumors, which began its tour in November. "It's fun to do," Marshall says via long-distance, "but it's awfully hard."

Life on the road is not a new experience for Marshall, who plays the role created on Broadway by Ron Leibman - a "kind of frenetic accountant, crazed, brash and selfish."

"I've been touring all my life, since I was 15," he says. "It used to be more fun."

Marshall's show business career started early and has encompassed Broadway (Skyscraper), London (Bye Bye Birdie) and dinner theater (The Only Game in Town at the Showboat in Clearwater). The actor spent two years on the road and one year in New York with La Cage aux Folles, then another six months touring 42nd Street.

During his stay in Tampa, Marshall will do a stint every morning on the Home Shopping Network.

Not surprisingly, people still think of Marshall as host (1966-81) of TV's Hollywood Squares, which is well into its second life in syndication.

Although he earned five Emmys during his tenure as host, the show wasn't Marshall's only interest. While lighting up the Squares, Marshall spent 10 to 12 weeks a year performing nightclubs, and he always tried to make time for his other passion: Big Band music.

Marshall remarried recently, but he and his new bride haven't had the opportunity to spend time in their just-completed second home in Palm Springs, Calif. For Patty McCormack, now 44, Rumors was to be a light and easy change of pace. She didn't count on the continual exhaustion.

She says she's having a terrific time, "but matinee days (two

performances) are unbelievable," she says by telephone.

McCormack describes her character in Rumors as "a woman in love with jewelry." It is hardly the lone offbeat role in her career.

Born Patricia Russo in Brooklyn, N.Y., she got a fabulous start in show biz at age 4 when she posed for the now-legendary Coppertone ad depicting a dog tugging on the swimsuit of a rosy-cheeked blond girl.

As a performer, McCormack - it is her grandmother's maiden name - appeared in the 1956 film of Maxwell Anderson's The Bad Seed. Her performance as the little blond horror, Rhoda Penmark, earned her an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress.

"I wasn't just a cute kid," she says. "I think that's a harder thing to grow out of. What came naturally as a child can be lost in the muck of growing up."

Everyone remembers The Bad Seed, but McCormack's career extends much further. She originated the role of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker on TV's Playhouse 90, in which she appeared with Burl Ives, Teresa Wright and John Barrymore Jr. Her TV credits are extensive, including a recurring role on I Remember Mama, and (later) ABC's The Ropers and CBS' Dallas.

Rumors, she says, is just another stop along the trail. McCormack, who has a son and a daughter - ages 20 and 19, respectively - says she has never been away from her Los Angeles home for this long.

THEATER PREVIEW Rumors Playwright: Neil Simon Director: Peter Lawrence (original direction by Gene Saks) Cast: Peter Marshall, Patty McCormack, Gibby Brand, Kandis Chappell, Lynnda Ferguson, Nancy Hillner, Michael Minor, L. Kenneth Richardson, Reno Roop, Heather McRae Set design: Tony Straiges Lighting: Tharon Musser Costumes: Joseph G. Aulisi Sound: Tom Morse Presented Tuesday through Sunday by PTG Florida Inc. for the Tampa Bay Broadway Series, at Festival Hall in the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Performances at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $13.50 to $31. For credit card orders, call Ticketmaster at 287-8844 or the Performing Arts Center box office at 221-1045. A service charge is included on telephone orders. Box office hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday.