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A multi-talented performer who excelled in numerous critically-acclaimed roles, actress Mare Winningham actually had her breakthrough as a would-be member of the famed Brat Pack in the coming-of-age teen drama, "St. Elmo's Fire" (1985). After gaining a following while performing onstage in high school, Winningham transitioned to the small screen for several memorable performances, including the epic miniseries, "The Thorn Birds" (ABC, 1983). But following her breakout with "St. Elmo's Fire," the actress was unable to capitalize on that movie's popularity, instead choosing to take offbeat roles that turned out to be a mixed bag of success and quality. She delivered a hailed performance in the nuclear apocalypse drama, "Miracle Mile" (1988), only to see that film relegated to cult status following box office failure. After a wasted effort in "Turner and Hooch" (1989), Winningham had a higher profile turn in Kevin Costner's version of "Wyatt Earp" (1994). The following year, however, she delivered one of her most praised performances in the bleak addiction drama, "Georgia" (1995), before winning an Emmy for the supporting role as the cancer-ridden wife of Alabama governor "George Wallace" (TNT, 1997)....
A multi-talented performer who excelled in numerous critically-acclaimed roles, actress Mare Winningham actually had her breakthrough as a would-be member of the famed Brat Pack in the coming-of-age teen drama, "St. Elmo's Fire" (1985). After gaining a following while performing onstage in high school, Winningham transitioned to the small screen for several memorable performances, including the epic miniseries, "The Thorn Birds" (ABC, 1983). But following her breakout with "St. Elmo's Fire," the actress was unable to capitalize on that movie's popularity, instead choosing to take offbeat roles that turned out to be a mixed bag of success and quality. She delivered a hailed performance in the nuclear apocalypse drama, "Miracle Mile" (1988), only to see that film relegated to cult status following box office failure. After a wasted effort in "Turner and Hooch" (1989), Winningham had a higher profile turn in Kevin Costner's version of "Wyatt Earp" (1994). The following year, however, she delivered one of her most praised performances in the bleak addiction drama, "Georgia" (1995), before winning an Emmy for the supporting role as the cancer-ridden wife of Alabama governor "George Wallace" (TNT, 1997). Her award-winning success with that film opened the doors to a host of attention-grabbing guest spots and feature roles that were finally deserving of Winningham's immense talents.
Born on May 16, 1959 in Phoenix, AZ, Winningham was raised in Northridge, CA; her father was the Chairman of the Department of Physical Education at California State University, Northridge, while her mother taught English at Monroe High School in nearby North Hills. She began performing at a young age, making her stage debut at 12 years old in a production of "Hansel and Gretel" with the Teenage Drama Workshop at CSUN. A few years later, Winningham spent two seasons performing with the Los Angeles Free Shakespeare Company while attending Chatsworth High School, where among her classmates were Kevin Spacey and Val Kilmer; the latter of whom she dated at the time. She made her television debut at 16, singing The Beatles' "Here, There and Everywhere" on an episode of "The Gong Show" (NBC/syndicated, 1976-1989). But she had a much bigger break when her senior class performance as Maria in "The Sound of Music" impressed Hollywood agent Meyer Mishkin, which led to earning her Screen Actor's Guild card for doing three lines on an episode of "James at 15" (NBC, 1977-78).
From there, Winningham quickly developed into a promising performer. She made her debut as a television series regular on the Western "The Young Pioneers" (ABC, 1978), only to find herself out of work when the show was canceled after three episodes. But Winningham made a favorable impression in the made-for-television movie, "Special Olympics/A Special Kind of Love" (CBS, 1978), and two years later won an Emmy Award for her delicately nuanced work as the free-spirited daughter of a tough wheat farmer (Dennis Weaver) who falls for a young man from back East (Kurt Russell) against her father's wishes in the stirring "Amber Waves" (ABC, 1980). An intense performer adept at conveying both tough rusticity and underlying sensitivity, she followed with a stunning performance in "Off the Minnesota Strip" (ABC, 1980), playing a teen prostitute in New York who returns to her small-town family. Also that year, Winningham made her feature debut in "One-Trick Pony" (1980), a drama about a struggling has-been singer (Paul Simon) trying to make his way back onto the charts. She next had a co-starring role opposite Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum in "Threshold" (1981), playing the first recipient of an artificial heart who becomes unhappy with the idea that she is not entirely human any longer.
With her career on the rise, Winningham began taking on roles in more higher-profile projects, like playing the independent-minded daughter of a woman (Rachel Ward) who enters into an illicit affair with a young, ambitious priest in "The Thorn Birds" (ABC, 1983), one of the highest-rated miniseries of all time. The following year, she portrayed Helen Keller in "Helen Keller: The Miracle Continues" (1984), before breaking out by joining the ensemble cast of "St. Elmo's Fire" (1985), which featured Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Ally Sheedy and Demi Moore, who were later dubbed the Brat Pack for appearing together in several teen coming-of-age movies. But Winningham was never included as a member, due to her return to television, where she received an Emmy Award nomination for her performance in the small screen movie, "Love is Never Silent" (NBC, 1985). Following an episode of the revamped "Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1985-89), she co-starred opposite Eric Roberts and Roseanna Arquette in the romantic comedy "Nobody's Fool" (1986) before returning to the small screen for "Eye on the Sparrow" (NBC, 1987), in which she joined Keith Carradine as one-half of a blind couple struggling to overcome discrimination while trying to adopt.
Having retreated into low budget and sometimes obscure films, Winningham was actually granted the freedom to choose more challenging projects, like playing a small part in the critically praised drama, "Shy People" (1987). She next co-starred in the nuclear disaster movie, "Miracle Mile" (1988), which was hailed by critics, but bombed at the box office. Still, Winningham earned an Independent Spirit Award nod for Best Supporting Actress, while the film went on to become a cult classic on video and cable. Meanwhile, she returned to the stage to star in a Los Angeles production of "Hurlyburly" (1988) opposite Sean Penn and Danny Aiello, before returning to the big screen for "Turner and Hooch" (1989), a misfire Tom Hanks comedy that vastly underutilized her talents. In the early 1990s, Winningham churned out a series of made-for-television movies like "Love and Lies" (ABC, 1990), "She Stood Alone" (NBC, 1991) and "Those Secrets" (ABC, 1992), before turning to music and releasing her first album, What Might Be (1992). She returned to high-profile movies playing Mattie Blaylock, the laudanum-addicted companion of Kevin Costner's titular "Wyatt Earp" (1994).
Comfortable in just about any genre or medium, Winningham had one of her best roles as a successful folk-rock singer coping with her sister's jealousy and addictions in "Georgia" (1995), a performance that earned her a Best Supporting Actress win at the Independent Spirit Awards. Two years later, she had one of her greatest triumphs with "George Wallace" (TNT, 1997), in which she played the cancer-ridden first wife of the titular Alabama governor (Gary Sinise), who came to national attention for proudly declaring "segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever." The challenging role of playing the wife of a segregationist whose cancer was kept hidden from her earned Winningham an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie. After basking in her Emmy glory, she had a four-episode arc as an emotionally unstable doctor who becomes obsessed with Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) on "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009) which she followed with a co-starring role opposite Felicity Huffman in "Snap Decision" (Lifetime, 2001), a fact-based drama about two best friends who are torn asunder following accusations of child pornography.
Continuing to focus almost exclusively on television, Winningham was part of the cast on the short-lived David E. Kelley drama, "The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire" (CBS, 2003), before delivering an acclaimed guest starring performance on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ), which earned her an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. In 2006, she also landing a recurring role on "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC, 2005- ), playing the stepmother of Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), only to have her character killed off at the end of the season. After releasing her third album, Refuge Rock Sublime (2007), Winningham returned to film with a supporting role in "Swing Vote"(2008), a comedy-drama about a presidential election that hinges on the vote of an apathetic middle-aged man (Kevin Costner). She next played the stepmother whose son (Tobey Maguire) is believed to be killed in Iraq, leading his slack brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) to fall in love with his wife (Natalie Portman) in the Odyssey-inspired "Brothers" (2009). Back on the small screen, Winningham had a supporting role in HBO's remake of the classic 1945 drama which earned Joan Crawford a Best Actress Oscar, "Mildred Pierce" (2010), herself earning an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie. She found herself competing in the same category against co-stars Melissa Leo and Evan Rachel Wood.
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"Winningham and ["Georgia"] costar Jennifer Jason Leigh have been friends since their days at a summer camp in Northridge, CA. Winningham, then 17, serenaded her campers, occaisonally tossing in an original. 'Jennifer would say, 'Who wrote that?' And--totally red--I'd say 'Well, I did.'
'Jennifer wrote home about her,' explains Leigh's mother (and later "Georgia" scriptwriter) Barbara Turner. 'Voice from God was something she said. She never stopped saying it, actually." --From Entertainment Weekly, December 8, 1995.
"In her early 20s, Ms. Winningham looked young enough to portray adolescents without strain. 'I wanted to dig into those teen-age years when you really think that every day is the one that matters the most, when you wear your heart on your sleeves just by virtue of your hormones. . . . But I was glad to be just that much older, so I could have some objectivity about that period in my life." --From "She Can Act. And She Can Sing, Too" in The New York Times, December 3, 1995.
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