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Ellen Burstyn

Ellen Burstyn


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Also Known As: Keri Flynn, Edna Rae Gillooly, Ellen Mcrae Died:
Born: December 7, 1932 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Detroit, Michigan, USA Profession: actor, dancer, soda jerk, short order cook, fashion coordinator, model


One of the most popular actresses in film and television during the 1970s, Ellen Burstyn wowed critics and audiences alike with her enormously skilled and sympathetic performances as strong and complex women who struggle against what seem like insurmountable challenges in such films as "The Last Picture Show" (1971), "The Exorcist" (1973) and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (1974), which earned her an Academy Award in 1975. Despite her considerable talent and skill in both heavy drama and comedies like "Same Time, Next Year" (1978), she found it difficult to find substantial parts in the '80s, so she divided her time between running the Actors Equity Association and roles in TV movies like "The People vs. Jean Harris" (1981), as well as top-billing her own short-lived sitcom, "The Ellen Burstyn Show" (ABC, 1986-87). The actress gradually returned to feature films in the 1990s, which culminated in a harrowing Academy Award-nominated turn as a woman in the grip of addiction in Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" (2000). Now back on every director's wish list, she followed this with a succession of well-regarded projects, including "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" (2002), "Mitch Alborn's...

One of the most popular actresses in film and television during the 1970s, Ellen Burstyn wowed critics and audiences alike with her enormously skilled and sympathetic performances as strong and complex women who struggle against what seem like insurmountable challenges in such films as "The Last Picture Show" (1971), "The Exorcist" (1973) and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (1974), which earned her an Academy Award in 1975. Despite her considerable talent and skill in both heavy drama and comedies like "Same Time, Next Year" (1978), she found it difficult to find substantial parts in the '80s, so she divided her time between running the Actors Equity Association and roles in TV movies like "The People vs. Jean Harris" (1981), as well as top-billing her own short-lived sitcom, "The Ellen Burstyn Show" (ABC, 1986-87). The actress gradually returned to feature films in the 1990s, which culminated in a harrowing Academy Award-nominated turn as a woman in the grip of addiction in Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" (2000). Now back on every director's wish list, she followed this with a succession of well-regarded projects, including "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" (2002), "Mitch Alborn's For One More Day" (2007) and "W." (2008) as Barbara Bush. She also penned a 2007 memoir, Lessons in Becoming Myself, which detailed her difficult upbringing and traumatic relationship with her third husband, actor and writer Neil Burstyn (aka Neil Nephew). Truly an inspiration, Burstyn proved that women of any age could not only land thoughtful, provocative roles, but dominate opposite their similarly aged male counterparts.

Born Edna Rae Gillooly in Detroit, MI on Dec. 7, 1932, Burstyn's parents were divorced when she was young, and she worked a number of day jobs before earning enough money to leave home at the age of 18. She relocated to Texas to work as a model before moving to Montreal and later New York City, where she was employed as a dancer on "The Jackie Gleason Show" (CBS, 1952-1970). Determined to become an actress, her perseverance paid off with her 1957 debut on Broadway in "Fair Game," for which she was billed as Ellen McRae. Countless roles in television series followed, including a regular stint on the daytime soap opera "The Doctors" (NBC, 1963-1982). Her feature debut came with a supporting turn in the wan comedy "Goodbye Charlie" (1964) with Tony Curtis. Despite the regular work, Burstyn was dissatisfied with her life and career; twice divorced and the single mother of an adopted son, she strove to improve her craft by studying with acclaimed teacher Lee Strasberg at the Actors' Studio in New York, but departed to Los Angeles soon after to be with her third husband, actor and writer Neil Burstyn.

In 1970, she gained excellent notices for her portrayal of Henry Miller's wife Mona in Joseph Strick's "Tropic of Cancer." The praise came at a critical point in Burstyn's acting career, as she had considered quitting the business prior to the film's release. She followed this with a stunning turn as a former small town glamour girl embittered over the loss of her status to her own daughter (Cybill Shepard) in Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show" (1971), which earned her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. Another magnetic turn as a brittle former beauty in Bob Rafelson's "The King of Marvin Gardens" (1972) solidified Burstyn's status as one of the strongest female talents of the early 1970s. She completed the trifecta with "The Exorcist" (1973), William Friedkin's horrific exploration of modern day demonic possession. As the desperate mother of the little girl (Linda Blair) under siege from unseen forces, Burstyn netted another pair of Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. During this period, Burstyn divorced Neil Burstyn, who had descended into a spiral of schizophrenia and violence that marred the core of their relationship. He would continue to harass her for over half a decade before committing suicide in 1978.

Burstyn soon discovered that with the onset of success also came the reality that her current career path was an exception to the Hollywood rule rather than the norm. She expressed disappointment with the range of roles being offered to her in the wake of her back-to-back Academy Award nominations, noting that the majority of the projects sought to cast her as either sexually provocative women or helpless victims. She eventually found the script for "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (1974), a drama about a divorced woman who relocates to a small town in an attempt to rebuild her life. Burstyn jumped at the chance to work on the project, and was initially offered a chance to direct the film by its studio, Warner Bros. She turned down the offer, citing her inexperience in that field, but acted as the film's unofficial executive producer. In that capacity, she was responsible for bringing director Martin Scorsese to the project at the behest of Francis Ford Coppola. Scorsese and Burstyn worked closely on the film – among their joint decisions was to feature as many women on the production team as possible – and the result was a quietly powerful film which offered a wholly realistic look at a woman trying to live her life on her own terms. For her performance, Burstyn was given the Academy Award in 1975. The film would inspire a comedic take on female empowerment in the form of the CBS sitcom "Alice" (1976-1985), starring Linda Lavin in the title role.

The following year, Burstyn returned to Broadway in Neil Simon's romantic comedy "Same Time Next Year," for which she earned a Tony Award. She also devoted considerable time to her spiritual growth; having begun studying with Sufi mystics, she purchased a home on the Hudson River in New York which doubled as a center for creative and mystical study. In 1975, she becomes a Sheraga, the equivalent of a minister in the Sufi faith, and taught a course that combined acting with spiritual enlightenment. Burstyn remained very active in features during this period, though her projects began to embrace more art-house tropes than Hollywood-minded material. She appeared in supporting roles in Paul Mazursky's gentle comedy "Harry and Tonto" (1974) and Alain Renais' fantastical drama "Providence" (1977). The film version of "Same Time Next Year" (1978) brought her back to the mainstream and a fourth Oscar nomination. Her next feature, "Resurrection" (1980), cast her as a woman who survives a traumatic accident only to discover that she has the ability to heal people. Though largely ignored during the year of its release, Burstyn netted her fifth Academy Award nomination for her performance.

The slight box-office returns for "Resurrection" and her next film, "Silence of the North" (1981), seemed to indicate that Burstyn's film career was on the wane. She wisely shifted her attention to television, where she was able to find more substantial work. "The People vs. Jean Harris" (1981) earned her Emmy and Golden Globe nominations as the heiress and accused murderer of Scarsdale Diet creator Herman Tarnower, while "Surviving" (1985) and "Pack of Lies" (1987) allowed her to explore the lives of average women in the grip of overwhelming circumstances – including a child's suicide and the possibility that one's neighbors were involved in illegal activities, respectively. Burstyn also essayed Mary Todd Lincoln in "Look Away" (1987) and kept an active hand in features like "Twice in a Lifetime" (1985) and "Dying Young" (1991), though none enjoyed the level of exposure as her best work from the early 1970s. In addition to her film and television career, Burstyn returned frequently to the stage; most notably on Broadway in "84 Charing Cross Road" (1982). The death of Lee Strasberg in 1982 added artistic director to her bustling resume when she and Al Pacino assumed the reigns of the Actors Studio. That same year, she was also named the first female president of Actors Equity, which served as a union for stage actors.

In 1986, Burstyn tackled a TV situation comedy with "The Ellen Burstyn Show," which found her playing a successful author who shares her home with her mother (Elaine Stritch) and daughter (Megan Mullaley). The show disappeared from ABC's lineup after a season, and Burstyn herself would later describe the experience as a failed experiment. She returned to a steady diet of TV-movies, though her feature appearances began to multiply with supporting roles – often as wise and supportive older women – in "The Cemetery Club" (1993), "How to Make an American Quilt" (1995) and "The Spitfire Grill" (1995). In 2000, Burstyn received her most challenging role since her seventies heyday with Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream." Based on the harrowing novel by Hubert Selby, Burstyn gave a brave and often terrifying performance as an elderly widow who undergoes the hell of prescription drug addiction while her son (Jared Leto) is experiencing his own turmoil with a heroin problem. The picture served as a powerful reminder of Burstyn's abilities, and she was richly rewarded with her sixth Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe nod as well.

Burstyn's profile increased substantially after the Oscar nomination for "Requiem" – she starred as the matriarch of a large Italian family on the short-lived drama "That's Life" (CBS, 2000-02) and reaped excellent reviews for her supporting roles in "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" (2002) and the TV adaptation of Mitch Alborn's "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" (2004). She also found herself at the center of controversy for her brief appearance in the HBO feature "Mrs. Harris" (2005). Her role, as an ex-lover of Dr. Tarnower's, consisted of just two lines of dialogue and 14 seconds of screen time, yet she received an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Public and media outcry over the nomination swirled for days until the ceremony itself, where Kelly McDonald claimed the trophy. For her part, Burstyn issued brief statements to the press that alternated between bemusement and outright disgust over the negative attention. The incident later served as ammunition for Emmy detractors, who claimed that the nominations were based more on name recognition than actual achievement.

Undaunted, Burstyn continued to appear as formidable women in a variety of projects. She was cast in the controversial NBC series "The Book of Daniel" (NBC, 2006) as a bishop involved with the married father of the title character (Aiden Quinn), and later appeared as a sympathetic doctor in "The Fountain" (2007), which reunited her with "Requiem" director Darren Aronofsky. That same year, Burstyn received a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for her turn in "Mitch Alborn's For One More Day" (2007) as the ghost of a mother forgotten by her wayward son (Michael Imperioli). The following year, she earned another Emmy nomination for her appearance on "Big Love" (HBO, 2006-2011) as the estranged mother of polygamist wife Jeanne Tripplehorn.

In 2007, Burstyn received critical praise for her autobiography, Lessons in Becoming Myself, which recounted the highs and lows of her acting career and personal life, including her late husband Neil Burstyn's descent into schizophrenia, which resulted in years of physical and emotional abuse, as well as her own spiritual adventures. She returned to the big screen the following year in a big way as yet another strong female – Barbara Bush, mother of the 43rd president, George W. Bush – in Oliver Stone's controversial biopic "W." (2008). Theater fans were delighted to see her also return to the New York stage that year in a production of "The Little Flower of East Orange" for director-actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Meanwhile, on the small screen, Burstyn received considerable acclaim for an episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ), which earned the actress an Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series in 2009.

Burstyn lent her comforting voice to the role of the Swan in a combination live-action and animated adaptation of Margery Williams’ classic children’s fable "The Velveteen Rabbit" (2009), and later appeared on screen with Hilary Duff and Melissa Leo in the coming-of-age drama "According to Greta" (2009). Showing no signs of slowing down, Burstyn next took center stage when she played a woman being romanced by a lonely elderly neighbor (Martin Landau) in the charming holiday romance "Lovely, Still" (2010), prior to transitioning back to team player as part of an impressive ensemble cast that included Colin Firth, Patricia Clarkson and Orlando Bloom in the small-town drama "Main Street" (2010). The revered actress once again found herself surrounded by a group of worthy performers – Ellen Barkin, Thomas Hayden Church and Kate Bosworth – in the dysfunctional family drama "Another Happy Day" (2011).

Burstyn took on an authoritative air when she played a nun in the inspirational based-on-fact collegiate sports drama "The Mighty Macs" (2011), which starred Carla Gugino as Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach Cathy Rush. She went on to deliver an endearing performance as the loving grandmother of a young man (Toby Regbo) struggling with his self-perception as an outsider in "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You" (2012). During that year, Burstyn appeared in two major miniseries, the USA Network government drama "Political Animals" and A&E's medical mystery "Coma." In the former, she played Margaret Barrish, an ex-Las Vegas dancer who also happens to be mother of the United States Secretary of State (Sigourney Weaver), and the memorable role led to her second Emmy win mere months before her 81st birthday. After co-starring in the family drama "Wish You Well" (2013), Burstyn returned to TV in an adaptation of the 1970s paperback best-seller "Flowers in the Attic" (2014) and a recurring role on Louis C.K.'s dark comedy "Louie" (FX 2010- ). She also appeared in the sports comedy "Draft Day" (2014) and the thriller "The Calling" (2014).


Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

 Custody (2017)
 Nostalgia (2017)
 Wiener-Dog (2016)
 Scout (2015)
 Custody (2015)
 Two Men In Town (2015)
 Interstellar (2014)
 Draft Day (2014)

Milestones close milestones

Acted in the short-lived Broadway production "Shimada"
Cast in the CBS TV-movie "Canal Street Brothel," about a family of women who ran a bordello out of their New Orleans home
Cast in the TV-movie "Mitch Albom's For One More Day" (ABC); earned a SAG nomination for Outstanding Female Actor in a Television Movie
Earned an Emmy nomination for her guest starring role on NBC's "Law & Order: SVU" as the bipolar estranged mother of Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni)
Gave an Oscar-nominated performance in "Resurrection"
Had lead in TV series pilot "The Big Brain" (CBS)
Moved to NYC
Offered a memorably performance as an aging beauty in "The King of Marvin Gardens" co-starring Jack Nicholson
Played a widow in "The Cemetary Club"
Played the mysterious subject of a town legend in the CBS movie "The Patron Saint of Liars"
Played the titular woman on the run from authorities with her grandchild in "Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love" (CBS)
Starred on the ABC Western series "Iron Horse" as a freight line operator; credited as Ellen McRae
Starred on Broadway as Sister Grace in "Sacrilege"
With Marsha Mason, starred as mothers whose teenage children fulfill a suicide pact in "Surviving" (ABC)
Appeared in own comedy series "The Ellen Burstyn Show" (ABC)
Cast in Showtime's "Our Fathers," an adaptation of David France's epic book about the sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church
Cast in the CBS series "That's Life" as the meddling mother of the central character (Heather Paige Kent)
Changed billing to Ellen Burstyn for "Alex in Wonderland"
Feature acting debut in "Goodbye, Charlie"; billed as Ellen McRae
Featured in "Grand Isle" (TNT), the TV-movie adaptation of Kate Chopin's <i>The Awakening</i>
Joined the Actors Studio
Played the owner of "The Spitfire Grill," a restaurant that serves as a troubled young woman's ticket to a new life
Reprised role in the film version of "Same Time, Next Year" opposite Alan Alda; earned fourth Oscar nomination
Starred in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"; also produced; hired then relatively unknown director Martin Scorsese to direct
Starred on Broadway in "84 Charing Cross Road"
Co-starred as the matriarch of a troubled family in the CBS TV-movie "Night Ride Home"
Named first female President of Actor's Equity Association (resigned in 1985)
Played a key role as Lilian in Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain"
Portrayed an elder Viviane 'Vivi' Abbott Walker in "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood"; based on the best-selling novel by Rebecca Wells
Stage directing debut, "Judgement"
Landed a recurring role on HBO's "Big Love," playing the mother of Polygamist wife Barbara Henrickson; earned an Emmy nomination in 2008 for Guest Actress in a Drama Series
Broadway debut in "Fair Game"
Cast in Stephen Adly Guirgis' "The Little Flower of East Orange" directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a joint production of LAByrinth Theater Company and the Public Theater
Cast in the ABC TV-movie "The Five People You Meet in Heaven"
Debut as a TV regular as a dancer on "The Jackie Gleason Show" (CBS); billed as Erica Dean
Earned Emmy nomination for her work in the fact-based NBC miniseries "The People vs. Jean Harris"
Played a woman addicted to diet pills who fantasizes about competing on a game show in Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem For a Dream"; received Best Actress Oscar nomination
Played a woman coming to terms with her grown son's batlle with AIDS in "Playing by Heart"
Portrayed former first lady Barbara Bush in Oliver Stone's controversial biopic "W."
Starred in the fact-based TV-movies "Into Thin Air" (CBS) and "Act of Vengeance" (HBO)
Succeeded Lee Strasberg as co-artistic director (with Al Pacino, who served 1982-84) of the Actors Studio
Succeeded Pauline Collins as the titular heroine in the one-person show "Shirley Valentine"
Cast opposite Colin Firth and Orlando Bloom in the small-town drama "Main Street"
Co-starred in the ensemble family drama "Another Happy Day"
Played the head of a futuristic rest home in A&E miniseries "Coma," based on 1978 film
Played the mother of a possessed young girl in "The Exorcist"; earned second Oscar nomination, this time as Best Actress
Starred in the TV-movie "Pack of Lies" (CBS), an adaptation of Hugh Whitmore's hit play about a London couple who allow British intelligence to use their home to spy on their longtime friends and neighbors; earned second Emmy nomination
Played Doctor Kate Bartok on NBC daytime drama "The Doctors"; credited as Ellen McRae
Starred on Broadway with Charles Grodin in "Same Time, Next Year"; won a Tony Award
Breakthrough screen performance, as Lois Farrow in "The Last Picture Show"; nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscar
Featured in "How to Make an American Quilt" as Finn's (Winona Ryder) grandmother and one of the women who share their coming-of-age stories with the aimless bride-to-be while crafting the titular gift
Earned an Emmy nomination for her role in "Mrs. Harris" (HBO); her nomination created controversy because her entire performance consisted of two lines of dialogue and a total of thirty-eight words, which resulted in fourteen seconds of screen time
Co-starred with Sigourney Weaver in USA Network miniseries "Political Animals"
Played the recurring role of Elizabeth Hale on "House of Cards"


Cass Technical High School: Detroit, Michigan -
AFI Conservatory: Los Angeles, California -
Center For Advanced Film Studies, American Film Institute: -
Actors Studio: New York, New York - 1968


"Acting feels like a congenital condition to me - it's in my genes." --Burstyn quoted in Halliwell's Filmgoer's and Video Viewer's Companion, Ninth Edition, 1988.

Received and honorary doctorate of fine arts from NYC's School of Visual Arts in 1983.

Received an honorary doctorate from Dowling College (1983).

Burstyn is an ordained cheraga (minister) in the Sufi Order in the West.

She occasionally teaches acting at the New School for Social Research, New York.

"I'm doing whatever I can to maintain my integrity as a performing artist. These aren't roles like at 'The Exorcist' stage of my career. But I can fulfill them as best I can.

It's unfortunate but our society is such that, for women in Hollywood, you get to a certain age and just fall off a cliff. But in my case, I refuse to die. I will hang on, by a little finger if necessary." --Ellen Burstyn quoted in New York Post, August 20, 1996.

Companions close complete companion listing

William C Alexander. Poet. Married in 1950; divorced in 1955.
Paul Roberts. Director. Second husband; married in 1957; divorced in 1959.
Neil Burstyn. Actor. Married in 1960; divorced in 1971.
William Friedkin. Director. Worked together on "The Exorcist" (1973); Burstyn claims they had an affair after filming was completed which Freidkin has denied.

Family close complete family listing

John Austin Gillooly. Building contractor.
Correine Gillooly.
Jefferson Burstyn. Adopted; born c. 1962; married.

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