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Actress Stockard Channing's deceptively uneven film résumé belied the award-winning performer's exceptionally prolific and successful career on both stage and television. After a few brief appearances in feature films, Channing won what should have been the role of a lifetime opposite movie icons Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson in the Mike Nichols comedy "The Fortune" (1975). But when that film - as well as the next few she appeared in - were commercial busts, her nascent movie career was already in decline. That is, until Channing was cast in the role of the bad-girl with a heart-of-gold, Rizzo, in the smash musical "Grease" (1978). The rollercoaster ride continued, however, when two television series met ignominious ends, and feature efforts like "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh" (1979) were met with disdain. It was at this point that Channing returned to the stage and enjoyed a series of indisputable successes, with turns in "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" in 1985, for which she won a Tony Award. Channing was also nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the film "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993), an adaptation of the play she had starred in three years prior. More recognition came...
Actress Stockard Channing's deceptively uneven film résumé belied the award-winning performer's exceptionally prolific and successful career on both stage and television. After a few brief appearances in feature films, Channing won what should have been the role of a lifetime opposite movie icons Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson in the Mike Nichols comedy "The Fortune" (1975). But when that film - as well as the next few she appeared in - were commercial busts, her nascent movie career was already in decline. That is, until Channing was cast in the role of the bad-girl with a heart-of-gold, Rizzo, in the smash musical "Grease" (1978). The rollercoaster ride continued, however, when two television series met ignominious ends, and feature efforts like "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh" (1979) were met with disdain. It was at this point that Channing returned to the stage and enjoyed a series of indisputable successes, with turns in "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" in 1985, for which she won a Tony Award. Channing was also nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the film "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993), an adaptation of the play she had starred in three years prior. More recognition came Channing's way when she played First Lady Abigail Bartlet to Martin Sheen's U.S. President on the hit political drama "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999-2006). The actresses' initial appearance on the show proved so popular that producers quickly added her to the regular cast. It was a wise decision, as Channing went on to receive several Emmy nominations for the role, winning in 2002. As the decade drew to a close, Channing remained one of the most active - and most welcome - presences in film and on stage and television.
Born Susan William Antonia Stockard on Feb. 13, 1944 to parents Lester Napier Stockard and Mary Alice, she was raised on Manhattan's posh Upper East Side. In a tragic turn of events, the future Stockard Channing inherited substantial wealth at the age of 16 when her father died in 1950. After attending NYC's prestigious Chapin School and earning a high school diploma from the Madeira School in Virginia, the exceptionally intelligent youngster went on to graduate summa cum laude from Radcliffe College and, despite having no formal theater training, performed for the first time in a Harvard University production of "The Threepenny Opera." Known for her rebellious nature, Channing married the first of several husbands, Walter Channing, Jr., at the age of 20. After their divorce just a few years later, she would take the amalgamated name of Stockard Channing, using her maiden name and retaining his. While inhabiting the Boston theater community during the late 1960s, Channing came into contact with such future acting luminaries as Tommy Lee Jones, John Lithgow and James Woods. It was at this time that she joined the experimental Theatre Company of Boston, making her professional stage debut in "The Investigation" (1966). Channing later surfaced off-Broadway with the group's "Adaptation/Next" (1970), and soon after made her Broadway debut as an understudy in "Two Gentleman of Verona" (1971), her first collaboration with playwright John Guare, who adapted the Shakespeare text for the production.
Over the intervening years, Channing's career alternated between remarkable highs and embarrassing lows. Following minor feature roles in the George C. Scott black comedy "The Hospital" (1971) and the forgotten Barbara Streisand vehicle "Up the Sandbox" (1972), she made a notable impression with her TV movie debut as a formerly overweight woman who exacts revenge upon those who had spurned her in "The Girl Most Likely To " (ABC, 1973), a camp classic written by Joan Rivers. When Channing landed the choice role of a ditzy heiress being targeted by two scoundrels (Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson) in Mike Nichols' "The Fortune" (1975), it must have seemed like she had the acting world in the palm of her hand. Unfortunately, the film was a commercial failure, despite generally positive reviews. This, coupled with the follow-up disappointments of the horrendous comedy "The Big Bus" (1976) and a turn as a car thief in "Sweet Revenge" (1976), nearly killed her career before it had truly begun. A role in the Humphrey Bogart parody "The Cheap Detective" (1978) added another dud to her credits. However, the success that had thus far eluded Channing would finally arrive with her note-perfect take on the tough-talking Pink Lady, Betty Rizzo, in the film version of the musical "Grease" (1978). Although at age of 30 she - like many of her cast mates - may have been too old to realistically play a high school student, it did little to dull the luster of a musical that not only charmed audiences in 1978, but would enthrall fans for decades after. Although leads John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John received the majority of screen time and musical numbers, Channing wowed audiences when she sang the bittersweet number "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," adding a touch of gravitas to the goings-on after Rizzo falsely believes she is pregnant with ex-boyfriend Kenickie's (Jeff Conaway) baby. For all the immortality "Grease" brought her, Channing had her famous manager Allan Carr - the producer of "Grease" - to thank for insisting his client was the ideal Pink Lady.
With her stock temporarily on the rise, Channing signed on for not one, but two ill-fated television series - "Stockard Channing in Just Friends" (CBS, 1978-79) and the equally short-lived "The Stockard Channing Show" (CBS, 1979-1980). Then the inane basketball comedy feature "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh" (1979) sent that stock plummeting. Counseled by her agent to leave Hollywood and focus on theater work in New York, Channing finally came into her own with a number of highly acclaimed, award-winning stage performances. After returning to Broadway and replacing Lucie Arnaz as the female lead in "They're Playing Our Song" (1980-81), Channing landed the part of the hopelessly optimistic mother of a severely spastic child in a 1981 New Haven production of Peter Nichols' "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg." She reprised the role on Broadway in 1985, earning a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. Channing followed with another Tony-nominated performance in the Broadway revival of John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves" (1986) as Bunny, the tart-tongued mistress of the failed songwriter, Artie (John Mahoney). The hardworking actress also earned accolades for her impressive television credits, garnering an Emmy nomination for her work in the miniseries "Echoes in the Darkness" (CBS, 1987), and winning a CableACE Award for her role in the Harvey Fierstein-scripted "Tidy Endings" (HBO, 1988), adapted from his play of the same name.
Back on Broadway, Channing reteamed with playwright John Guare for his touchstone satire of the 1980s, "Six Degrees of Separation" (1990). Drawing from her own blueblood background, Channing won kudos - including an OBIE and yet another Tony nomination - for her remarkable performance as the trendy, superficial society matron Ouisa Kittredge, a part she also played on the production's London tour. Remaining on stage, Channing starred as Penny McKenzie in the Lincoln Center production of Guare's "Four Baboons Adoring the Sun" (1992). The awards continued to come her way when Channing won an Emmy as Best Guest Actress in a Drama (1993) for the nostalgic family-friendly series "Avonlea" (Disney Channel, 1989-1997). That same year, Channing's feature career received a major boost when she reprised the role of Ouisa in the film version of "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993), for which she snagged a Best Actress Oscar nomination. She then played a battered wife who gets a physical and emotional makeover from drag queen Patrick Swayze in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" (1995), and was the unfortunately named Ruby McNutt, an eye patch-sporting woman from Harvey Keitel's past, in "Smoke" (1995). As busy as she was, Channing still managed to find time for the theater, performing at Lincoln Center once again in Tom Stoppard's "Hapgood" (1995).
After a wordless cameo as a suicide whose death leads to the formation of "The First Wives Club" (1996), Channing went on to support Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer in "Up Close and Personal" (1996), in addition to appearing as the nefarious madam, Mrs. Allworthy, in "Moll Flanders" (1996). Still dividing her energies between Hollywood and Broadway, Channing played Regina in the Lincoln Center revival of Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes" (1997) before returning to the big screen opposite Paul Newman in Robert Benton's "Twilight" (1998), with a part written specifically with her in mind. That same year, she shared the screen with up-and-coming actresses Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman in the romantic comedy "Practical Magic" (1998). Barely pausing to catch her breathe, she received an Independent Spirit Award nomination as Best Supporting Female for her performance as Rachel Luckman, one-half of the infertile couple (with Peter Riegert) in "The Baby Dance" (1998), a Showtime movie based on the play by Jane Anderson. A return trip to the East Coast saw Channing portraying Eleanor of Aquitaine opposite Laurence Fishburne's King Henry II in the revival of James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter" (1999) at NYC's Roundabout Theatre. She was able to flex her considerable comedic muscles with her turn as a flamboyant stage actress in "Isn't She Great" (2000), a period comedy-drama about trash novel author Jacqueline Susann, starring Bette Midler.
In "The Business of Strangers" (2001) Channing starred as a hard-edged career woman caught in an increasingly dangerous game of one-upsmanship with a young, but equally competitive, rival (Julia Stiles). Channing's recurring role as First Lady Abby Bartlett to Martin Sheen's President Jed Bartlet on Aaron Sorkin's award-winning drama series "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999-2006) garnered the seasoned actress an abundance of well-earned praise, including a succession of Emmy nominations for supporting actress. She was victorious in 2002, the same year she also won the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie Emmy for her role in the true-life TV-movie "The Matthew Shepard Story" (NBC, 2002), playing the bereaved mother of openly gay college student Matthew Shepard, killed in an act of senseless violence and cruelty. With a performance as heartrending as it was inspiring, Channing adroitly portrayed the evolution of Judy Shepard from victimized mother to visionary peacemaker. For this performance, Channing also garnered a 2002 Screen Actors Guild award for the role. She also picked up less rewarding roles in features like the didactic schmaltz-fest "Life or Something Like It" (2002), starring Angelina Jolie. Surprisingly, television continued to supply her with meatier roles, such as her portrayal of Klara Hitler, the mother of the most infamous political figure of the 20th Century, in the miniseries "Hitler: The Rise of Evil" (CBS, 2003). Channing also took on a small role in the Merchant-Ivory production of the bestseller "Le Divorce" (2003), playing the mother of a pair of American expatriate sisters in Paris.
That same year, Channing also appeared in writer-director Woody Allen's lesser effort "Anything Else" (2003), followed by the period piece "Bright Young Things" (2004), in which she had a hilarious turn as Mrs. Melrose Ape in the story of young English high-society types partying their way through the lead up to WWII. The next year, she had a lively supporting role in the romantic comedy "Must Love Dogs" alongside Diane Lane and John Cusack. Channing tried once again to find television success with "Out of Practice" (CBS, 2005-06), as the matriarch of a dysfunctional family of doctors. While the series received critical nods, it was canceled before completing a single season, due to poor ratings. In the drama "3 Needles" (2006), Channing appeared in one of the film's three vignettes as the mother of an HIV-positive porn actor who hides his infection status in order to keep working and supporting the family. Back on Broadway, the unstoppable thespian appeared as Vera Simpson in the Roundabout Theater Company's revival of "Pal Joey" (2008). Channing later played the literary agent of Timothy Hutton's emotionally adrift playwright in the indie ensemble drama "Multiple Sarcasms" (2010).
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CAST: (feature film)
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"I can only act. I tried to give it up years ago but I couldn't do it. I can't do anything else, really. I wouldn't know what to do in an office. It's too late now, anyway. Most people, when they go to work, they go an office and sit there and do things I would have no idea of how to do. I can't type. I can't write a letter. I'm absolutely ignorant in many ways that everyubody takes for granted."---Stockard Channing, quoted in Movieline, 1991.
"What I love about the theater is the moment of absolute solitude you have in the dark. You're going to walk out of the dark into the light. And something's going to happen."---Stockard Channing, quoted in New York, October 22, 1990.
"I was brought up in a very conventional background to be the sort of woman who marries some guy with money and has the house and the kids in prep schools and lives this very protected life. On the other hand, I went off and joined the circus."---Channing quoted in The New York Times, March 6, 1994.
"I went to Texas to do 'Lily Dale' (Showtime, 1996), a Horton Foote movie ... Horton, whom I'd never met, had these understandable qualms about this northern person playing his grandmother. Well, I got down to Texas and this voice came out of me. Horton said, 'What's that voice? Where are you from?' It was a voice so far out of my past."
"'Lily Dale' put me back to that lost part of my childhood. My young mother and my old father would go off on business trips and send my sister Lesly and me down to Pensacola to stay with Aunt Lucy, born in the 1880s, who had raised my father. I was the kind of kid who imitated everybody, the family clown, the storyteller. 'Lily Dale' opened up some deep part of me that remembered those voices, and when that film was over, I didn't want to let that go." Then came 'Little Foxes', set inland of Mobile. "Now you have to know that Pensacola is just over the border from Mobile."---Stockard Channing to John Guare in New York, April 21, 1997.
"I never went to drama school or anything. I just started working on the stage and learning from experience. I don't think I was always very good. I didn't have mentors; I could have used a couple. But you have to respect every possible way that performers achieve what they achieve. All that matters is what's on the stage--telling the story, moving people, making them laugh. That's what the job is. I don't care if it's about the hat you wear, or if you have to drink a bottle of Scotch to do it. Everyone should have their own thing, and how they get there is their own problem to solve. I do think there is snobbery about this."---Stockard Channing quoted in InTheater, April 12, 1999.
"I'm not in competition with my past. I was never a star. I don't bring a lot of 'stuff' with me, which may be an advantage. I have others ... I don't worry about being a has-been because I've already been one."---Channing on her successful career, told TV Guide, March 15-22, 2002.
"Stockard never has a complaint, never makes excuses, never frets about age or shape or typecasting or anything of that nature. She's just a classic dame, a great broad."---"The West Wing" co-star Martin Sheen quoted in TV Guide, March 15-22, 2002.
On December 14, 2004, Stockard Channing was arrested for investigation of drunken driving after she tried to drive around a roadblock. She was charged with two misdemeanor counts of driving while under the influence of alcohol
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