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Also Known As: Jennifer Mary Butala Died:
Born: September 30, 1971 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Northridge, California, USA Profession: actor, dancer, grocery clerk, jewelry factory worker

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

An ebullient performer who earned fame with her role as a buoyant free-spirit on the popular sitcom "Dharma & Greg" (ABC, 1997-2002), actress Jenna Elfman broke through as a stand out cast member of the failed sitcom, "Townies" (ABC, 1996). A professional dancer who made the switch to acting in the early 1990s, Elfman made immediate strides on the small screen, landing guest starring roles on both dramas and sitcoms, including "Roseanne" (ABC, 1988-1997) and "NYPD Blue" (ABC, 1993-2005) before landing her first regular gig with "Townies." Though "Townies" was only on the air a short time, network executives were duly impressed with Elfman's talents and signed her to an exclusive deal to develop her own series. The result was "Dharma & Greg," which managed to stay on for five seasons while earning the actress three consecutive Emmy Award nominations. Once the show was canceled, however, Elfman's career hit a brief rough patch that included starring in the failed sitcom, "Courting Alex" (CBS, 2006), while publicly embarrassing herself after a heated argument with a Scientology critic that ignited a brief, but white-hot media firestorm. But Elfman continued to persevere, regaining her presence as a...

An ebullient performer who earned fame with her role as a buoyant free-spirit on the popular sitcom "Dharma & Greg" (ABC, 1997-2002), actress Jenna Elfman broke through as a stand out cast member of the failed sitcom, "Townies" (ABC, 1996). A professional dancer who made the switch to acting in the early 1990s, Elfman made immediate strides on the small screen, landing guest starring roles on both dramas and sitcoms, including "Roseanne" (ABC, 1988-1997) and "NYPD Blue" (ABC, 1993-2005) before landing her first regular gig with "Townies." Though "Townies" was only on the air a short time, network executives were duly impressed with Elfman's talents and signed her to an exclusive deal to develop her own series. The result was "Dharma & Greg," which managed to stay on for five seasons while earning the actress three consecutive Emmy Award nominations. Once the show was canceled, however, Elfman's career hit a brief rough patch that included starring in the failed sitcom, "Courting Alex" (CBS, 2006), while publicly embarrassing herself after a heated argument with a Scientology critic that ignited a brief, but white-hot media firestorm. But Elfman continued to persevere, regaining her presence as a charming sitcom actress who was often the best thing about an otherwise unremarkable show.

Born Jennifer Mary Butala on Sept. 30, 1971 in Northridge, CA, Elfman was raised in a Roman Catholic home by her father, Richard, an executive for Hughes Aircraft, and her mother, Susan, a homemaker. Though her parents had nothing to do with show business, her uncle, Tony Butala, was a singer in the popular 1960s male singing group, The Letterman. At five years old, Elfman began training as a dancer and by the time she was eight, she appeared in the music video for Depeche Mode's "Halo." Elfman continued to study both ballet and jazz dance at the Los Angeles County High School for the Performing Arts, where she honed her skills until graduating in 1989. But by this point, she was suffering from repeated ankle injuries that failed to improve, which forced her to make some tough decisions. Though she had moved on to college, attending California State University, Northridge, Elfman dropped out to pursue acting, which came about after having been chosen as a dancer for the 1989 Academy Awards show. So in 1991, she began to study acting with Milton Katselas at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, which led to some quick early roles, including a commercial for Sprite where she met future husband, actor Bodhi Elfman, the nephew of composer Danny Elfman.

Having done extensive commercial work before landing her guest starring roles, Elfman eventually made appearances during the 1995-96 season on popular shows of the day, including "Roseanne" (ABC, 1988-1997), "NYPD Blue" (ABC, 1993-2005) and "Murder One" (ABC, 1995-97). In 1996, she had a role as a drug counselor in the made-for-television movie "Her Last Chance" (NBC), which focused on a teenager being wrongly accused of murdering her boyfriend. The charismatic Elfman auspiciously landed a regular role as the boy-crazy Shannon, one of three young working-class waitresses on the Molly Ringwald sitcom, "Townies" (ABC, 1996-97). Though short-lived, "Townies" proved a big break for Elfman, who impressed the network executives with her scene-stealing turn and signed her own sitcom deal before the last episodes of "Townies" even aired. The deal led to the popular sitcom "Dharma & Greg" (ABC, 1997-2002), a playfully romantic chronicle of an odd couple's happy marriage. Elfman played Dharma, the impossibly energetic and effervescent daughter of hippies who marries blueblood lawyer Greg (Thomas Gibson) in an act of spontaneity, much to the chagrin of his ultra conservative parents. The likable sitcom was highly rated and Elfman quickly emerged as the show's comedic crux, with Gibson setting her up as her straight man. Elfman flourished on the series, winning much praise and publicity as well as receiving three Emmy Award nominations for the role.

Happy with her small screen success, Elfman sought to expand her career to the arena of film. Her first role came with a cameo in the acclaimed John Cusack black comedy, "Grosse Pointe Blank" (1997), which she followed with a starring role as an obnoxious graduate student opposite Richard Dreyfuss in the comedy misfire, "Krippendorf's Tribe" (1998). After an uncredited cameo in the high school graduation party-set comedy "Can't Hardly Wait" (1998) as a straight-shooting stripper in the guise of an angel who advises a love-struck teen (Ethan Embry), she voiced the owl in the remake of "Dr Dolittle," starring Eddie Murphy. The following year, Elfman made her feature debut in a starring role opposite Matthew McConaughey in director Ron Howard's "EDtv" (1999), a mildly amusing satirical look at media frenzy wrapped around a traditional romantic comedy. "EDtv" followed a man (McConaughey) who agrees to have his life videotaped for a cable television station, only to discover that he got more than he bargained for. Elfman played Ed's self-conscious love interest, a UPS worker who is uncomfortable with the constant camera presence.

Elfman was next featured in the marriage and midlife crisis-themed comedy bomb "Town and Country" (2000), alongside Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, followed by an appearance in the triangular romance "Keeping the Faith" (2000), Edward Norton's directorial debut which starred Norton and fellow actor-director Ben Stiller as a priest and a rabbi respectively who become rivals for Elfman's love. With "Dharma & Greg" closing up shop in 2002, Elfman turned to the stage, starring opposite Miguel Ferrer in the acclaimed production of "Visions and Lovers," staged by her acting teacher Milton Katselas. Elfman displayed a gift for dramatic acting on par with her comedic chops in the he said-she said, made-for-television movie, "Obsessed" (Lifetime, 2002), playing a seemingly clever and charming woman who insists that she had a torrid one-night stand with a prominent doctor (Sam Robards), only to have gradually unveiled facts shed new light on her story. She followed that with a high-profile turn as a Warner Brothers studio executive who makes the grievous error of firing Daffy Duck in the animated live-action hybrid, "Looney Tunes: Back In Action" (2003).

Elfman was next seen on a couple episodes of "Two and a Half Men" (CBS, 2003- ) as a seemingly crazy woman for whom Charlie falls, then provided the voice of Dorothy in "Clifford's Really Big Movie" (2004), an animated feature based on Norman Bridwell's series of children's books, Clifford the Big Red Dog. Elfman returned to regular series work with a new sitcom, "Courting Alex" (CBS, 2006), a midseason pickup in which she played a single, straight-laced Manhattan attorney trying to balance work and her relationships with the various men in her life. Also serving as producer, Elfman spent nearly two years developing the show and held considerable sway over all facets of production, including casting, set design and wardrobe in order to lay claim to what she felt was a unique and original show. Despite receiving mixed reviews, "Courting Alex" premiered to descent ratings and held a steady audience through the first part of 2006. But it was not enough to keep the show on the air - the network canceled "Courting Alex" after eight episodes, even though 13 had already gone through production.

Off-screen, Elfman made a bit of news that ran counter to her carefree onscreen persona when she allegedly confronted independent filmmaker, John Roecker, in the trendy Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz in June 2006. Apparently, Roecker was on his way to his car when he was approached by a shirtless man and a tall blonde woman, who turned out to be the Elfmans. At the time, Roecker was wearing a provocative T-shirt that had on the front a picture of Tom Cruise with the words "Scientology is Gay!" underneath, while on the back was a picture of John Travolta with the words "Very gay!" Having felt personally attacked by the incendiary shirt, Elfman and her husband proceeded to give the director a piece of their mind. For his part, Roecker gave some back, asking the couple about their beliefs, particularly in regards to Xenu, the alleged dictator of the Galactic Confederacy who brought people to Earth 75 million years ago, only to kill them all with hydrogen bombs. The confrontation escalated to the point where, according to Roecker, Elfman repeatedly asked, "What crimes have you committed?" and then screamed "Have you raped a baby?" The incident quickly made the Internet rounds via TMZ and eventually ignited a mainstream media firestorm at a time when Scientology was under severe public scrutiny following Tom Cruise's continuous public missteps - couch-jumping; questioning psychiatry; insulting Matt Lauer. Meanwhile, Elfman's spokesperson claimed that Roecker instigated the argument while the actress and her husband were out for a Sunday stroll. True or not, the damage to her reputation was done as the incident formally married her to Scientology and the perception its members were "out there."

Back in her comfort zone on the small screen, Elfman logged guest starring roles on episodes of "Brothers and Sisters" (ABC, 2006- ) and "My Name Is Earl" (Fox, 2005-09), in which she played a cheerleading camp owner who has a badly scarred face and defunct eye due to a badger accident she suffered while cheering in high school. Elfman returned to primetime on "Accidentally on Purpose" (CBS, 2009-2010), playing a thirty-something professional woman who becomes pregnant after a one-night stand with a man a decade her junior and who decides to have the baby while reconfiguring her approach to both life and career. Derided by many critics, the show only lasted one season. Meanwhile, she was determined to make as big a name for herself in film as she did on television by co-starring in the romantic comedy, "Love Hurts" (2009), appearing opposite Richard E. Grant and Carrie-Anne Moss, and appearing in a supporting role in the Justin Timberlake/Mila Kunis romantic comedy "Friends With Benefits" (2011).

Following a dramatic guest arc on "Damages" (TBS 2007-2012), Elfman returned to network TV in the sitcom "1600 Penn" (NBC 2012-13), co created by and starring Josh Gad; Elfman played Emily Nash Gilchrist, the politically impassioned wife of President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman). Though the series was decently reviewed, ratings were poor and it was pulled after 13 episodes. Elfman returned to TV the following season in the family sitcom "Growing Up Fisher" (NBC 2014- ), playing Joyce Fisher, the estranged wife of blind lawyer Mel Fisher (J.K. Simmons).

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
2.
 Love Hurts (2009)
3.
 Touched (2005)
4.
 Clifford's Really Big Movie (2004) Voice Of Dorothy
5.
 Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) Kate Houghton
6.
 Obsessed (2002) Ellena Roberts
7.
 Town & Country (2001) Auburn
8.
 Cyberworld 3D (2000) Voice Of Phig
9.
 Keeping the Faith (2000) Anna Reilly
10.
 Ed TV (1999) Shari
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Began dancing at age five
:
Studied ballet until age 16; switched to jazz dance
:
Danced in music videos, including one for a Depeche Mode song
:
Toured with the rock band ZZ Top as a "Legs" girl
1991:
Began studying acting with Milton Katselas
1991:
Appeared as a dancer on the annual Academy Awards telecast
1991:
Met future husband Bodhi Elfman auditioning for a Sprite ad
1995:
Early TV credit, guest appearance on the ABC drama, "The Monroes"
1996:
Made regular series debut in the short-lived ABC sitcom, "Townies"
1996:
TV-movie debut, "Her Last Chance" (NBC)
1997:
Made feature film debut in "Grosse Point Blank"
1997:
Cast opposite Thomas Gibson in the ABC sitcom, "Dharma & Greg"
1998:
Starred opposite Richard Dreyfuss in "Krippendorf's Tribe"
1999:
Acted on stage opposite Miguel Ferrer in "Visions and Lovers"; directed by Katselas
1999:
Co-starred with Matthew McConaughey in the Ron Howard-directed, "EDtv"
1999:
Co-hosted the telecast of the Emmy Awards with David Hyde Pierce
2001:
Had featured role in "Town & Country"
2004:
Guest-starred on two episodes of "Two and a Half Men," playing a woman who comes between Charlie and Alan
2006:
Cast as a single, workaholic attorney in the CBS sitcom, "Courting Alex"
2009:
Cast in the CBS sitcom, "Accidentally on Purpose"
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

California State University, Northridge: Northridge , California -
Beverly Hills Playhouse: Beverly Hills , California -
Los Angeles County High School for the Performing Arts: Los Angeles , California - 1989

Notes

"She's an honest actress and truly funny. She doesn't have to act funny; she instinctively knows where the humor is." --Chuck Lorre, producer of "Dharma & Greg" to Electronic Media, June 30, 1997

"She's just a breath of fresh air and as charming as she can be. She's as noticeable in this role as she went unnoticed in her role in 'Townies'. I think it's the role that will make her a breakout star." --Paul Schulman, dean of media buyers, in Electronic Media, June 30, 1997

"There's a lot of myself in the character--her freeness, her playfulness. Dharma does say things in front of people that I wouldn't, things that are inappropriate to her surroundings. But a lot of comedy comes out of those scenarios . . .I feel that . . . it comes off the screen how much fun I'm having." --Jenna Elfman in Electronic Media, June 30, 1997

"I think I'm good at being me and not worrying about how I come off. I'm pretty comfortable with who I am." --Elfman quoted in Daily News, July 23, 1997

"What I love about acting is that you can safely and securely get out of your system all those retarded things you've ever done in your life." --Jenna Elfman, quoted in Daily News, February 19, 1998

"I'm still a novice at this fame stuff. If someone is staring at me I immediately start thinking "Do I have a booger?'" --Elfman to the Chicago Sun-Times, February 22, 1998

"I had someone say to me once, 'Why are you so f---ing happy all the time?' Look, if people want to be cynical and try to put blackness on things and try to tear down yummy sensations, they can. I just want to create art and inspire others with my work and make this planet a little happier for people to live." --Jenna Elfman quoted in US, March 1999

On fame: "People in this business put so much weight and significance into it. And then you meet these big stars and you realize they're all idiots. I've found that big, famous people are like idiot dorks. If I know one thing, it's that everyone has their insecurities." --Elfman quoted in Chicago Sun-Times, March 7, 1999

Jenna Elfman on her role as Matthew McConaughey's UPS deliverywoman love interest in Ron Howard's "EDtv": "It's not too flattering. I had to be willing to be ugly and unwanted. I was never cool in high school and I kind of drew on that. I was very insecure about boys, so around Matthew I just acted like 'I'm not worthy'. It was a release not to have to try and look so good." --to TV Guide, March 13, 1999

Elfman on her biggest frustration: "I want people to start offering me some big dramatic parts. Sometimes people get locked in this spunky girl thing, like I do every week. I want the opportunity to do other things too." --quoted in Time Out New York, March 18-25, 1999

"She's a ray of sunshine. I know that sounds corny, but she just lights up a room with her joy." --"Dharma & Greg" co-creator Chuck Lorre on Elfman, quoted in Biography Magazine, May 1999

"What would you like to do in the future?

Elfman: A good variety of roles is probably the ideal because that's what I love to do. Of course, when you're doing comedy, comedy, comedy, you want to do drama. When you're doing drama, drama, drama, you want to do a comedy. I think I've watched other actresses do this because you sort of want to be taken seriously and be a `dramatic actress,' and then the movies never do well and whatever. So I had a glimpse of wanting to do more drama, of which I do want to do, but I'm not in a big rush right now. I want to just keep doing interesting characters; girls that have something different about them."

--from "Five Questions with Jenna Elfman", Associated Press, July 5, 2000.

Companions close complete companion listing

husband:
Bodhi Pine Elfman. Actor. Born c. 1969; met in 1991; moved in together; he proposed on Valentine's Day 1992; married c. 1994; nephew of composer Danny Elfman.

Family close complete family listing

grandmother:
Mary Ference Butala. Died at age 89 on November 10, 1999 from cancer.
father:
Richard Butala. Executive. Worked for Hughes Aircraft; married in the 1950s.
mother:
Susan Butala. Homemaker. Married in the 1950s.
uncle:
Tony Butala. Singer. Member of the popular 1960s male group The Letterman.
sister:
Debbie Butala. Older; born in December 1957.
brother:
Rick Butala. Older; born in March 1961.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

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