A versatile and multi-talented performer on film and in television, Emmy winner Mary Kay Place essayed free-thinking, often eccentric women in projects ranging from "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" (syndicated, 1976-77) and "The Big Chill" (1983) to "Being John Malkovich" (1999) and "Big Love" (HBO, 2006-11). Her knack for gentle comedy and singing caught the eye of both Tim Conway and Norman Lear, who provided her first breaks in the early 1970s; a brief stint as an Emmy-nominated writer preceded stardom as Loretta Haggers, would-be country singer on "Mary Hartman," leading to the recording of a successful album as Haggers in 1976. In the 1980s and 1990s, she was a capable character actress, switching deftly from comedy to drama while honing a second career as a TV director. "Big Love" gave her the choicest role of her later career as the Lady Macbeth-like wife of a polygamist leader; her chameleon qualities as an actress, as well as her impressive body of credits, ensured her steady work and admiration from her peers and fans.
Born Sept. 23, 1947 in Tulsa, OK, she was the daughter of Bradley Place, an art professor at the University of Tulsa, which later became her alma mater. Acting was a passion from a very young age, and after graduating from Tulsa with a degree in speech, she lit out for Los Angeles with just $300 and the number for the human resources department at CBS Studios. There, she landed a job as a receptionist, where she flailed in earnest to learn the intricacies of the job; her natural good cheer, however, caught the eye of comedian Tim Conway, who hired her as an assistant on his short-lived sketch comedy series, "The Tim Conway Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1970). After that show's demise, she became secretary to producer Norman Lear, who overheard her singing an original composition in the office and immediately cast her as a protest singer who serenades Archie Bunker with "If Communism Comes Knocking At Your Door, Don't Answer It" on "All in the Family" (CBS, 1971-1991). This led to more guest shots on CBS series like "M*A*S*H" (CBS, 1972-1983), though Place was working more as a writer during the early-'70s than an actress. She teamed with Linda Bloodworth-Thomas for three episodes of "M*A*S*H*;" one of which - 1974's "Hot Lips and Empty Arms" - was nominated for an Emmy. She also penned episodes of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (CBS, 1970-77) and "Phyllis" (CBS, 1975-77) along with Oscar-nominated actress-writer, Valerie Curtin.
Place's career bloomed in 1976 when she earned an Emmy Award as the eternally cheerful Loretta Haggers, best friend to Louise Lasser's title character on "Mary Hartman." An aspiring country singer, Loretta refused to let anything stand in the way of her dream, even after becoming paralyzed or giving birth to quintuplets. Place would later record Tonite! At the Capri Lounge Loretta Haggers, an entire album of country songs sung in character. An impressive showcase for her singing abilities, the LP yielded a Grammy nomination and a Top 10 hit, "Baby Boy," and featured backing vocals by no less than Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Anne Murray. A second album, 1977's Aimin' to Please, included a second Top 10 hit, "Something to Brag About," which saw Place duetting with Willie Nelson. Place continued to play Loretta after Lasser left "Hartman," but her recording success necessitated that the producers eliminate her character, which was done in a typically bizarre fashion: Loretta uttered an anti-Semitic comment on Dinah Shore's syndicated talk show "Dinah!" (1974-1980), which brought her career to a spectacular close.
The exposure afforded to her career by "Mary Hartman" led to her feature film debut in Hal Ashby's "Bound for Glory" (1976), a biopic of the pioneering folk singer Woody Guthrie. More film work soon followed, which frequently cast her as offbeat fringe types or Loretta-esque beacons of happiness; she was the burnt-out saloon singer who replaces Liza Minnelli in Martin Scorsese's "New York, New York" (1976), while "Private Benjamin" (1980) and "Modern Problems" (1981) traded on her comedy background. "The Big Chill" (1983) was perhaps her most significant movie role. As Meg, a former 1960s counterculture child-turned-corporate lawyer who pines for a child, Place received a terrific showcase for her pixyish charm, as well as a previously unseen knack for drama. She would divide her time between the genres for the better part of the next two decades.
In 1988, Place added directing to her growing list of credits by helming an episode of the short-lived sitcom, "Baby Boom" (NBC, 1988-89). She soon added more substantive programs, including "Friends" (NBC, 1994-2004) and "The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman" (IFC, 2006-07), on which she also played the mother of Laura Kightlinger's eponymous screenwriter. Television would be a regular showcase for Place, most notably as Camille Cherski, best friend and confidante to Bess Armstrong's Patty Chase on "My So-Called Life" (ABC, 1994-95) and society columnist Prue Giroux in "Tales of the City" (PBS, 1993) and "Further Tales of the City" (PBS, 2001). From 2001 to 2004, she had a recurring guest role on "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999-2006) as the U.S. Surgeon General, whose friendship with President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) is put to the test over controversial comments.
While many actresses found it difficult to land roles of merit as they entered their fourth and fifth decades, Place continued to work steadily in features throughout the 1980s and 1990s, frequently in rich character roles. Standard-issue mom parts like her housewife in the dreary comedy "Captain Ron" (1992) with Kurt Russell and Martin Short were balanced by films like Francis Ford Coppola's "The Rainmaker" (1997), which provided her the choice role of the mother of a terminally ill child who sues her insurance carrier after it denies them coverage. She also earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination in 1996 as a baby store clerk kidnapped by two foster children in "Manny & Lo," and impressed as a fiery evangelical who tries to prevent wild child Laura Dern from aborting her baby in "Citizen Ruth" (1996). Comedy was naturally never far behind; most notably in a small but amusing turn as a perpetually confused receptionist in "Being John Malkovich" (1999), and as Reese Witherspoon's kind-hearted trailer park mother in "Sweet Home Alabama" (2002). She shared a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination with her "Malkovich" castmates in 2000.
In 2006, Place joined the large ensemble cast of HBO's drama "Big Love" as Adaleen Grant, fourth wife and trusted confidante to polygamist sect leader Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton) and mother to Nicki Grant (Chl Sevigny). Though the role played on one of Place's acting strengths - limitless good cheer - Adaleen was also a formidable and even deadly figure who was not above sending Nicki to tamper with evidence against Roman and even placing a hit on her son, Alby (Matt Ross). After Roman's murder, Alby has his revenge on Adaleen by sending her to Nicki's first husband, the loathsome J.J. (Zeliko Ivanek), who impregnates Adaleen through a monstrous inbreeding program. However, Adaleen strikes back by setting fire to a fertility clinic with J.J. trapped inside. For her work on the eccentric series, Place was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in 2010.
Place was also briefly top-billed opposite Lily Tomlin in "12 Miles of Bad Road" (HBO, 2007), a dark comic series from her old writing partner, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason about a highly dysfunctional group of wealthy Texans. The cable network unceremoniously dumped the show after negative reviews, and she soon returned to "Big Love." Her versatile voice could also be heard in several features and TV series; most notably as Amy Adams' mother in "Julie & Julia" (2009) and as the Guard Witch in "Shrek Ever After" (2010).
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
First industry job, served as assistant to Tim Conway on the CBS variety series, "The Tim Conway Comedy Hour"
Co-wrote, with partner Linda Bloodworth, episodes of "M*A*S*H"
Made acting debut on an episode of "All in the Family" (CBS), sang her own composition, "When Communism Comes Knocking On Your Door, Don't Answer It"
Began writing for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"
Feature debut, a bit part in "Bound for Glory," the biopic of folk singer Woody Guthrie
Cast as would-be country and western star Loretta Haggers on Lear's syndicated nightly soap spoof, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman"; Wrote 75 songs for her character
First major supporting role in a feature, Martin Scorsese's "New York, New York"
Reprised the role of Loretta Haggers for "Forever Fernwood," a syndicated spin-off from "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman"
Played Meg, the single career woman who desperately craves motherhood in "The Big Chill"
Directed an episode of "Baby Boom" (NBC), the sitcom version of the feature
Directed an episode of HBO's "Dream On"
Co-starred as Martin Short's wife the the comedy, "Captain Ron"
Played a recurring role on the acclaimed ABC comedy-drama series, "My So-Called Life"
Had major role as a kidnapped shop clerk who becomes a mother figure to her kidnappers in "Manny & Lo"
Cast as the mother of a critically ill boy refused treatment by an insurance company in "John Grisham's The Rainmaker"
Portrayed the thrift-shop owning mom of a youthful photographer in John Waters' "Pecker"
Had featured role as a secretary with a hearing problem in "Being John Malkovich," scripted by Charlie Kaufman
Co-starred as a San Francisco socialite in "Armistead Maupin's Further Tales of the City" (Showtime)
Co-starred with Albert Brooks in the dark comedy, "My First Mister"; shown at Sundance (released theatrically in 2002)
Played Tim Robbins' etiquette-obsessed mother in "Human Nature," scripted by Charlie Kaufman (released theatrically in USA in 2002)
Cast as Reese Witherspoon's mother in the romantic comedy "Sweet Home Alabama"
Featured in the coming-of-age drama "Evergreen"
Cast in the ensemble "Nine Lives"; Rodrigo García directs a series of vignettes, offering glimpses into the lives of nine women
Cast in a recurring role in HBO's "Big Love" playing the mother of (Chloë Sevigny's character) Nikki; earned an Emmy (2010) nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress In A Drama Series
Co-starred in Steve Buscemi's "Lonesome Jim"
Co-starred with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in the comedy, "It's Complicated"