Family & Companions
Film, television and stage actress Jean Smart first besotted viewers with her role as ditzy Southerner Charlene on the popular sitcom "Designing Women" (CBS, 1986-1993), but her biggest critical successes came well after her departure from the show in 1991, during which she far surpassed the successes of her slightly more flamboyant co-stars, Annie Potts, Dixie Carter and Delta Burke. Smart was a Tony Award-nominated Broadway performer, critically acclaimed for her comedy and classical dramatic performances, and earned an Independent Spirit Award for her supporting role in the art house drama "Guinevere" (1998). A Hollywood anomaly, Smart's career continued to heat up after the age of 50, when the in-demand TV guest star earned an Emmy win for her appearances on "Frasier" (NBC, 1993-2004) and a pair of nominations for portraying a memorably non-traditional First Lady on the gritty actioner "24" (Fox, 2001-10). Coming off her "24" success, the ever-versatile actress was again embraced by sitcom audiences for her outrageous supporting role opposite Christian Applegate on "Samantha Who?" (ABC, 2007-09) and impressed critics with her dramatic work as the no-nonsense governor of Hawaii on the hit reboot "Hawaii Five-O" (CBS, 2010- ), proving that, at least for this particular actress, the parts just kept coming with each passing year.
Jean Smart was born on Sept. 13, 1951, and raised in Seattle, WA. Growing up, Smart was a bit of ham and she and her sister used to put on plays for neighbors. But it was not until an encouraging high school teacher suggested she pursue acting that Smart took her knack for performance seriously. She was admitted to the drama program at the University of Washington and graduated with a BFA degree. She immediately found work with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, appearing in the bard's "Much Ado About Nothing" and the Eugene O'Neil dramas "Long Day's Journey into Night" and "Moon for the Misbegotten." After several seasons of success with regional theater she moved to New York City, making her stage debut as a terminally ill lesbian in "Last Summer at Bluefish Cove." The newcomer's performance earned a Drama Desk Award nomination. The following year, she was tapped to portray German actress and chanteuse Marlene Dietrich in "Piaf," a Broadway production about the life of legendary French singer Edith Piaf.
In Hollywood, "Piaf" was taped for air on Public Television and Smart stayed on after the production to see if she could break into television and film work. She quickly caught the attention of TV producers and was hired for recurring roles on "Teachers Only" (NBC, 1982) and "Reggie" (ABC, 1983), though each series was short-lived. The actress stayed busy with movies-of-the-week and TV guest spots until 1986, when she became a household name, thanks to the breakout success of the female-centric sitcom, "Designing Women." As Charlene (pronounced with a hard "Ch"), a country bumpkin with a savvy sense of the fashion business, Smart raised the Southern-fried character above the dumb-blonde stereotype into a genial den mother. The show was a great opportunity for Smart and the show's other stage-trained actresses, Annie Potts, Dixie Carter and Delta Burke, to really showcase their individual and unique acting chops, with well-written scripts that afforded a level of character development rarely found in the sitcom genre - especially for women. The show delivered solid ratings and turned Smart into a bona fide TV star, but after five years of playing the same ditzy character, the actress was ready to move on.
Prior to her final season on the show, Smart had returned to the stage in a pair of comedies "Laughing Wild" and "It Had to be You." Following her series farewell, she returned to New York and appeared in "End of the Day" with the renowned Playwrights Horizons. She appeared in several TV movies that year, memorably demonstrating her dramatic capabilities as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the CBS drama "Overkill" (1992) - a character actress Charlize Theron would portray on the big screen years later in "Monster" (2003) - and as a borderline mentally disabled woman struggling to hold her family together in "The Yarn Princess" (ABC, 1994). She went on to earn rave reviews for her dynamic lead in Scott McPherson's stage drama "Marvin's Room." Smart's big screen outings had not made much of an impression by that point in her career, but that began to change with 1995's "The Brady Bunch Movie" and Smart's hilarious supporting role as a sex-hungry neighbor with eyes for all the Brady boys. She was likewise outrageously vampy on "High Society" (CBS, 1995-96), a second attempt at series TV that found Smart as a bitchy, hard-drinking author in a show that ultimately came off as a warmed over, American version of "Absolutely Fabulous" and was cancelled after one season.
In New York, Smart took the stage again with Playwrights Horizons and earned universal praise for "Fit to be Tied," with The New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley singling out Smart's "beautifully timed performance that gives equal weight to her character's frivolity and to its gnawing moral conscience." Her well-established knack for playing large personalities harboring fragile inner demons led Peter Tolan to cast her as the Martha Stewart-like figure on his wickedly funny sitcom "Style & Substance" (CBS, 1998), which unfortunately failed to cultivate an audience. Smart went on to give a blistering performance as a brittle attorney whose teenage daughter is involved with a married man in the indie feature "Guinevere" (1998), written and directed by Audrey Wells. Although there was talk of a possible Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, the Academy unjustly overlooked her work, even though she did garner a nod from the Independent Spirit Awards. In a pair of successful family films, Smart enlivened the uneven "Snow Day" (2000), playing an overwrought mother with priorities askew, and "Disney's The Kid" (2000), as a successful anchorwoman who lends a sympathetic ear to Bruce Willis who is undergoing a mid-life crisis.
At the turn of the new millennium, Smart was arguably enjoying the greatest commercial and critical success of her career. She received her first Tony Award nomination for her hilarious performance in the Broadway revival of "The Man Who Came to Dinner." In the fall of 2000, she began a recurring role as a department supervisor on the police drama "The District" (CBS, 2000-04), in addition to making guest appearances on "Frasier" (NBC, 1993-2004). She won an Emmy Award for the former and a nomination for the latter. She voiced "mom" roles on animated series "The Oblongs" (The WB, 2000-01) and "Kim Possible" (Disney, 2002-07), as well as returned to features in the hit romance "Sweet Home Alabama" (2002), playing the small town barkeep mother of Josh Lucas whose ex (Reese Witherspoon) has left him in favor of a high-profile life in New York City. In the successful fish-out-of-water comedy "Bringing Down the House" (2003), Smart essayed the disgruntled ex-wife of a straight-laced, uptight attorney (Steve Martin) who gets involved with a prison escapee (Queen Latifah).
In 2004, Smart scored with supporting roles in quirky films "I Heart Huckabees" and particularly with "Garden State," where she was memorable as a bleached-blonde mom dating a Trekkie and former classmate of her 28-year-old live-in son. After a short run opposite John Goodman on the ill-fated sitcom "Center of the Universe" (CBS, 2004-05), Smart earned another round of critical applause for her title role in Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windemere's Fan" at the Williamstown Theater Festival. Hot on the heels of deliciously sending up Victorian High Society, Smart joined the cast of the Kiefer Sutherland actioner "24" (Fox, 2001-2010) as a pill-popping, cigarette-smoking First Lady of the United States. Her scene-stealing turn earned Emmy nominations in 2006 and 2007, and when her character left the show, Smart was snapped up by ABC to play the hilariously unlikable mother of an amnesia patient (Christina Applegate) in "Samantha Who?" (ABC, 2007-09), which made a strong debut and earned a People's Choice Award for Favorite New TV Comedy in 2008. The actress also earned a 2008 Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her work on the sitcom. It seemed the older Smart got, the more parts came her way, making her one of the most well-rounded, dependable actresses on either the big or small screen. Smart moved on to play Michael Cera's erratic mother in "Youth in Revolt" (2010), while on the small screen she portrayed the governor of Hawaii on the reboot of "Hawaii Five-O" (CBS, 2010- ). Following episodes of the long-running "Psych" (USA Network, 2006-14) and the short-lived "$h*! My Dad Says" (CBS, 2010-11), Smart was a ruthless and dirty district attorney who squares off against unorthodox defense attorney Harriet Korn (Kathy Bates) on "Harry's Law" (NBC, 2011-12), a role that earned her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series.
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Began acting career working with various regional theatre groups, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Made Off-Broadway debut in "Last Summer at Bluefish Cove"
Made Broadway debut as a young Marlene Dietrich in "Piaf"
Recreated role of Marlene in the PBS presentation of "Piaf"
Portrayed the title character's secretary in the short-lived ABC sitcom "Reggie"
Series debut on the short-lived NBC sitcom "Teachers Only"
Made film debut in "Flashpoint"
First major dramatic role was in the HBO drama series "Maximum Security"
Cast as the feather-brained Charlene Frazier on the CBS sitcom "Designing Women"; left series after five seasons
Played a research scientists in "Project X"
Acted on stage in Jon Robin Baitz's Off-Broadway play "The End of the Day"
Played serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the CBS TV-movie "Overkill"
Cast as the mother in the CBS TV remake of "The Yearling"
Cast opposite Mary Steenburgen in an LA stage production of "Marvin's Room"
Appeared in the CBS miniseries "Scarlett" as Sally Brewton, the cigar-chomping confidante of Rhett Butler
Delivered an amusing turn as the saucy next-door neighbor in "The Brady Bunch Movie"
Co-starred with Mary McDonnell in short-lived CBS sitcom "High Society"
Garnered praise for her Off-Broadway turn in Nicky Silver's comedy "Fit to Be Tied"
Returned to sitcoms as a Marth Stewart-like character in the short-lived "Style & Substance" (CBS)
Portrayed the wife of a man who announces he's gay in "Change of Heart" (Lifetime)
Offered strong supporting turn as the embittered mother of a young girl involved with an older man in "Guinevere"
Made a memorable guest appearance on "Frasier" (NBC) as Dr. Frasier Crane's short-fused high school crush
Starred opposite Nathan Lane in the NYC stage revival of "The Man Who Came to Dinner"; received a Tony Award nomination
Appeared as a TV newscaster in the comedy "Disney's The Kid"; role written expressly for her by screenwriter Audrey Wells
Had a recurring role as the ex-wife of a police chief in "The District" (CBS), earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress
Reprised Emmy-winning role in four episodes of NBC's "Frasier"
Cast in the short-lived NBC series "In-Laws"
Appeared in "Sweet Home Alabama" opposite Reese Witherspoon and Josh Lucas
Co-starred with Jude Law and Dustin Hoffman in David O. Russell's "I Heart Huckabees"
Starred opposite Zach Braff in "Garden State"; Braff also made his writting and directorial debut
Joined the cast of "24" (Fox) playing the mentally-unhinged First Lady, Martha Logan; received Emmy nominations in 2006 for Supporting Actress and in 2007 as Guest Actress
Cast as the title character's (Christina Applegate) overbearing mother on ABC's "Samantha Who?"
Played Michael Cera's erratic mother in the film adaptation of C.D. Payne's "Youth in Revolt"
Cast as Governor Pat Jameson in CBS' "Hawaii Five-O" reboot