Family & Companions
Working steadily for decades in a wide variety of mediums, JoBeth Williams successfully transitioned from effervescent leading lady to mature actress with a lengthy résumé of consistently strong performances. Possibly best remembered for her breakout portrayal of a terrified suburban housewife in the supernatural horror film "Poltergeist" (1982), Williams played Diane Freeling with a conviction and authenticity that kept audiences on the edge of their seats. On the heels of that success was the ensemble drama "The Big Chill" (1983), in which Williams' character, unhappy with her current marriage, considers rekindling a relationship with her old flame during a weekend reunion with college friends. Considered a classic by a generation, the film marked the directorial debut of writer Lawrence Kasdan, and allowed Williams to act alongside some of the brightest stars in film at that time. Williams made her mark on television, with roles in TV-movies like the Cold-War cautionary tale "The Day After" (1983), and in "Adam" (NBC, 1983), in which she portrayed the anguished mother of a missing child. She also impressed with her initial outing as a director with "On Hope" (Showtime, 1994), which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Film. Following her appearance with Nick Nolte in Arthur Hiller's black comedy, "Teachers" (1984), there were fewer headlining roles in feature projects, and more work on television series such as "Dexter" (Showtime, 2006-13). Williams soon settled into a steady career pattern, frequently playing mother figures in smaller films like "In the Land of Women" (2007), making Williams one of the few women of a certain age who successfully segued into a respected character actress after enjoying a high-profile leading lady career in her prime.
She was born Margaret JoBeth Williams on Dec. 6, 1948 in Houston, TX to parents Roger and Faye. As a teenager, she developed an interest in performing while in high school, thanks in part to the influence of her father, an opera enthusiast who happened to run an electrical company. He encouraged her by providing her with singing lessons, and at age 18 Williams joined Actor's Equity in order to participate in a local musical theater company. However, following the advice of her high school guidance counselor, she intended to give up her pursuit of acting professionally; instead entering Brown University as an English and Psychology major. The change of course would not last long however, as Williams again found herself drawn to the theater, performing in many of the school's productions with renewed enthusiasm. Upon graduation in 1970, she threw caution to the wind and joined the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI. In 1975, Williams made substantial progress when she landed two separate television roles almost simultaneously. "Jabberwocky" (WCVB, 1974-78), was a local Boston children's cable show that Williams joined in its second season; the other role was on the soap opera "Somerset" (NBC, 1969-1976), on which Williams would appear for a single season. The year 1977 found Williams on another daytime drama, this time the long-running "Guiding Light" (CBS, 1952-2009), as photographer and resident vixen Brandy Shelloe. Near the end of her run on "Guiding Light," Williams truly began to breakout as a sought after actress with a role alongside one of America's most highly regarded actors.
Williams made her film debut as Phyllis Bernard, the small but pivotal role of Dustin Hoffman's girlfriend in the Academy Award-winning drama "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979). In one of the film's more awkward moments, Williams was caught exiting the shower completely naked and subjected to intense questioning by Hoffman's young son (Justin Henry) who happened to walk in on her. The following year, Williams also made her off-Broadway debut in playwright John Ford Noonan's "A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around and Talking" (1980), opposite Louise Lasser. Continuing her steady rise, Williams landed the part of Meredith in the blockbuster Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder prison comedy "Stir Crazy" (1980). The part, along with a role in the grim mercenary tale "The Dogs of War" (1980), starring Christopher Walken, increased Williams' Hollywood stock substantially, and brought her to the attention of movie maestro Steven Spielberg. With her combination of natural beauty, believability, and easy-going charm, Spielberg cast Williams in the suburban horror classic, "Poltergeist" (1982) that he was producing and Tobe Hooper was directing. In her first leading role, Williams, opposite Craig T. Nelson as her husband, delivered a performance both gripping and relatable as the mother willing to do whatever it takes to keep her family safe from evil forces from beyond. A completely different acting experience than she had ever had prior, the film shoot was extremely physical; in particular, a scene where Williams falls into a muddy pit filled with corpses, being among the most demanding for the young actress, who was so afraid she would be accidentally electrocuted, Spielberg stood in the water in solidarity with her while the cameras rolled.
Riding high on the massive success of "Poltergeist," Williams maintained her hot streak when she starred opposite fellow up-and-comers Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt and Kevin Kline in the instant classic, "The Big Chill" (1983) - the story of a group of once close-knit baby boomers coming together for a weekend after the death of their old college friend, only to find that the passage of time had changed their relationships in profound ways. Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, the ensemble film paid homage - in no small part to one of the more memorable soundtracks of the decade - to the 1960s generation coming to terms with what appeared to be the end of their once shared idealism. Moving back to the small screen, Williams appeared in the controversial television movie, "The Day After" (ABC, 1983). A sobering portrait of Reagan-era atomic fears, the film focused in surprisingly graphic detail on the devastation of a small Kansas town after a Russian nuclear attack. Williams played Nurse Nancy Bauer in the critically lauded telepic, which drew nearly 100 million viewers. That same year, she accepted a lead role in the heartbreaking movie-of-the-week, "Adam" (NBC, 1983) as Reve Walsh - wife of John Walsh who would later go on to host "America's Most Wanted" (Fox, 1988-1996). Inspired by true events, it detailed the Walsh family's grief after their son's abduction, and subsequent efforts to help other parents avoid a similar tragedy. The middle of the decade saw Williams return to the big screen as an educator who finds herself at a school so dysfunctional it is in danger of being shut down, in the high school dramedy "Teachers" (1984), starring opposite Nick Nolte, Judd Hirsch and Ralph Macchio.
After starring in the Spielberg- and Hooper-less "Poltergeist II: The Other Side" (1986), a less satisfying follow-up which was decidedly more "b-movie" than its big budget predecessor, Williams turned to a string of smaller TV movie roles, including "Adam: His Song Continues" (NBC, 1986), "Murder Ordained" (CBS, 1987), and "Baby M" (ABC, 1988). Back in theaters, Williams co-starred with comedians Billy Crystal and Alan King in "Memories of Me" (1988), the sentimental tale of a man trying to reconnect with his emotionally distant father. Unfortunately, the comedy-drama failed to find an audience and soon Williams was back to made-for-TV projects like "Child of the Night (CBS, 1990), co-starring Tom Skerritt, and "Victim of Love" (CBS, 1991), opposite Pierce Brosnan. While Williams did continue to take on feature film roles, they were now substantially smaller supporting parts in films like the Blake Edwards sex comedy "Switch" (1991), starring Ellen Barkin and Jimmy Smits. A now rare starring role came with the little seen "Me, Myself & I" (1992) co-starring George Segal, as well as the part of Sylvester Stallone's girlfriend in the embarrassing "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot" (1992). For a change of pace, she gave animation a try by providing a voice for the experimental "Fish Police" (CBS, 1991-92), a short-lived primetime cartoon series also featuring John Ritter. Shortly thereafter, Williams moved behind the camera, producing and directing the 30-minute feature, "On Hope" (Showtime,1994), starring Annette O'Toole and Mercedes Ruehl, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Film. She went on to direct other short pieces, including a 2001 episode of the supernatural TV series "Night Visions" (Fox, 2000-01) entitled "The Doghouse."
After her brief behind-the-scenes respite, Williams returned to the big screen as Bessie Earp in "Wyatt Earp" (1995), starring opposite star Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid, and again working with director Kasdan. She went on to be among the first of a series of high-profile actresses to guest star as a love interest for star Kelsey Grammer on "Frasier" (NBC, 1993-2004), appearing as Madeleine in a two-part episode during the second season. Williams next starred in the short-lived television adaptation of legal thriller novelist John Grisham's "The Client" (CBS, 1995), taking on the lead role originated by Susan Sarandon in the theatrical version. In the Disney fish-out-of-water comedy "Jungle 2 Jungle" (1997), Williams played the ex-wife of Tim Allen, a self-centered business man who discovers he is the father of a boy raised in the wilds of the Amazon. After appearing in a series of smaller films, Williams returned to TV with an ill-advised Americanization of the John Cleese cult comedy series "Fawlty Towers" (BBC, 1976-77) called "Payne" (CBS, 1998-99). There would also be many more guest spots on popular series such as "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ), "Judging Amy" (CBS, 1999-2005) and "Strong Medicine" (The Lifetime Network, 2000-06), as well as a regular role in the short-lived "Miss Match" (NBC, 2003-04). Williams also had a turn as Drew Barrymore's mom in the romantic comedy "Fever Pitch" (2005), co-starring Jimmy Fallon as a baseball-obsessed boyfriend.
During the 2005-06 television season, Williams was extremely prolific, making a series of guest spots on "Las Vegas" (NBC, 2003-08), "Numb3rs" (CBS, 2005-2010) and "24" (FX, 2001-2010). At this stage of her career, Williams was playing the role of matriarch with greater frequency and "In the Land of Women" (2007) was no exception, which cast her as lovesick Adam Brody's mother. Also in 2007, Williams landed an impressive recurring spot on the cable thriller "Dexter" (Showtime, 2006-13), followed by an appearance in 2009 on "Private Practice" (ABC, 2007-13), as "Bizzy," the mother of series' lead Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh). Williams next had a brief appearance in the indie romantic comedy "TiMER" (2010) - a near future tale about a bio-engineered device that allows the wearer to know the exact moment when they will meet their soul mate.
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TV debut in "Theater in America" presentation of Trinity Square Repertory's production "Feasting With Panthers"
Had regular role of Carrie Wheeler on the NBC serial "Somerset" (NBC)
Played regular role of Brandy on "Guiding Light" (CBS)
Film acting debut in small role in "Kramer vs. Kramer"
Broadway debut as a replacement in "Moonchildren," co-starring Kevin Kline
Played leading role in the supernatural thriller "Poltergeist"
Acted in the controversial ABC drama "The Day After"
Co-starred in the ensemble drama "The Big Chill," featuring Kline and Tom Berenger
Played Reve Walsh, the mother of a child who was abducted, in the NBC drama "Adam"; earned Emmy nomination
Reprised role in "Poltergeist II: The Other Side"
Again played Reve Walsh in the sequel "Adam: His Song Continues" (NBC)
Co-starred in the TV-movie "Murder Ordained" (CBS)
Portrayed Mary Beth Whitehead in the fact-based drama "Baby M" (ABC), received second Emmy nomination
Reportedly turned down the lead role on the CBS sitcom "Murphy Brown," which Diane English created with her in mind
Co-starred in "My Name Is Bill W" (CBS)
Landed featured roles in "Switch" and "Dutch"
Made directorial debut with "On Hope"; earned 1994 Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short Film
Portrayed Bessie Earp in "Wyatt Earp"
Garnered third Emmy nomination for a guest appearance on "Frasier" (NBC)
Directed by husband John Paquin in "Jungle2Jungle"
Portrayed astronaut wife Marge Slayton in "From the Earth to the Moon" (HBO)
Returned to series TV as co-star of "Payne" (CBS), a short-lived Americanization of "Fawlty Towers" starring John Larroquette
Directed the Showtime movie "Frankie and Hazel"
Co-starred in the ABC movie "Trapped in a Purple Haze"
Acted in "The Ponder Heart" (PBS)
Co-starred with Sean Patrick Flanery and Melina Kanakaredes in Michael Phelan's "Into the Fire"
Joined the cast of Fox's drama "24" in season five
Guest starred on four episodes of Showtime's serial-killer drama "Dexter"
Guest starred on several episodes of ABC's "Private Practice"
Cast in the comedy feature "The Big Year" opposite Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin