February 8, 1953 - 
Biography
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Biography

    Mary was born in Newport, Arkansas and spent most of her life in Little Rock, Arkansas. The first thing people notice about her is her strange name, the "g" is pronounced like a "j". She says, "Its a Dutch name that goes as far back as any of the family remembers-about three or four generations in Arkansas." A big change for her came when she was 13 and left her state for the first time on a school trip to Washington DC. The spirit and energy of the big city made he realize she wanted to leave her small town. Of her teenage years she says, "I was one of those girls whose parents hated all her boyfriends. I was attracted to Arkansas hippies, and wasn't  exactly a non-freak myself."
    At age 19, in 1972, she left Arkansas by train one day at 4AM for New York to study acting. She had no experience and hadn't even met an actor in he life. She didn't know anyone and stayed at the East End Hotel for Women on 79th street.  Her first acting work was at the New York Neighborhood Playhouse. The direct or the playhouse, Sanford Meisner, liked her and hired her for a second season. She left soon after and with several other alumni from the Playhouse, formed an improvisational group called Cracked Tokens.  They had no theater and performed at halfway houses.
    The legend of how she got started was a chance meeting with Jack Nicholson in a restaurant where she was working as a waitress at The Magic Pan, a crepe restaurant, won her the chance to go out to Hollywood for a screen test. Though she explains differently about going to a casting call  on 5/7/77, "I decided I was going to sit in that stinking room until somebody saw me."  This was her motion picture debut opposite the actor (and director) in Goin' South. Co-starring in the film was Christopher Lloyd, who spoke one of the first lines ever uttered on screen to Steenburgen. "Chris played a character named Towfield. In the film, when I spurn his advances and save Jack, who is a criminal about to be hung, Towfield says 'I've asked you out a thousand times, and all I got was the flap of your umbrella'." Jack also educated her not only on the secrets of acting, but of the great actors like Tracey and Hepburn whom she was unfamiliar with. Even though the film was a commercial disaster, she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award in 1978 for her role. Unfortunately she would have to go back to being a waitress until the next role came along. She wanted to wait for a role she believed in. Nine months later it finally came.
    That role was Amy in Time After Time, where set met, fell in love and eventually married Malcolm. The only problem was that he was already married at the time. Mary wouldn't be swayed though and was prepared to fight for him, and she won. In 1981 she said of Malcolm, "Compatible is a terrible, boring word, but if anyone's compatible, it's that man." Of the role she later said, "Actually, I've played the same scene in that film and in Back to the Future Part III," she reveals. "I've had a man from a different time period tell me that he's in love with me, but he has to go back to his own time. My response in both cases is, of course, disbelief, and I order them out of my life. Afterwards, I find out I was wrong and that, in fact, the man is indeed from another time, and I go after him (them) to profess my love. It's a pretty strange feeling to find yourself doing the same scene, so many years apart, for the second time in your career."
    The role of Amy made her a home town hero. Ex-president Bill Clinton was running for governor and was speaking before a group of retired railroad workers, and he was talking to them about a sort of mentoring program of senior citizens with the youth. He mentioned the potential in the community for people, and he had just heard about this young woman who came from a real working class family in Arkansas who had been discovered by Jack Nicholson and cast in a film. He's telling the story and the importance of being there for the young people, and he hears this sobbing in the audience. He keeps talking and realizes there's this real weeping going on, and he's thinking what a great job he's doing talking. After he finished his speech, he went down into the audience and went up to this man who's wiping tears from his eyes, and he said, "I see that my remarks have touched you and I wanted to meet you. My name is Bill Clinton." And he said, "Well, my name's Morris Steenburgen and if you're going to talk about my daughter, I think you ought to meet her!" Since then they have become lifelong friends. The Clintons used to stay with Malcolm and Mary in London and they were also at her and Ted's wedding. Mary said it was the best present because he brought the secret service with them and it kept photographers out.
    In 1980 she won Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress with her portrayal of Lynda Dummar in Melvin and Howard which was also her first nude scene. She was really nervous about it, but Malcolm was an expert and encourage her, "You liked the script when your read it, now just do it." She was pregnant on the set and soon after she gave birth to their first daughter.  After Melvin she was directed by Milos Foreman in Ragtime. The director called her "remarkable" and she again won critical praise. At the Oscars she said to Malcolm from the stage, "You make me feel like dancing." Quoting the Leo Sayer. Her next role would be in Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy followed by Romantic Comedy, costarring Dudley Moore. Soon after they bought their first house in Ojai, Ca which Malcolm still considers his home town. In 1987 she also tried her hand at executive producing and acting in the End of the Line. The movie must have appealed to her because it was about the railroad which held deep roots in her family, though the film was not highly praised. Lindsay Anderson also put her in one of his last films, The Whales of August. Soon after her father died in 1989.
         Ironically, though they often talked about it, the couple would never do another major film together. The closest they came was an episode together for Shelly Duvall's Faerie Tale Theater. The show consisted of famous people acting out fairy tales. Mary played a not-so little Red Riding hood to Malcolm's big bad wolf. While she had the lead role in Cross Creek as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the first time she had to carry a movie on her own, Malcolm only appeared in one small scene. The two would never again appear on film together even though in 1982 Mary was still saying, "Malcolm and I would love nothing more than to work together again and we will". Their last work together was in the failed play Holiday directed by Malcolm's mentor Lindsay Anderson in the UK in 1987.
       When Malcolm and Mary met she said, "For a long time, when Malcolm and I would meet people, they would shake his hand and look into his eyes and keep looking at him while they shook my hand because he was a movie star, and they'd never heard of me. It made me mad, not because I needed their attention, but they were meeting another human being, movie star or not, and their priorities were screwed up." Around this time Malcolm's career was going down and hers was going up. Though neither have said it, this probably put a strain on their relationship. By 1988 they were separated and by 1990 they were divorced. Since they have two children together, neither have bad mouthed each other and they still maintain a decent relationship for the kids. There was never a reason given to the public because of the spilt.
    Other projects include the TV mini series Tender Is the Night, One Magic Christmas, and in Dead of Winter she played multiple roles. In 1990 she worked in her biggest budget film and one of her most famous roles as Clara in Back to the Future Part III. Like Malcolm in Get Crazy, she also took a role that required her to sing in The Butchers Wife during 1991. After that she stopped acting so she could campaign for Bill Clinton's presidential run in 1992. She has continued to act throughout the 90's in big films like What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Philadelphia, Powder and Nixon. In 1995 she remarried to environmentalist nut Ted Danson, who said in 1988 that the oceans were going to freeze. The two met when he auditioned for Cross Creek back in 1983. In 1996 they began working together on TV on the movie Gulliver's Travels and the series Ink, which started the same time as Malcolm's series Pearl and both only lasted one season. At the time it was one of the most expensive failures in TV history. In 2000 she started taking less mainstream, usually as the middle-aged mother, roles like Picnic, Wish You Were Dead, Life as a House. Though she will never be a highly recognized Hollywood actress like Nicole Kidman, she continues to work steadily and win critical praise.
    Besides an Academy Award. She has also received Honorary Doctorates from the University of Arkansas in Little Rock and Hendrix College in Arkansas.

Articles

Mary Steenburgen can be quite contrary. Really, she can
In new locally shot movie, actress known for her vulnerability plays wicked
By Chris Garcia | American-Statesman Film Writer 5/13/06

    We tend to think of actress Mary Steenburgen as pink-cheeked and wholesome, her winsome girl-next-door smile and blushing Southern manner completing an aura of scandalous adorableness. We consider her in Jonathan Demme's "Melvin and Howard," Woody Allen's "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" or Ron Howard's "Parenthood" and see a fragile porcelain bird - twittery, high-pitched, fine-boned, breakable.
    "We" can mean you or me. Or this fellow, who spots Steenburgen on the treadmill at the gym in a Tony Austin hotel. He opens his mouth and says, "You're the one who plays straight women, right?"
    Steenburgen, in town recently shooting the feature "Elvis and Anabelle," has no idea how to answer this. Instead, her mind leaps to the fact that she and Alicia Silverstone played lesbians last winter in the David Mamet play "Boston Marriage."
    "Straight" - what could this mean?
    "It means he probably saw 'Ragtime' or 'Cross Creek,' but he didn't see 'Miss Firecracker' or 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape,' " says Steenburgen, sitting in the cafe of said hotel. She wears a forest-green denim Izod jacket (the little alligator still looks hungry) over a floral spring dress. She places a black Prada backsack on the floor. (Too bad she declines to be photographed - her "hair and makeup" guru isn't on hand - because she is heart-stopping.)
    People watch some of her 50-plus films and think they know the Steenburgen style, she grouses, softly. But there isn't a Steenburgen style. "I think that's why I only see my movies once," she says in that girlish, sometimes cracking, sometimes laughing voice. "I don't want to know my screen persona. There's no constant thread."
    Still, flipping through Steenburgen's performances summons reductive, pre-cooked ideas about what kind of actress she is. Let's free-associate adjectivally: sweet, offbeat, ditzy, jumpy, vulnerable. She is one of those yeoman actors everybody recognizes - oh, her - because she's worked for seemingly ever. At a beaming 53, she is all over, a classic.
    "Hopefully what I've avoided is being put in a box," says Steenburgen, who lives in Southern California with husband Ted Danson and their children from previous marriages. (Steenburgen was married to Malcolm McDowell for 10 years.) "Some people think I have (been put in a box), but I haven't. One would only think that by looking at one or two of my films."
    She suggests we revisit roles in which she plays self-absorbed and condescending ("Miss Firecracker") or wantonly adulterous ("Gilbert Grape"). Or, better, that we see her as Marienne Hotchkiss in the uplifting dramedy "Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School," which co-stars Robert Carlyle, Marisa Tomei, Danny DeVito and native Austinite Rachel Winfree. (It ran for only one week in Austin in April.)
    She plays the head of the titular school, a "bizarre character" into which the actress sunk her (spotless, perfectly aligned) teeth. In the "very odd, very sweet" movie, Steenburgen dances with Donnie Wahlberg. This required her to take a dancing crash-course, even if she did win the cha-cha championship at charm school in her native Arkansas when she was 13.
    Then she points to her role as a destructively domineering pageant mother in "Elvis and Anabelle," the Burnt Orange Production filming in Austin. Co-starring Max Minghella and Blake Lively in the young title roles and Joe Mantegna as a hunchback mortician, the fairy tale romance by writer-director Will Geiger allows Steenburgen to untie her inner "wicked queen," she says.
    Steenburgen feeds on the craft, not the fame. She is the odd celebrity harboring "actual physical fears" of crowds and a constitutional dread of the spotlight. When she won the best supporting actress Oscar for "Melvin and Howard" in 1981, she fled Hollywood and didn't work for more than two years.
    She thrives on the chameleonic demands of acting, the constant transformations that mean there are no constants. She is not "the one who plays straight women." She's the one who plays straight women, crooked women, hurt women, feisty, lustful women. She contains multitudes, each one a slice of herself ready to be coaxed into the open.
    "Each character I play is certainly me, a part of me. So in the course of playing them, I have to look at all kinds of scary truths about me, some of which I probably never, ever would have looked at. I have a visual for it. You know those Chinese cabinets with lots of little drawers? That's me. There are thousands of drawers, and every time I go to play somebody, I open a combination of drawers. I take out what's inside and say, 'That's me.' "

Time with Malcolm

Dated 6/78-9/80
Married September 29, 1980
Legally Separated in 1988
Filed for Divorce 9/89
Divorced 1990

Remarried Ted Danson October 7, 1995

Children With

Lily Amanda McDowell born January 22, 1981
Charles Malcolm McDowell born July 10, 1983

Worked Together

Year Title
1979 Time After Time (Film)
1983  Cross Creek (Film)
1983 Little Red Riding Hood (TV)
1987 Holiday (Play)

Interviews

9/80 People Magazine on their Romance
1982 Rolling Stone with Mary Steenburgen featuring Malcolm

News

October 4, 2001
Ann O'Neill: City of Angles Hail to the Ex-Chief
Bill Clinton picked up an award Tuesday night from American Oceans Campaign. Guests at the Century Plaza hotel gawked as stars plied the red carpet. Later, Charles McDowell, 18-year-old son of Malcolm McDowell, introduced the former president. Clinton is a friend of the family, McDowell said, and it was a longstanding tradition for him to hide Easter eggs for the McDowell kids. "You can tell a lot about an adult by how they hide Easter eggs," McDowell said. Clinton did it "just right." He ended by saying that Bush may be president, but "it's Bill Clinton who's my hero." The remarks moved Clinton and others to tears. "I may live several more years, but I don't think I'll ever be more proud of an introduction," he said, wiping his eyes.

Notes

Pictures

Exclusive - Son Charlie doing his best Alex
Malcolm and Mary in England for the play Holiday 1987

1987 Malcolm's signed contract

Mary with her and Malcolm's son Charlie in 1999

Quotes

Mary

She often shares part of the holidays with Malcolm, her former spouse's family, just as her character does with Jon Voight. "I see my ex-husband, his wife and little boys. It's a real part of some people's lives, and this is a humorous way to deal with it." 11/08

"I think the reason this part was easy for me was we have four kids," all adults, two by her marriage to Malcolm McDowell and two stepchildren from her current marriage to Ted Danson "and I crave their attention. I had dinner with all four of them last night and I didn't want to leave. There's a part of me that actually doesn't mind doing my son's laundry. I mind doing mine or my husband's, but somehow not my children's. It's so sick. But I understand it (failure to launch) in a way. It's a little bit of a dream situation for me, believe it or not." 7/20/08

"Malcolm went through an experience similar to mine, at the same age, with a successful film (if....), and that's probably one of the reasons we understand each other, because he had to learn what success means and what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean that you're not answerable to other people, and it doesn't mean you can suddenly start acting like a big shot. You have to learn that stuff. Going off the deep end is kind of easy."

"Growing up, I had dreams of what somebody would have to be, for me to fall madly in love. As I got older, everybody kept telling me it doesn't exist. I couldn't accept that. I didn't like to date; I didn't like to have love affairs. I always felt uncomfortable and untruthful. And then I met Malcolm, and that was the dream. Compatible is a terrible, boring word, but if anyone's compatible, it's that man. We spend ridiculously long amounts of time together without ever feeling tired of each other's company. What I like best about him is that he just dives into each day. He never takes things for granted, including his success and whatever money and good things have come his way. I refuse to read any more statistics about how difficult it is to make a marriage work. We both turn down jobs so we can be together."  

"I tell you nobody can harm a hair on her head. It is amazing how passionate you feel about children. I just loved her so from the moment I watched her come out of my body. Malcolm was right there beside me, helping me do it. He kept staring in my face and making the pain go away. It was a very beautiful, experience, not in any sort of bullshit way...just simple and lovely. That was the most powerful thing that ever happened to me."- Rolling Stone 1982

Malcolm

    "God, she's a mess!" Pause. "Um, not really." Pause. "I actually don't mind her mess at all. I mean I like the place to look-as you can see-lived in. But I do have my little things, and I like to hang my trousers up on a hanger and stuff like that. Mary would just throw hers on the floor. It's probably a $300, a $3000 dress. I mean, I can't do that, but it doesn't bug me that she does it.
     "You know, Mary has amazing strength, a great sense of humor. She's a good person. I don't know many people as good as she is, or as nice. A lot has happened to her in two years, whatever it is, and that's been a difficult time because she's had to adjust and realign her whole life. But she's very levelheaded. She's from the South, and I think that's helped her."
    What about her faults?
    A mischievous glint. "She can be a bit holier-than-thou at times, but she doesn't have many. All the faults are on my side." - Rolling Stone 1982

Research, Bio and format 2001-09 Alex D. Thrawn for www.MalcolmMcDowell.net