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Eileen Atkins Biography

Home > Actresses > A > Atkins, Eileen > Biography

Birth Name: Eileen Atkins
Born: 06/16/1934
Birth Place: London, England, GB

Born June 16, 1934 in a Salvation Army hospital in Clapton, London, England, Atkins was the youngest child of Arthur, a gas meter reader, and Annie, a seamstress. Raised in a working-class home, the youngster was forced to take dancing lessons at three, after a traveling fortune teller came to their door and told her mother that Atkins would become a world-famous dancer. When she was five years old, World War II broke out, forcing her mother to ship off her children - as most parents were wont to do during the war - to the countryside village of nearby Little Baddow, Essex. Despite being away from the routine bombing of London, the family did see its share of action; a nearby shelter they used was destroyed in an air raid when the lucky family was inside the house. Like many London kids missing their parents and not understanding the separation, Eileen ran afoul of the family with whom she had been placed and was returned to London when she was seven. Her mother quickly put Atkins to work singing and dancing in little nymphet costumes at certain men's clubs, an experience she later realized as an adult was horrid and unconscionable.

Atkins kept at dancing in the clubs until she was 15, before shifting gears to engage in acting in high school. She made a daring attempt to break into the Royal Shakespeare Company by writing a letter to one of the directors, stating that she could perform the young prince in "King John" better than the boy he had hired. Amused, the director called her in, but was immediately appalled at the sight of a working-class girl attempting to enter such a prestigious program. She nonetheless performed a monologue, impressing the director enough to encourage her to try again when she was old enough. Atkins ultimately failed to get into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), so she began pounding on as many doors as possible when she was 18 in order to land work. Against the wishes of her parents, who had visions of her being a chorus girl, Atkins managed through a scholarship to train at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she stayed for three years. After meeting and marrying her first husband, actor Julian Glover, she began landing walk-on roles at the RSC, eventually breaking through in 1962 playing Miranda in "The Tempest" and Viola in "Twelfth Night."

In 1966, the same year she divorced from Glover, she made her Broadway debut starring in "The Killing of Sister George," a play that earned Atkins her first Tony Award nomination. Two years later, she made her feature film with a supporting role in "Inadmissible Evidence" (1968); then developed the idea for what became the acclaimed British television series, "Upstairs, Downstairs" with fellow actress Jean Marsh. Originally conceived as a comedy centered on two housemaids - to be played of course by Atkins and Marsh - the actresses added a family to be served, and eventually "Upstairs, Downstairs" became a drama about the differences in the occupants of a high-status household and the working-class people who serve them. Both Atkins and Marsh were pushed to the sidelines once their original idea was developed by the network, though they did manage to retain some degree of input. Returning her focus to acting, Atkins was in several classics adapted for television - Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters" (1970), Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1971) and Henrico Ibsen's "The Lady from the Sea" (1974).

Though Atkins endeavored to appear in quality projects, she occasionally endured her share of drivel. In the "Exorcist" knock-off, "The Devil within Her" (1976), she played a nun attempting to drive out a demonic spirit from a baby born unto a stripper (Joan Collins) who refused the advances of an evil dwarf. After turns in "Equus" (1977) and the made-for-television special "She Fell Among Thieves" (PBS, 1980), she starred in the BBC miniseries, "Smiley's People" (1982), then played Mrs. Mann in a network adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" (CBS, 1982). She landed a leading role in "Nelly's Version" (1983), playing an amnesiac woman who uncovers a rather mundane existence that offers little clue to the horrid crime she apparently committed. With great adroitness, she vacillated from stage to features to television, including performances in "The Dresser" (1983), "Titus Andronicus" (1985) and a television remake of "Roman Holiday" (NBC, 1987). In 1989, she began a one-woman show called "A Room of One's Own," an adaptation of Virginia Woolf's extended essay on whether or not women were capable of writing Shakespeare-quality work, while at the same time, examining the careers of notable female authors like Jane Austen and George Eliot.

Atkins earned critical kudos, as well as an OBIE Award, for her transformative portrayal of the troubled, enigmatic Woolf. She went on to earn more acclaim and awards for her stage work, while continuing a fruitful career on screens both large and small. After playing a wife and mother who has remained oblivious to the homosexuality of her closeted husband (Brian Cox) in "The Lost Language of Cranes" (1991), Atkins earned another OBIE for "Vita & Virginia" (1994), which she adapted from the letters and diaries detailing the deep friendship between Virginia Woolf and aloof aristocrat Vita Sackville-West. Returning to features, she had supporting roles in "Wolf" (1994) and "Jack & Sarah" (1995) before playing the matriarch of an eccentric country family who houses their upper-class cousin (Kate Beckinsale) so she can write her first novel in "Cold Comfort Farm" (1996). Atkins earned more critical praise and awards for her work on the stage, winning an Evening Standard Award for Best Actress in Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" (1997) and an Olivier Award for her performance in "The Unexpected Man" (1999). She then played Mary Louise in a public television adaptation of "Madame Bovary" (PBS, 2000). Returning to the familiar world of "Upstairs, Downstairs," Atkins was one of many British talents selected by director Robert Altman to join the ensemble cast of "Gosford Park" (2001), an exquisite whodunit set in the world of 1932 England, where both high-class guests and the lower-class help all fall under suspicion when the host (Michael Gambon) is murdered.

After being named Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2001, she made a brief appearance in the Virginia Woolf-inspired drama, "The Hours" (2002), before landing meatier supporting roles in "Cold Mountain" (2003) and "What a Girl Wants" (2003). Continuing with features, she appeared in "Vanity Fair" (2004), "Ask the Dust" (2006) and "Scenes of a Sexual Nature" (2006), before returning to the stage for a production of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Doubt" at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway. Atkins made an appearance as a night nurse in the period romance, "Evening" (2007), then starred opposite Dame Judi Dench in "Cranford" (BBC, 2007-08), a 19th century-set drama about the small absurdities and major tragedies in the lives of a community whose morals are dictated by a pair of seventy-something spinster sisters (Atkins and Dench). In April 2008, Atkins edged out her co-star to win the BAFTA Award for Best Actress; her first win in a four decade-long career. She and Dench would also receive Golden Globe nominations for their "Cranford" work; albeit in different categories, with Atkins getting the supporting actress nod to Dench's lead. After a turn as the King's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in Ridley Scott's version of "Robin Hood" (2010), Atkins returned to the world of "Upstairs, Downstairs" once again, this time for a BBC production in 2010-11. She earned further awards recognition after receiving an Emmy nod for Outstanding Supporting Actress for her performance as Lady Maud Holland.