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Loren Dean

Mary McDonnell Biography

Home > Actresses > M > McDonnell, Mary > Biography

Birth Name: Mary McDonnell
Born: 04/28/1952
Birth Place: Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, USA

Born April 28, 1952 in Wilkes-Barre, PA, McDonnell was raised in Ithaca, NY, graduating from the State University of New York at Fredonia. Her New York theater debut came with Sam Shepard's "A Buried Child" in 1978, and she quickly amassed a series of acclaimed performances in productions on Broadway and across the country, including the play "Still Life" (1980), which earned her an Obie Award. McDonnell also began a fruitful relationship with the Long Wharf Theatre Company during this period, remaining associated with the group for over two decades. Though film and television were secondary to McDonnell's career during the early 1980s, she did make her small screen debut with a bit part in the made-for-TV movie "Money on the Side" (ABC, 1982). Meanwhile, she logged screen time in episodes of "As the World Turns" (CBS, 1956-2010) and replaced Marcia Strassman on the short-lived comedy "E/R" (CBS, 1984-85), in which she played a no-nonsense hospital administrator and ex-wife to an offbeat doctor (Elliott Gould).

McDonnell entered the feature arena with a key role as a boarding house owner caught in the middle of a turn-of-the-century mining strike in John Sayles' indie landmark "Matewan" (1987), starring Chris Cooper and David Strathairn. But her true breakthrough came three years later when director and star Kevin Costner picked her to play the strong-willed Stands With A Fist, a white woman taken in by Native Americans as a child after her family was massacred by a rival tribe, in the multi-Oscar-winning smash "Dances With Wolves" (1990). The epic Western turned McDonnell into a star at age 37, as well as a first-time recipient of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The acclaim generated by "Dances With Wolves" assured McDonnell of choice film roles, many of which played to her knack for believably portraying strong, self-sufficient women. She next portrayed Kevin Kline's unhappy wife, who unexpectedly finds herself the guardian of an abandoned infant, in Lawrence Kasdan's critically acclaimed, but financially anemic ensemble drama "Grand Canyon" (1991).

Though McDonnell made strides in film, television continued to bring her significant roles, most notably in a televised broadcast of the play "O Pioneers!" (PBS, 1991), in which she reprised the role of the determined daughter of 19th-century immigrants. She reunited with Sayles and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in the indie director's acclaimed drama, "Passion Fish" (1992), in which she played a self-absorbed soap opera actress who rediscovers herself with the help of her nurse (Alfre Woodard) after a car accident leaves her paralyzed. But not all her films were standouts - she handled girlfriend and wife roles with professionalism in the unremarkable espionage comedy-drama "Sneakers" (1992) and William Friedkin's forgettable basketball flick "Blue Chips" (1994). In between, she appeared in a cable presentation of Arthur Miller's "The American Clock" (TNT, 1993), before trying her hand again at a network series, with the comedy "High Society" (CBS, 1995-96). Though the show earned some critical kudos and a cult following, it was yanked from the network schedule after 13 episodes.

McDonnell entered the world of blockbuster movies as the First Lady to the President (Bill Pullman) in the sci-fi epic "Independence Day" (1996), before returning to Broadway opposite Harry Hamlin in a revival of Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke" (1996). Her presence on television increased in the late 1990s and began to account for a majority of her screen work. After playing the judge in William Friedkin's Golden Globe-winning version of "12 Angry Men" (Showtime, 1997), which costarred future "Galactica" castmate Edward James Olmos, she was a regular on the short-lived, but well-received cop drama "Ryan Caulfield: Year One" (Fox, 1999). McDonnell reunited with Woodard for Lawrence Kasdan's offbeat drama, "Mumford" (1999), before earning an Emmy nomination in 2002 as a guest star for her recurring role as Noah Wyle's emotionally brittle mother on "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009). She next played the mother of a delusional teenager (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the cult hit "Donnie Darko" (2001), in which she starred as Donnie's mother, before delivering a performance as a high society madam who hires an aspiring songwriter (Emmy Rossum) for her escort service in "Nola" (2003).

That same year, McDonnell was cast as Laura Roslin, a former Secretary of Education who becomes the president of a ragtag group of colonists after human-created Cylons nearly wipe out humanity, in executive producer Ronald D. Moore's revamped "Battlestar Galactica" (Sci Fi Channel, 2004-09). First filmed as a two-part miniseries, which generated stellar numbers for the science fiction cable channel, the show was quickly put into series motion. Meanwhile, McDonnell's Roslin was cut from the same cloth as her previous strong female characters - a fiercely independent and intelligent woman who fights for the respect afforded to her job, particularly with Admiral Adama (Olmos), while also struggling with breast cancer. Roslin later experiences something akin to a religious experience, which informs her decision to seek Earth as a haven for her people. Throughout the series, Roslin battles her own illness - which, by the third season finale, appeared to return - as well as the machinations of those who sought to unseat her as president, until finally earning the respect of those who once doubted her leadership. McDonnell's performance was widely praised by critics and fans as one of the finest elements of "Galactica," though mainstream awards recognition failed to materialize.

McDonnell kept remarkably busy during her tenure on "Galactica." She appeared in the Golden Globe-nominated biopic "Mrs. Harris" (HBO, 2005), about Jean Harris' (Annette Bening) murder of her lover Dr. Herman Tarnower (Ben Kingsley), and co-starred with Roger Rees in the independent period comedy "Crazy Like a Fox" (2006), about a Virginia landowner who unleashes guerrilla warfare on the conniving land speculators that steal his farm. After reprising Roslin for the television movie, "Battlestar Galactica: Razor" (Sci Fi Channel, 2007), she returned the following year for the fourth and final season of the show. McDonnell went on to a recurring role as a cardiothoracic surgeon with Asperger syndrome on several episodes of "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC, 2005- ) and replaced Lauren Graham to play the supporting role of Kate Roberts in the horror sequel "Scream 4" (2011). On "The Closer" (TNT, 2005- ), McDonnell had a recurring stint as an LAPD captain who starts off as an adversary, but eventually becomes an ally to Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick). The role earned McDonnell an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series in 2011.