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Lea Thompson Biography

Home > Actresses > T > Thompson, Lea > Biography

Birth Name: Lea Thompson
Born: 05/31/1961
Birth Place: Rochester, Minnesota, USA

Lea Katherine Thompson was born May 31, 1961, in Rochester, MN, to Barbara and Cliff Thompson, the fifth child of an already struggling family who, for the first year of her life, lived in a local motel. The Thompsons moved to Minneapolis but divorced when Lea was six. Barbara, though struggling with alcohol abuse, supported the family by playing piano and singing in local clubs. She soon remarried, to musician Rob Hanson, and Lea and two other siblings followed in her artistic footsteps, Thompson and brother Andrew gravitated towards dance, with the former beginning ballet classes when she was nine. By age 14, she was drawing the attention of the professional dance community, earning scholarships from two of the top ballets in the U.S.: New York's American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet. She graduated from Minneapolis's Marshall-University High School at 16 to dance professionally and went on to perform with the Minnesota Dance Theatre and the Pennsylvania Ballet Company. But at 19, Thompson found her aspirations dashed when legendary dancer and the American Ballet Theatre's artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov rejected her from membership in the company, telling her that her body type was wrong for the art form. Thompson moved to New York, nevertheless, intent on pursuing the performing arts by other means. Initially waitressing to make ends meet, she wound up gaining a national audience in ads, most notably for Burger King and Twix candy bars.

In 1982, Thompson won her first role in a proto-"video game" - actually a sort of interactive movie - called "Murder, Anyone?" and a year later, won her first feature film with the sequel "Jaws 3-D" (1983), in which she played a Sea World waterskiing performer terrorized by yet another giant shark. Thompson caught more than viewers' eyes in the film, beginning a relationship with co-star Dennis Quaid. Though the film tanked, her sparkling all-American countenance put her much-in-demand for similar roles in a slate of films showcasing a new generation of Hollywood youth. In 1983, she won the role of up-and-comer Tom Cruise's faithful musician girlfriend in the high school football-themed film, "All the Right Moves," which memorably featured a flash of Cruise's frontal nudity during a Thompson/Cruise sex scene. The following year, she played C. Thomas Howell and Patrick Swayze's fellow Coloradoan teen freedom-fighter in the reactionary Cold War fantasy and cult classic, "Red Dawn," followed by the unattainable dream girl alongside Eric Stoltz and Chris Penn in the teensploitation flick, "The Wild Life" (1984).

In 1985, Thompson was paired with Stoltz again in a Robert Zemeckis-helmed time-traveling adventure, but weeks into production, Zemeckis decided Stoltz did not fit the comedic lead part of rambunctious loser Marty McFly. They defaulted to their original choice for the role, hot young sitcom star Michael J. Fox, whose TV schedule shifted only moderately to allow him to shoot the film. Thankfully, filming the sci-fi adventure at night while he shot "Family Ties" during the day (NBC, 1982-89) would pay off, vaulting him to overnight movie star upon release of "Back to the Future." Thompson would also enjoy escalated stardom with her classic portrayal of Lorraine McFly, matriarch of a struggling, oddball family, seen in two different time periods; in heavy, matronly makeup in the "present," and as a coquettish, quirky and unabashedly horny bobbysoxer who befriends the wayward Marty and attempts to seduce him in the "past." This flirtation affects a time paradox in which Marty's presence inadvertently gets in the way of his future mother and father's (Crispin Glover) coupling, making it imperative for Marty to hook them up to assure his own conception. Of the many classic scenes and lines, Glover's famous malapropism, declaring to Thompson, "You're my density," became a contemporary comic buzz phrase. Apart from looking fantastic in period clothes, Thompson dusted off her comic chops as the modern-day, overweight, chain-smoking Lorraine. For the still green actress, it was truly the part of a lifetime in what turned out to be the biggest moneymaker of 1985, making nearly $200 million in the U.S. alone.

"Back to the Future" promoted Thompson to marquee-level billing, but, after another standard teen role in the family adventure "Space Camp" (1986) - which suffered a delayed release after the Jan. 28, 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion - her first big-budget star-vehicle proved less than auspicious. Produced by George Lucas and pegged to the special effects of his mighty Industrial Light and Magic unit, "Howard the Duck" featured her opposite a cigar-chomping, humanoid-alien waterfowl. The $37 million that Universal Pictures pumped into the project wound up producing an unwatchable mess on such an epic scale, that along with "Heaven's Gate" (1980) and "Ishtar" (1987), it became an instant punchline and one of few cinematic bombs by which all others would be measured. Though Thompson availed herself well as the sultry rock singer who befriends Howard, it was not enough to buoy the film past nearly universal pans and public indifference, its failure leading to the resignation of Universal chief Frank Price. She returned to youthful angst in the Howard Deutch-directed, John Hughes-scripted "Some Kind of Wonderful" (1987), reteaming again with Stoltz, and followed that with the romantic comedy misfire "Casual Sex?" (1988) and a thriller opposite the father-son team of Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen in "Nightbreaker" (1989). In 1989, she married Howard Deutch, and they would begin a family with the birth of the first of two daughters two years later. She reprised Lorraine McFly in "Back to the Future Part II" (1989) and the third installment in 1990, which saw her take up an additional character of Maggie McFly, an Old West forebear of the family. Thompson went to work for her husband again in his 1992 feature "Article 99," joining the ensemble of young stars playing doctors who attempt to treat troubled veterans in a broken system.

Thompson's feature work diminished to essentially supporting roles in gimmick films: the title character's mother in "Dennis the Menace" (1993), a sexy grifter in the TV-retread "The Beverly Hillbillies" (1993), and a ballet instructor in "The Little Rascals" (1994). In 1995, she essayed into a new medium, taking on a TV sitcom project, "Caroline in the City," built on the template of NBC's successful "Friends" (1994-2004), i.e. a mixed bag of mildly clever, amicable friends and their social hijinx in New York. In the title role, Thompson played an irrepressible, daffy cartoonist attempting to juggle romance while horning into the lives of various friends and strangers. The show drew critical fusillades, and, though NBC's initial slotting of it adjacent to "Friends" buoyed its first-year ratings, they slipped precipitously in each of its four seasons until "Caroline" would up No. 91 among broadcast primetime shows during the 1998-99 season. She did some minor movie work over the course of the show's run; most notably the NBC period miniseries "A Will of Their Own" (1998) and "The Unknown Cyclist" (1998), an indie slice-of-life tale of the impact of AIDS on the closest relations of one of its victims, with Thompson playing the dead man's ex-wife. She returned to the indie skein in 2002 with a quirky, comic performance as an addled murder witness on the run in "Fish Don't Blink," and to TV briefly playing a public prosecutor on Lifetime's courtroom drama series, "For the People" (2002-03).

In 2004, Thompson popped up in a three-episode guest role on the NBC comedy/drama "Ed" (2000-04), and the next year would find a new home on the Hallmark Channel's "Jane Doe: Vanishing Act" (2005). She played the title role, a.k.a. Kathy Davis, a one-time government agent, now retired to soccer-mom status, who is lured back into government work because of her ace mystery-solving skills. Though aired in two-hour movie form, the gig was actually a glorified episodic series, rotating with two other franchises in the Hallmark Channel Mystery Movies block. She would do another eight Jane Doe films through 2008 and even took a shot at the director's chair, helming two of the entries: "Jane Doe: Eye of the Beholder" (2006) and "Jane Doe: The Harder They Fall" (2008). In 2006, she appeared briefly on the short-lived Fox series "Celebrity Duets" (2006), a "reality" game show produced by "American Idol" (Fox, 2002- ) creator Simon Cowell that paired professional singers with non-musical celebrity performers for duet numbers. Unfortunately she was the second contestant voted off the show. She also peppered her schedule with some low-profile outings such as the road-comedy "California Dreaming" (2007), the Lifetime tearjerker "A Life Interrupted" (2007), the B-grade actioner "Exit Speed" (2008), the holiday fluff "The Christmas Clause" (2009), the indie potboiler "Fatal Secrets" (2009), the offbeat comedy "Splinterheads" (2009) and, for Hallmark again, the suspense thriller "Final Approach" (2007). She also trod familiar turf with featured supporting roles in largely kid-oriented films, such as "Spy School" (2008) and "Adventures of a Teenage Dragonslayer" (2010).