December 7, 1932
Ellen Burstyn grew up the only sister, bookended between two brothers, raised by middle-class, Irish parents who later divorced when Ellen was still quite young.
Although Ellen had aspirations of following a thespian path at a very young age, her career of choice would have to wait for several years. Always the popular student at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, Ellen whiled away many of her hours studying dance, cheerleading and student council activities, but most importantly, she found time to embark on a modeling career at a local department store; a small but tantalizing taste of the life she aspired to have. Unmotivated in her academic pursuits, Ellen eventually dropped out of school, and in 1950 she married William Alexander, a poet, but the marriage lasted a mere five years.
From 1955 to the early sixties, Ellen pursued her dream of becoming an actress, finding work as a chorus dancer in a Montreal nightclub, and as one of the 16 "Gleason Girls" on The Jackie Gleason Show. Stage came next, and in 1957 she won the lead in the Broadway comedy, Fair Game. She also went on to marry the play's director, Paul Roberts. Her performance
garnered positive reviews despite the fact she had no formal training. Without a doubt, Ellen was a natural born thespian.
Hollywood was next on her list, and not surprisingly, she quickly nabbed guest-star work on several television series under the name Ellen McRae, including some of the more popular ones such as Ben Casey and Perry Mason. In 1959 her marriage to Roberts ended. A year later she married fellow actor, Neil Burstyn and had a son, Jefferon in 1962.
Somewhat disillusioned by the direction her career was taking and wanting to get into more challenging parts, Ellen decided to move back to New York in order to take classes with renowned acting coach, Lee Strasberg. Her talents and techniques impressed him enough to invite her to join his legendary, Actors Studio. The Tropic of Cancer came next, giving a boost to her ego since at the time she was seriously considering a career change. It also marked her final choice of stage name, settling on Ellen Burstyn. Prior to Tropic of Cancer, she had gone by several pseudonyms including: Edna Rae, Keri Flynn, Erica Dean and Ellen McRae. The challenging parts she so wanted finally came with the films Alex in Wonderland in 1970, and the 1971 The Last Picture Show, which brought her an Academy Award nomination. Her professional life was finally thriving, but her personal life didn't fair as well, with her marriage to Neil Burstyn ending in 1971.
During the early part of the 70's, the demonic drama The Exorcist, and her portrayal as widowed mother, Alice Hyatt, in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore launches her into the Hollywood stratosphere, with a Best Actress nomination for Exorcist and a win for Alice. But Ellen wasn't done yet; Same Time, Next Year in 1978, and Resurrection in 1980 produced two more Oscar nominations for the versatile thespian. Her mantle was also becoming
loaded down with numerous Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony wins and nominations for such roles as Same Time, Next Year on Broadway, and the television movie Pack of Lies.
Between acting gigs, Ellen found time to act as co-artistic director for the Actors Studio back in 1982, and in the same year was elected president of the Actors' Equity, serving three years as its first female president. More recently, in June 2000, she became co-president of the Actors Studio along with fellow thespians Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel.
Work continued steady for Ellen in all mediums, but perhaps her most accomplished work to date was her portrayal of an overweight, overlonely woman addicted to diet pills in the 2000 Requiem for a Dream. A role she herself calls, her best in 20 years. Not surprisingly, she was honored by the National Board of Review with a career achievement award in January 2001.
Not a bad list of accomplishments for a woman who wrote her first Academy Award acceptance speech when she was a seven-year-old girl with dreams of being immortalized on film.
Photo © unknown - Bio by ThespianNet.Com © 2001
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