Ellen Burstyn

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Ellen Burstyn
Ellen Burstyn 2009 shadow portrait.jpg
at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival première of Poliwood, May 1, 2009
Born Edna Rae Gillooly
(1932-12-07) December 7, 1932 (age 81)
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
Nationality American
Other names Ellen McRae
Education Cass Technical High School
Occupation Actress
Years active 1958–present
  • William Alexander (m. 1950–57)
  • Paul Roberts (m. 1958–61)
  • Neil Burstyn (m. 1964–72)
Children 1

Ellen Burstyn (born December 7, 1932) is an American actress. Her career began in theatre during the late 1950s, and over the next decade included several films and television series.

Burstyn's performance in the acclaimed 1971 ensemble drama The Last Picture Show brought her first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress nomination, after which she moved from supporting to leading film and stage roles. Burstyn received a second Academy Award nomination for her lead performance in The Exorcist (1973), and won the Academy Award for Best Actress the following year for her work in Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

In 1975, she won the Tony Award for her lead performance in the Broadway production of Same Time, Next Year, and received a Golden Globe Award and a fourth Academy Award nomination for her performance in the 1978 film version of the play.

Burstyn has worked consistently in film, television and theatre since, receiving multiple awards and nominations along the way, including seven additional Golden Globe Award nominations, five Emmy Award nominations (two wins), and two more Academy Award for Best Actress nominations for her performances in the films Resurrection (1980) and Requiem for a Dream (2000).

Burstyn is one of the few actresses to have won the Triple Crown of Acting. In 2013, she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.[1]

Early life[edit]

Burstyn was born Edna Rae Gillooly in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of Correine Marie (née Hamel) and John Austin Gillooly.[2] She has described her ancestry as "Irish, French, Pennsylvania Dutch, a little Canadian Indian."[3][4] Burstyn has an older brother, Jack and a younger brother, Steve.[2][5] Her parents divorced when she was young and she and her brother lived with her mother and her stepfather.[2]

She attended Cass Technical High School, a university-preparatory school which allowed students to choose a specific field of study. Burstyn majored in fashion illustration.[6] In high school, she was a cheerleader, a member of the student council and was president of her junior class. She dropped out of high school during her senior year after failing her classes.[7][8] After dropping out of school, Burstyn got a job as a model in a Detroit department store. She later relocated to Dallas where she continued modeling before traveling to New York. From 1955 to 1956, she appeared as an "away we go" girl on The Jackie Gleason Show. Burstyn then decided to become an actress and chose the name "Ellen McRae" as her professional name (she would later change her surname after her marriage to Neil Burstyn in 1964).[9]


Early years[edit]

Burstyn debuted on Broadway in 1957 and joined Lee Strasberg's The Actors Studio in New York City, New York, in 1967. In 1975, she won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her performance in the comedy Same Time, Next Year (a role she would reprise in the film version in 1978).

In the early to mid-1960s, Burstyn played Dr. Kate Bartok on the NBC television soap opera The Doctors. She worked on several primetime television shows of the 1960s, including guest appearances on Perry Mason, The Real McCoys, The Virginian, Maverick (opposite Robert Colbert as Brent Maverick), Wagon Train, 77 Sunset Strip, Going My Way, The Big Valley, and Gunsmoke.


In 1971, Burstyn received Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the drama film The Last Picture Show and for Best Actress in 1973 for the horror film The Exorcist. During the filming of The Exorcist, she injured her coccyx, which led to permanent injury to her spine.[10] She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1974 for her performance in the drama Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, directed by Martin Scorsese. She also received Best Actress nominations in 1978 for Same Time, Next Year, in 1980 for the drama Resurrection, and for the drama Requiem for a Dream in 2000.[11]

Burstyn at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, September 2007

In 1977, she was a member of the jury at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival[12] and in 1988, she was a member of the jury for the 38th Berlin International Film Festival.[13] Burstyn hosted NBC's Saturday Night Live, a late-night sketch comedy and variety show, in December 1980.[14]

In 1986, Burstyn starred in her own ABC television situation comedy, The Ellen Burstyn Show costarring Megan Mullally as her daughter and Elaine Stritch as her mother; it was canceled after one season.


In 1990, she won the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre.[15]

From 2000 to 2002, Burstyn appeared in the CBS television drama That's Life. In January 2006, she starred as an Episcopalian bishop in the NBC comedy-drama series The Book of Daniel. The series, which also starred Aidan Quinn as a drug-addicted Episcopalian priest married to an alcoholic wife, was met with controversy from religious and spiritual leaders due to its unconventional portrayals of religious figures.[16] Conservative groups including American Family Association and Focus on the Family urged supporters to complain to NBC affiliates that carried the show. NBC pulled the series from its lineup after four episodes but did not publicly give a reason for doing so.[17]

In 2006, Burstyn appeared in the drama-romance film The Fountain, directed by Darren Aronofsky, with whom she worked in Requiem for a Dream. Since 2007, she has had an occasional recurring role on the HBO television drama series Big Love, playing the mother of polygamist wife Barbara Henrickson.

She provided a supporting role as the mother of two sons in the drama-romance film The Elephant King. The film originally premiered at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival but did not open in U.S. theaters until October 2008.[18]

Burstyn starred in the Broadway production of Martin Tahse's Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, based upon the novel of the same title by Allan Gurganus. The show played 19 previews and officially opened November 17, 2003. Because of unfavorable reviews, all performances after the opening night were cancelled.[19] Burstyn returned to the stage in March 2008, in the Off-Broadway production of Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Little Flower of East Orange, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a co-production by LAByrinth Theater Company and The Public Theater.[20]

In addition to her stage work, Burstyn portrayed former First Lady Barbara Bush in director Oliver Stone's biographical film W in 2008.[21] In 2009, she won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her portrayal of the bipolar estranged mother of Detective Elliot Stabler on NBC's police procedural Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.[22]

In July 2013, Burstyn was cast in Christopher Nolan's sci-fi epic Interstellar.[23] In October 2013, Burstyn was cast with Blake Lively in the film The Age of Adaline; production is set to start in March 2014.[24]

Emmy Awards and controversy[edit]

Burstyn was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Actress in a Miniseries or Movie, for her role as Jean Harris in the biographical television film The People vs. Jean Harris (1981) and again for another television drama film, Pack of Lies (1987), an adaptation of the 1983 play.

In 2006, she was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for a role credited as "Former Tarnower Steady" in HBO's biographical television film Mrs. Harris. (She had played Jean Harris in The People vs. Jean Harris).[25]

Soon after the nominations were announced, an outcry ensued from the press and the public regarding the worthiness of the nomination due to her minor role in the film, consisting of 14 seconds of screen time and 38 words of dialogue. One explanation for the nomination was that people were honoring Burstyn for her nominated but non-winning performance in the first Harris television film. A more popular accusation was that the nominating committee was either confused in its recollection, or merely "threw in" her name from sheer recognition, assuming a worthy performance without actually seeing it.[26]

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, administrator of the Primetime Emmy Awards, initially insisted that "based on the popular vote, this is a legitimate nomination." Meanwhile, HBO deflected the blame for submitting the nomination to the movie-production company. Burstyn's own reaction ranged from initial silence to comments such as, "I thought it was fabulous. My next ambition is to get nominated for seven seconds, and ultimately I want to be nominated for a picture in which I don't even appear," and "This doesn't have anything to do with me. I don't even want to know about this. You people work it out yourself."[27]

Ultimately, Kelly Macdonald, who starred in The Girl in the Cafe, won the award.[28] In March 2007, the Academy officially announced that eligibility for a Primetime Emmy Award in any long-form supporting-actor category required nominees to appear on-screen in at least five percent of the project.[29]

Many critics still cite this incident to criticize the Emmy Award nomination process, claiming that name recognition has played an increasingly visible role over the years.[29]

In 2013, she won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie for Political Animals, and referenced the controversy in her acceptance speech.

Other activities[edit]

During the 1970s, Burstyn was active in the movement to free convicted boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter from jail.[30]

In 1981, Burstyn recorded "The Ballad of the Nazi Soldier's Wife" (Kurt Weill's musical setting of Bertolt Brecht's text "Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib?") ('And what did the soldier's woman get?') for Ben Bagley's album Kurt Weill Revisited, Vol. 2.

Burstyn served as president of the Actors' Equity Association from 1982 to 1985.[31]

In 1997, Burstyn was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame.[32] In 2000, she was named co-president of the Actors Studio, alongside Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel.[33]

She is a longtime supporter of the Democratic Party and in the documentary PoliWood, attends several political events of the 2008 election campaign as a supporter of Barack Obama, commenting sadly at one point how civil competition between Democrats and Republicans no longer exists.

Burstyn is on the Board of Selectors of Jefferson Awards for Public Service.[34]

Personal life[edit]

Marriages and children[edit]

In 1950, she married Bill Alexander, but they divorced in 1957. The following year, she married Paul Roberts, with whom she adopted a son named Jefferson in 1961; the couple divorced that same year.[35]

In 1964, she married fellow actor Neil Burstyn, but the union was turbulent. Neil Burstyn was schizophrenic; he would have episodes of violence, and eventually left her. He attempted to reconcile, but she rejected this, ultimately divorcing him in 1972. In her autobiography, Lessons in Becoming Myself, Burstyn revealed that he stalked her for a period of six years after their divorce. He eventually broke into her house and raped her, but no charges were filed, as spousal rape was not yet legally a crime. He committed suicide in 1978.[36]


Burstyn was raised Catholic but now affiliates herself to all religious faiths. Her spiritual journey began with Sufi Islam. She explains: "I am a spirit opening to the truth that lives in all of these religions... I always pray to Spirit, but sometimes it's to the Goddess. Sometimes it's to Jesus... Sometimes I pray to Ganesha if I need an obstacle removed. Quan Yin is one of my favorite manifestations of the divine, the embodiment of compassion... So I have Quan Yin with me all the time."[37] Ellen has stated that in her late 30s she began to delve into the spiritual realm, coming under the tutelage of Sufi Muslim teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan; he gave her the spiritual name Hadiya, which means "she who is guided" in Arabic.



Year Title Role Notes
1964 Goodbye Charlie Franzie Salzman
1964 For Those Who Think Young Dr. Pauline Thayer Credited as Ellen McRae
1969 Winner, TheThe Winner Ellen McLeod
1970 Alex in Wonderland Beth Morrison
1970 Tropic of Cancer Mona Miller
1971 Last Picture Show, TheThe Last Picture Show Lois Farrow National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture
1972 King of Marvin Gardens, TheThe King of Marvin Gardens Sally
1973 Exorcist, TheThe Exorcist Chris MacNeil Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama
1974 Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore Alice Hyatt Academy Award for Best Actress
BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama
1974 Harry and Tonto Shirley Mallard
1974 Thursday's Game Lynne Evers Television movie
1977 Providence Sonia Langham
1978 Dream of Passion, AA Dream of Passion Brenda
1978 Same Time, Next Year Doris Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
1980 Resurrection Edna Mae McCauley Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama
Nominated—Saturn Award for Best Actress
1981 Silence of the North Olive Frederickson Nominated—Genie Award for Best Performance by a Foreign Actress
1981 People vs. Jean Harris, TheThe People vs. Jean Harris Jean Harris Television movie
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress – Miniseries or a Movie
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film
1984 Ambassador, TheThe Ambassador Alex Hacker
1984 Terror in the Aisles Archival footage
1985 Into Thin Air Joan Walker Television movie
1985 Twice in a Lifetime Kate MacKenzie
1985 Surviving: A Family in Crisis Tina Brogan Television movie
1986 Act of Vengeance Margaret Yablonski Television movie
1986 Something in Common Lynn Hollander Television movie
1987 Look Away Mary Todd Lincoln Television movie
1987 Pack of Lies Barbara Jackson Television movie
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress – Miniseries or a Movie
1988 Hanna's War Katalin
1990 When You Remember Me Nurse Cooder Television movie
1991 Grand Isle Mademoiselle Reisz
1991 Dying Young Mrs. O'Neil
1991 Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love Lillian "Lil" Lambert Television movie
1992 Taking Back My Life: The Nancy Ziegenmeyer Story Wilma Television movie
1993 Shattered Trust: The Shari Karney Story Joan Delvecchio Television movie
1993 Cemetery Club, TheThe Cemetery Club Esther Moskowitz
1994 Trick of the Eye Frances Griffin Television movie
1994 Getting Gotti Jo Giaclone Television movie
1994 When a Man Loves a Woman Emily
1994 Getting Out Arlie's Mother Television movie
1994 Color of Evening, TheThe Color of Evening Kate O'Reilly
1995 How to Make an American Quilt Hy Dodd Nominated—Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
1995 Baby-Sitters Club, TheThe Baby-Sitters Club Emily Haberman
1995 Follow the River Gretel Television movie
1995 My Brother's Keeper Helen Television movie
1995 Roommates Judith
1996 Timepiece Maud Gannon Television movie
1996 Our Son, the Matchmaker Iva Mae Longwell Television movie
1996 Spitfire Grill, TheThe Spitfire Grill Hannah Ferguson
1997 Flash Laura Strong Television movie
1997 Deceiver Mook
1997 Deadly Vision, AA Deadly Vision Yvette Watson Television movie
1998 Playing by Heart Mildred
1998 Patron Saint of Liars, TheThe Patron Saint of Liars June Clatterbuck Television movie
1998 You Can Thank Me Later Shirley Cooperberg
1999 Walking Across Egypt Mattie Rigsbee
1999 Night Ride Home Maggie Television movie
2000 Mermaid Trish Gill Television movie
Nominated—Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Special
2000 Requiem for a Dream Sara Goldfarb Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress
Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress
Florida Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress
Independent Spirit Award for Best Lead Female
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress
Las Vegas Film Critics Society Award for Best Actress
Online Film Critics Society Award for Best Actress
Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for Best Actress
Satellite Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Drama
Southeastern Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress
Stockholm International Film Festival Award for Best Actress
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated—Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress (3rd place)
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama
Nominated—National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress (3rd place)
Nominated—New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress (3rd place)
Nominated—Online Film Critics Society Award for Best Ensemble Cast
Nominated—Saturn Award for Best Actress
Nominated—Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated—Toronto Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actress (2nd place)
Nominated—Vancouver Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress
2000 Yards, TheThe Yards Val Handler
2001 Within These Walls Joan Thomas Television movie
2001 Dodson's Journey Mother
2002 Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood Viviane Joan 'Vivi' Abbott Walker
2002 Red Dragon Grandma Dolarhyde (voice only) Uncredited
2003 Brush with Fate Rika Television movie
2004 Five People You Meet in Heaven, TheThe Five People You Meet in Heaven Ruby Television movie
2004 Madam's Family: The Truth About the Canal Street Brothel, TheThe Madam's Family: The Truth About the Canal Street Brothel Tommie Television movie
2005 Mrs. Harris Ex-lover #3 (Former Tarnower "Steady") Television movie
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress – Miniseries or a Movie
2005 Down in the Valley Ma
2005 Our Fathers Mary Ryan Television movie
2006 Fountain, TheThe Fountain Dr. Lilian Guzetti
2006 Wicker Man, TheThe Wicker Man Sister Summersisle
2006 Elephant King, TheThe Elephant King Diana Hunt
2006 30 Days Maura
2007 Stone Angel, TheThe Stone Angel Hagar Shipley Genie Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Nominated—Vancouver Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress in a Canadian Film
2007 For One More Day Pauline Benetto Television movie
Nominated—Satellite Award for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film
Nominated—Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie
2008 Lovely, Still Mary
2008 W. Barbara Bush
2009 Velveteen Rabbit, TheThe Velveteen Rabbit Swan Voice role
2009 According to Greta Katherine
2009 PoliWood Herself Documentary
2009 The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond Miss Adie
2010 Mighty Macs, TheThe Mighty Macs Mother St. John
2010 Main Street Georgiana Carr
2011 Another Happy Day Doris
2011 Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You Nanette
2014 Flowers in the Attic Olivia Foxworth Television movie
2014 Draft Day Barb Weaver Filming
2014 Interstellar Post-Production
2014 Petals on the Wind Olivia Foxworth Television movie
TBA Two Men in Town Post-production
2015 Adaline Filming

October 24, 1962 The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Episode: "A Splinter Off the Old Block." Dr. Donna Whittaker (Ellen Burstyn billed as Ellen McRae)


Year Title Role Episode Notes
1962 Gunsmoke Polly Mims "The Wagon Girls"
1963 The Greatest Show on Earth Susan Mason "Big Man from Nairobi"
1964 Suspense Theater Barbara/Lucille "The Deep End" Credited as Ellen McRae
1966 The Time Tunnel Dr. Eve Holland "Crack of Doom" Credited as Ellen McRae
1967 The Big Valley Sister Jacob "Days of Grace" Credited as Ellen McRae
1969 The Virginian Kate Bürden "Last Grave at Socorro Creek"
1986–1987 The Ellen Burstyn Show Ellen Brewer 13 episodes
2000–2002 That's Life Dolly DeLucca 34 episodes
2006 The Book of Daniel Bishop Beatrice Congreve 8 episodes
2007–2011 Big Love Nancy Davis Dutton 6 episodes Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress – Drama Series
2008 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Bernie Stabler "Swing" Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress – Drama Series
Nominated—Prism Award for Performance in a Drama Episode
2012 Political Animals Margaret Barrish 6 episodes Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie
Nominated—Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Movie/Miniseries Supporting Actress
2012 Coma Mrs. Emerson 2 episodes



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  3. ^ Clark, John (October 19, 2009).Movies; Independent Minded; Academy Award Winner Ellen Burstyn, "A 'Tough Cookie,' Is Back with Two Gritty Films and a TV Show"(Abstract; (subscription required) for full article). Los Angeles Times (via ProQuest Archiver). Accessed December 20, 2009.
  4. ^ Staff writer (February 17, 1975). "Show Business: Gillooly Doesn't Live Here Anymore". Time. Accessed December 20, 2009.
  5. ^ Burstyn 2007, p. 14
  6. ^ Burstyn 2007, p. 36
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  10. ^ http://blog.koldcast.tv/2011/koldcast-news/10-creepy-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-exorcist/
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  15. ^ "The Sarah Siddons Society Awardees". Sarah Siddons Society. Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
  16. ^ Yonke, David (January 14, 2006). "'Book of Daniel' opens to controversy". The Blade (newspaper) (Toledo, Ohio). p. 3. Retrieved January 15, 2013. 
  17. ^ Camacho, Justin (January 25, 2006). "NBC Drops 'Book of Daniel' from Lineup". christianpost.com. Retrieved January 16, 2013. 
  18. ^ Goldstein, Gregg (October 27, 2008). "Little "Elephant" roars at box office". Reuters. reuters.com. Retrieved January 16, 2013. 
  19. ^ Hernanzez, Ernio (November 18, 2003). "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells No More; Show Closes on Broadway". Playbill (playbill.com). Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
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  30. ^ "N.J. Won't Seek a Retrial of Hurricane Carter". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. February 20, 1988. Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
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External links[edit]

Preceded by
Paul Newman
President of the Actors Studio
With: Al Pacino
and Harvey Keitel
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Lee Strasberg (1982)
Carlin Glynn (2007)
Lee Grant (2007)
Artistic Director of the Actors Studio
With: Al Pacino (1982)
Succeeded by
Frank Corsaro (1988)