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Mary Steenburgen

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Mary Steenburgen
Steenburgen at the 2009 ceremony to receive her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Mary Nell Steenburgen

(1953-02-08) February 8, 1953 (age 71)
  • Actress
  • comedian
  • singer
  • songwriter
Years active1978–present
Known for
  • (m. 1980; div. 1990)
  • (m. 1995)
Children2, including Charlie McDowell
RelativesLily Collins (daughter-in-law)
AwardsAcademy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture

Mary Nell Steenburgen[1] (/ˈstnbɜːrən/; born February 8, 1953) is an American actress, comedian, singer, and songwriter. After studying at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse in the 1970s, she made her professional acting debut in the Western comedy film Goin' South (1978). Steenburgen went on to earn critical acclaim for her role in Time After Time (1979) and Jonathan Demme's comedy-drama film Melvin and Howard (1980), for which she received the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Steenburgen received a Golden Globe Award nomination for Miloš Forman's drama film Ragtime (1981). Her other films include A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), Cross Creek (1983), Back to the Future Part III (1990), What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Philadelphia (1993), Nixon (1995), The Brave One (2007), Last Vegas (2013), A Walk in the Woods (2015), Book Club (2018), Nightmare Alley (2021), and Book Club: The Next Chapter (2023). She also became known for playing mothers in a string of comedy films such as Parenthood (1989), Elf (2003), Step Brothers (2008), Four Christmases (2008), The Proposal (2009), Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009), The Help (2011), and Happiest Season (2020).

She received nominations for a BAFTA TV Award for the miniseries Tender Is the Night (1985) and a Primetime Emmy Award for the television film The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank (1988). Steenburgen has worked as a singer-songwriter for numerous films, in some of which she starred. For her song "Glasgow (No Place Like Home)", written for the musical film Wild Rose (2018), she received the Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Song.

Early life[edit]

Steenburgen was born February 8, 1953, in Newport, Arkansas, to Nellie Mae (née Wall),[2] a school-board secretary, and Maurice Hoffman Steenburgen, a freight-train conductor who worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad.[3][4][1][5] She has a sister, Nancy Kelly (née Steenburgen), a teacher.[6] In 1971, she enrolled at Hendrix College to study drama.[1] She subsequently traveled to Dallas at the suggestion of her drama teacher where she successfully auditioned for New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre.[1]


Steenburgen moved to Manhattan in 1972 after the Neighborhood Playhouse offered her an opportunity to study acting. She worked as a server at The Magic Pan and for Doubleday while studying under William Esper.[6]

Film career[edit]

Steenburgen's break came when she was discovered by Jack Nicholson in the reception room of Paramount Pictures's New York office and was cast as the female lead in his second directorial work, the Western comedy Goin' South (1978).[6] Steenburgen had a leading role in the film Time After Time (1979), for which she won the Saturn Award for Best Actress. She played a modern woman who falls in love with author H. G. Wells, played by Malcolm McDowell, whom she married the following year.

In her third film, she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film Melvin and Howard (1980). She played Lynda Dummar, the wife of Melvin Dummar, a trucker and aspiring singer who claimed to have befriended reclusive eccentric Howard Hughes. Another notable film appearance came in the well-received film Cross Creek (1983), in which she portrayed Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling. In 1985, she starred in the film One Magic Christmas as someone who falls on devastating times at Christmas, only to rely on a miracle to save her family. In 1989, she played Karen Buckman in Parenthood. In Back to the Future Part III (1990), Steenburgen played Clara Clayton, a schoolteacher who falls in love with Doc Brown. She was persuaded to play the role by her children, as well as by fans of the Back to the Future films, and reprised the role by providing the character's voice in Back to the Future: The Animated Series.

Other performances have been in What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), as a woman who is having an affair with the title character; My Summer Story (1994), as the mother of Ralphie Parker (the sequel to A Christmas Story); the role of Hannah Milhous Nixon in the Oliver Stone biopic Nixon (1995); and the Will Ferrell comedy Elf (2003), as a woman who discovers that her husband is the father of one of Santa's elves.

Steenburgen in December 2000

She has appeared in the comedy films Step Brothers (2008), playing the mother of Will Ferrell's character; Four Christmases (2008); and The Proposal (2009). Dirty Girl, which featured Steenburgen, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12, 2010. She also appeared in the critically acclaimed film The Help (2011) and had a featured role as a lounge singer, who is the romantic interest in a love triangle, in the comedy film Last Vegas (2013). She had a small role in the comedy-drama film A Walk in the Woods as Jeannie. In 2018, Steenburgen starred with Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda and Candice Bergen in the romantic comedy film Book Club.

Television career[edit]

In television, Steenburgen appeared as Kate Montgomery in Ink (1996) and co-starred as Mary Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels (1996). She has a recurring role as herself in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Steenburgen co-starred as Helen Girardi, the mother of Amber Tamblyn's title character in Joan of Arcadia. In 2011, she had a recurring role as Josephine in the HBO sitcom Bored to Death. Steenburgen starred as Anastasia Lee in the 2011 FX pilot Outlaw Country,[7] but it was passed by the network.[8] She appeared in the dark sitcom Wilfred from 2011 through 2013 as Catherine Newman, the title character's eccentric and mentally ill mother. Steenburgen had a recurring role on the NBC sitcom 30 Rock from 2012 to 2013 where she played Diana Jessup.

In 2014, she began a recurring role as former Dixie Mafia boss Katherine Hale in the fifth and sixth seasons of Justified.

From 2015 to 2018, she starred as Gail Klosterman on the comedy series The Last Man on Earth.

From 2020 to 2021, she played the role of Maggie Clarke in the NBC musical comedy-drama series Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist for two seasons. She reprised the role for The Roku Channel television film Zoey's Extraordinary Christmas.

Music career[edit]

In 2007, Steenburgen underwent minor surgery on her arm, which required a general anaesthetic; shortly thereafter, she began experiencing "music (...) playing in her head day and night". She subsequently took music lessons so that she could write down what she was hearing, and by 2013 had almost 50 songwriting credits.[9] She has collaborated with musicians from Nashville and was also signed to Universal Music Group as a songwriter.[10] She performs one of her own songs in Last Vegas.[11]

In 2018, her composition "Glasgow (No Place Like Home)" as performed by Jessie Buckley featured as the climactic musical moment in the film Wild Rose and won Steenburgen several awards, including Critic Choice Award.[12] On October 30, 2020, Steenburgen signed a global publishing deal with Universal Music Publishing Group.[13]

Personal life[edit]

In 1978, Steenburgen met and began dating actor Malcolm McDowell while they were co-starring in Time After Time.[14] They married and had two children together, including son Charlie McDowell. They divorced in 1990, and he remarried the next year.[15] On October 7, 1995, Steenburgen married actor Ted Danson, whom she had met on the set of the film Pontiac Moon, and became the stepmother to Danson's two daughters from his previous marriage to producer Cassandra Coates.[16][17]

Steenburgen resides in the Los Angeles area with her family.[18] An alumna of Hendrix College, she received an honorary doctorate from the institution in 1989.[19] In 2006, Steenburgen received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas.[20] In September 2005, she and Danson gave a guest lecture for students at the Clinton School of Public Service, where they discussed their roles in public service as well as the foundations and causes in which they are involved.[21]

Steenburgen is a friend of former senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and supported, with Danson, Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign.[22] She spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Steenburgen is involved with various groups ranging from human rights to environmental causes.[23]

Since 2014, Steenburgen's son Charlie McDowell has had a running joke at her expense, claiming on numerous occasions on social media that his mother is actress Andie MacDowell.[24]



Year Title Role Notes
1978 Goin' South Julia Tate Moon
1979 Time After Time Amy Robbins
1980 Melvin and Howard Lynda West Dummar
1981 Ragtime Mother
1982 A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy Adrian
1983 Cross Creek Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Romantic Comedy Phoebe Craddock
1985 One Magic Christmas Ginny Grainger
1987 Dead of Winter Julie Rose / Katie McGovern / Evelyn
The Whales of August Young Sarah
End of the Line Rose Pickett
1989 Miss Firecracker Elaine Rutledge
Parenthood Karen Buckman
1990 Back to the Future Part III Clara Clayton
The Long Walk Home Narrator (voice)
1991 The Butcher's Wife Stella Keefover
1993 What's Eating Gilbert Grape Betty Carver
Philadelphia Belinda Conine
1994 Clifford Sarah Davis Daniels
Pontiac Moon Katherine Bellamy
It Runs in the Family Mrs. Parker (mother)
1995 My Family Gloria
The Grass Harp Sister Ida
Powder Jessie Caldwell
Nixon Hannah Milhous Nixon
2001 Nobody's Baby Estelle
The Trumpet of the Swan Mother (voice)
Life as a House Colleen Beck
I Am Sam Dr. Blake
2002 Sunshine State Francine Pinkney
Wish You Were Dead Sally Rider
2003 Hope Springs Joanie Fisher
Casa de los Babys Gayle
Elf Emily Hobbs
2005 Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School Marienne Hotchkiss
2006 The Dead Girl Leah's mother
Inland Empire Visitor #2
2007 Elvis and Anabelle Geneva
Nobel Son Sarah Michaelson
Numb Dr. Blaine
The Brave One Carol
Honeydripper Amanda Winship
2008 Step Brothers Nancy Huff
Four Christmases Marilyn
2009 American Outrage Narrator Documentary
In the Electric Mist Bootsie Robicheaux
The Proposal Grace Paxton
The Open Road Katherine
Did You Hear About the Morgans? Emma Wheeler
2010 Dirty Girl Peggy
2011 Keepin' It Real Estate Claire Short film
The Help Elaine Stein
2012 Mrs. Pilgrim Goes to Hollywood Mary
2013 Last Vegas Diana Boyle
Brahmin Bulls Helen West
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya The Bamboo Cutter's Wife (voice)
2014 Song One Karen
2015 A Walk in the Woods Jeannie
2016 The Book of Love Julia
Dean Carol
Katie Says Goodbye Maybelle
2017 The Discovery Interviewer
I Do... Until I Don't Cybil Burger
2018 Book Club Carol
Antiquities Dr. Margot
2019 Flannery Narrator
2020 Happiest Season Tipper Caldwell
2021 Nightmare Alley Mrs. Kimball
2023 Book Club: The Next Chapter Carol


Year Title Role Notes
1983 Faerie Tale Theatre Mary / Little Red Riding Hood Episode: "Little Red Riding Hood"
1985 Tender Is the Night Nicole Warren Diver Miniseries
1988 The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank Miep Gies Television film
1991–1992 Back to the Future Clara Clayton (voice) Main role
1994 The Gift Catherine Television short film
1995 Frasier Marjorie (voice) Episode: "Retirement Is Murder"
1996 Gulliver's Travels Mary Gulliver Miniseries
1996–1997 Ink Kate Montgomery Main role
1998 About Sarah Sarah Elizabeth McCaffrey Television film
1999 Noah's Ark Naamah Television film
2000 Picnic Rosemary Sydney Television film
2000–2017 Curb Your Enthusiasm Mary Steenburgen 6 episodes
2002 Living with the Dead Detective Karen Condrin Television film
2002 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Grace Rinato Episode: "Denial"
2003–2005 Joan of Arcadia Helen Girardi Main role
2004 Becker Patient Episode: "DNR"
2004 It Must Be Love Clem Gazelle Television film
2004 Capital City Elaine Summer Television film
2007 Reinventing the Wheelers Claire Wheeler Television film
2009 Happiness Isn't Everything Audrey Veil Television film
2010 Southern Discomfort Mary Lou Dobson Television film
2011–2013 Wilfred Catherine Newman 4 episodes
2011 Robot Chicken Athena (voice) Episode: "The Core, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover"
2011 Bored to Death Josephine 4 episodes
2012 30 Rock Diana Jessup 5 episodes
2012 Outlaw Country Anastasia Lee Television film
2014–2015 Justified Katherine Hale 13 episodes
2015 Togetherness Linda 2 episodes
2015–2017 Orange Is the New Black Delia Powell 6 episodes
2015–2018 The Last Man on Earth Gail Klosterman Main role
2015 7 Days in Hell Louisa Poole Television film
2015 Turkey Hollow Aunt Cly Television film
2016 Blunt Talk Margaret Rudolph 4 episodes
2017 Finding Your Roots Herself Episode: "Puritans and Pioneers"
2018 The Conners Marcy Bellinger Episode: "Keep on Truckin'"
2019–2021 Bless the Harts Crystalynn Poole (voice) 7 episodes
2019 On Becoming a God in Central Florida Ellen Joy Bonar 5 episodes
2020–2021 Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist Maggie Clarke Main role
2020 Grace and Frankie Miriam 2 episodes
2020 The Good Place Music Teacher Episode: "Whenever You're Ready"
2021 Zoey's Extraordinary Christmas Maggie Clarke Television film
2022 Mr. Mayor Adriana Episode: "Murder in the Old West"

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Association Category Work Result
1978 Golden Globe Awards New Star of the Year – Actress Goin' South Nominated
1979 Saturn Awards Best Actress Time After Time Won
1980 Academy Awards Best Supporting Actress Melvin and Howard Won
Boston Society of Film Critics Best Supporting Actress Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Supporting Actress Won
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Supporting Actress Won
New York Film Critics Circle Best Supporting Actress Won
1981 Golden Globe Awards Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Ragtime Nominated
1985 Genie Awards Actress in a Leading Role One Magic Christmas Nominated
1985 British Academy Television Awards Best Actress Tender Is the Night Nominated
1988 Primetime Emmy Awards Outstanding Lead Actress – Miniseries or a Movie The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank Nominated
1989 Chicago Film Critics Association Best Supporting Actress Miss Firecracker Nominated
1990 Saturn Awards Best Supporting Actress Back to the Future Part III Nominated
1995 Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture Nixon Nominated
1998 Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie About Sarah Nominated
2004 Satellite Awards Best Supporting Actress – Television Series Joan of Arcadia Won
2011 Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture The Help Won
2019 Critics' Choice Movie Awards Best Song Wild Rose
for "Glasgow (No Place Like Home)"
Hollywood Critics Association Best Original Song Won
Houston Film Critics Society Won

In addition to these recognitions, Steenburgen received the 1,337th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on December 16, 2009.[25]


  1. ^ a b c d Emberton, Jan. "Mary Nell Steenburgen (1953–)". Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Archived from the original on December 19, 2019. Retrieved September 7, 2010.
  2. ^ "Steenburgen". Familysearch.org. Retrieved August 16, 2014.
  3. ^ "Mary Steenburgen Biography (1953-)". Film Reference. Retrieved September 7, 2010.
  4. ^ McIntosh, Barbara (April 3, 1988). "Stony Reception in Little Rock; Film by Mary Steenburgen Draws Cries of Foul in Arkansas". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on October 20, 2012. Retrieved September 7, 2010 – via Highbeam.com.
  5. ^ Stated on Finding Your Roots, October 17, 2017
  6. ^ a b c "Mary Steenburgen: Biography". TV Guide. Retrieved August 16, 2014.
  7. ^ Stanhope, Kate (June 21, 2010). "Mary Steenburgen Saddles Into Outlaw Country Pilot". TV Guide.
  8. ^ Levine, Stuart (November 17, 2011). "FX says no to 'Outlaw Country'". Variety. Retrieved September 18, 2013.
  9. ^ Mazziotta, Julie (November 14, 2019). "Mary Steenburgen's Brain 'Became Musical' After a 'Strange' Complication from a Routine Surgery". People Magazine.
  10. ^ Fisher, Luchina (October 21, 2013). "Oscar Winning Actress Mary Steenburgen Takes Up Accordion at 60". abcnews.com.
  11. ^ Newcott, Bill (January 2014). "2014 Movies for Grownups Awards". aarp.com.
  12. ^ Ehrlich, David (November 14, 2019). "How Actress Mary Steenburgen Suddenly Became a Great Songwriter". Rolling Stone.
  13. ^ Mary Steenburgen [@mary_steenburgen] (October 30, 2020). "To write music is a blessing in any situation, but the company and warmth and inspiration of the UMPG circle is my happy place. I'm so grateful! Photo by @jessiewebster". Retrieved April 20, 2021 – via Instagram.
  14. ^ Chambers, Andrea (September 1, 1980). "Malcolm McDowell's Romance with Mary Steenburgen Has Gone Just Like Clockwork". People. p. 64. Archived from the original on April 2, 2015.
  15. ^ Billen, Andrew (March 7, 2002). "Malcolm in middle age". Evening Standard. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
  16. ^ Mattern, Jessica (November 4, 2017). "Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen's Marriage Will Make You Believe in Long Lasting Love". Country Living. Hearst Digital Media. Archived from the original on November 6, 2017. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
  17. ^ Martin, Annie (October 8, 2018). "Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen Celebrate 23rd Wedding Anniversary". UPI. Retrieved June 6, 2020.
  18. ^ "Mary Steenburgen". Clinton School of Public Service. Archived from the original on September 27, 2014. Retrieved March 2, 2014.
  19. ^ "Hendrix College". Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Retrieved September 7, 2010.
  20. ^ "Acclaimed actress, Arkansas native to receive honorary Lyon degree". Lyon College Newsletter. October 2, 2006. Archived from the original on July 16, 2011. Retrieved July 10, 2010.
  21. ^ "The Clinton School Speaker Series". Clinton School of Public Service. Retrieved September 7, 2010.
  22. ^ Eilperin, Juliet (February 15, 2008). "Danson to Hit the Road for Clinton Again". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on September 5, 2012. Retrieved July 10, 2010.
  23. ^ Smiley, Tavis (October 31, 2013). "Actress Mary Steenburgen". PBS. Archived from the original on March 30, 2014. Retrieved March 2, 2014.
  24. ^ "All the times Mary Steenburgen's son Charlie McDowell trolled her by pretending actress Andie MacDowell was his mother". Celebrity. October 8, 2020. Retrieved October 11, 2020.
  25. ^ Nelsen, Jo (December 15, 2009). "Spotlight: Mary Steenburgen". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved December 26, 2019.

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