Ullman at a book signing in 1998
30 December 1959
|Alma mater||Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts|
|Net worth||£80 million (2017)|
(m. 1983; died 2013)
Tracey Ullman (born Trace Ullman; 30 December 1959) is a British-American actress, comedian, singer, writer, producer and director. Her earliest mainstream appearances were on British television sketch comedy shows A Kick Up the Eighties (with Rik Mayall and Miriam Margolyes) and Three of a Kind (with Lenny Henry and David Copperfield). After a brief singing career, she appeared as Candice Valentine in Girls on Top with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.
She emigrated from the United Kingdom to the United States, where she starred in her own network television comedy series, The Tracey Ullman Show, from 1987 until 1990, which also featured the first appearances of the long-running animated media franchise The Simpsons. She later produced programmes for HBO, including Tracey Takes On... (1996–99), for which she garnered numerous awards. Her sketch comedy series Tracey Ullman's State of the Union ran from 2008 to 2010 on Showtime. She has also appeared in several feature films. Ullman was the first British woman to be offered her own television sketch show in both the United Kingdom and the United States.
In 2016, she returned to British television with the BBC sketch comedy show Tracey Ullman's Show, her first project for the broadcaster in over thirty years. This led to the creation of the topical comedy series Tracey Breaks the News in 2017.
Tracey Ullman was born Trace Ullman in Slough, Buckinghamshire (now Berkshire), the younger of two daughters, to Doreen (née Cleaver) and Antoni John Ullman. Her mother was British, with Roma ancestry, and her father was a Roman Catholic Pole. On the subject of the spelling of her name: "My real name is Trace Ullman, but I added the 'y.' My mother said it was spelled the American way, but I don't think she can spell! I always wanted a middle name. My mum used to tell me it was Mary but I never believed her. I looked on my birth certificate and I didn't have one, just Trace Ullman."
Antoni Ullman served in the Polish Army and was evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940. He subsequently worked as a solicitor, a furniture salesman, and a travel agent. He also brokered marriages and translated among the émigré Polish community. Doreen and Anthony recognized their younger daughter's talents early on and encouraged her to perform.
In an interview with Fresh Air host Terry Gross, Ullman revealed that, when she was six, her father, who had been recovering from a heart operation, died of a heart attack in front of her while the two were alone and as he was reading to her. "When that happens to you as a child, you can face anything. You're always waiting for the other shoe to drop. If something great happens, you're like, 'Wow, that's great that happened, because it could have been crap'. The most disappointing thing happened when you were younger [...] You're just braver and if good things happen you're really grateful."
Ullman, who had been living an upper-middle-class life, was uprooted to Hackbridge, southwest London, along with her older sister Patti and her mother, who could now barely make ends meet without their father's income. "After [Dad] died, our fortunes came and went because Mum couldn't speak Polish and had to give up the business. When I meet other girls who lost their fathers when they were young, I really relate to them. You become independent quickly; I could cope with anything because of that terrible loss." Doreen would go on to take a variety of odd jobs. "My mother was always doing strange things like driving parts around for a garage, all covered in oil and paid 10 pounds a week. But she was very funny, and our defence against hardship was having a great sense of humour." On a separate occasion, on the subject of her mother's jobs, Ullman recalled: "[Mum] worked in a laboratory, testing food, and would bring home samples for our dinner. Sometimes she'd have to report that formula X had been found unfit for human consumption." One of her mother's jobs enabled Ullman to indulge in her penchant for observing people. "My mum used to work in a mental institution in London when I was a kid, and I used to go there on Sundays, and I used to love studying the people there." Her mother maintained that their family was still middle-class in the absence of their father. "My mother always insisted on middle-class because we had money at one time. We're really lower-middle."
Ullman credits her sense of humour to a feeling of classlessness as well as her mother's working-class roots. "It comes from being classless, I think. My father was Polish and he died when I was six. And from being a little girl who went to gymkhana and had ponies, and went to a private school, and lived in a big house we suddenly didn't have any money any more and had to go to a state school. And my mother's family is all from South London, and we have a lot of uncles and friends over there. And when my father died they were very supportive, and they used to come down for the weekend - all these hordes of South London oiks. They used to invade our big Posh Bucks home and use the swimming pool, ride the ponies, and they were so funny these blokes; they really affected my sense of humour ... But I think the man who really affected my sense of humour was my uncle Butch, he was called Butch Castle. He was a decorator from South London - lazy old sod. An he's got the sharpest mind I've ever known; he's so hysterically funny. And I wanted to be like him."
In the aftermath of their father's death, their mother slipped into a deep depression and spent a lot of time in bed. In an effort to cheer her up, Ullman, along with her sister, created and performed a nightly variety show on the windowsill in their mother's bedroom. "It was originally the Patti Ullman Show. So I'm a spin-off of my sister's show, as she likes to point out". In the show, Ullman would mimic neighbours, teachers, family members, and celebrities such as Julie Andrews and Édith Piaf. "Some kids can play the piano or kick a football; I could just impersonate everyone." She would also perform alone for herself after everyone had gone to bed. "I'd stand in front of the mirror and talk to myself until I fell asleep. I'd interview myself as women with problems. Women in documentaries who had three kids and chain-smoked and husbands in prison that hit them." She was particularly interested in Ken Loach films; films such as Cathy Come Home, which she as a child believed was a real documentary and would reenact. Her mother would eventually remarry to a man who Ullman has described as a maniac who drove a London taxi and had a son who stole. "We weren't the Brady Bunch, let me tell you!" The marriage brought an end to the children's late night antics. "There was a new person in her bed now and I couldn't do my nightly performance anymore. I was nine years old and my show had been cancelled." Alcoholism and domestic violence became a common occurrence in the household. The marriage also resulted in the family moving around the country, with Ullman attending numerous state schools. Her flair for mimicry helped with the transitions as her new classmates didn't take to her upper crust accent. "I had to talk like them to avoid being beaten up."
Ullman wrote and performed in school plays and it was there that she caught the eye of a headmaster who recommended that she attend a "special school." "I thought he meant a school for juvenile delinquents." Eventually her mother agreed and at age twelve she won a full scholarship to the Italia Conti Academy. Despite the encouragement she received from family, friends, and teachers, her big boost of confidence came from a very unlikely source: a clairvoyant who predicted that she would become famous, especially in America. Some of her earliest work included an appearance on The Tommy Steele Show when she was thirteen, and acting as a model for British teenage magazines My Guy and Photo Love. Ullman also did radio work when she was thirteen. One of her jobs was recording English lessons for Swedish children. "I used to have to say these ridiculous sentences really slowly in my poshest voice. I remember once having to say 'Peter wants a wonk.' I told the producer it was really suggestive but he insisted that wonk meant fairy. Have you ever heard that?"
She would end up loathing Italia Conti saying, "I hated the pressure that many of the children were under. Many of the kids were forced to grow up too fast, their careers were being decided for them before they were 13. If I went to an audition then they'd always choose the sweetest, prettiest kid. I wasn't obviously beautiful so I used to miss out." Ullman has also alleged that the owners taught their own children and that a certain level of favouritism seemed to exist. She also felt that the education she was receiving was of very little value. "These stupid teachers would come in and go, 'Good morning, darlings, lets all be dustbins!' I'd go, 'Oh, shut up! I wanna be a banana!'"
The treatment she received at school led to her spending more time in pubs than in class. Despite her tardiness, she passed her O levels. Before long, her interest in performing began to wane and her family could no longer afford tuition. She then set her sights on becoming a travel agent like her late father.
At sixteen, she was goaded into attending a dance audition by some school friends whilst under the impression that she was applying for summer season in Scarborough. The audition resulted in a contract with a German ballet company for a revival of Gigi in Berlin. Upon returning to England, she joined the "Second Generation" dance troupe, performing in London, Blackpool and Liverpool. Her dancing career would come to an abrupt end when she forgot to wear underwear during a performance. She subsequently branched out into musical theatre and was cast in numerous West End musicals including Grease, Elvis The Musical, and The Rocky Horror Show.
Disillusioned with the entertainment industry, Ullman sought full-time employment working in a paper products distribution company. Her boredom with the job led to her competing in a contest at London's Royal Court Theatre; Four in a Million, an improvised play about club acts. She created the character Beverly, a born again Christian chanteuse. The performance was a big success and won her the London Critics Circle Theatre Award as Most Promising New Actress. At this point the BBC became interested, which led to a successful career in television. She would soon go on to become a household name in Britain, with the British media referring to her as 'Our Trace'.
With fame came intense scrutiny of her personal life. The press became increasingly aggressive, printing untrue or exaggerated stories, and soliciting information from people who supposedly knew her. An ex-boyfriend sold his story about his life with her to the News of the World. "He appeared on television with my dog saying, 'I'm going to tell you about the real Tracey Ullman. Aren't we Lilly?'"
When she hastily married television producer Allan McKeown in 1983, it made front-page news all over the country, with the press placing bets on how long the marriage would last; it lasted nearly thirty years, until McKeown's death in 2013.
Ullman, who had already made a name for herself as a comedian with her BBC comedy series Three of a Kind, had a chance encounter with the wife of the head of the punk music label Stiff Records, Dave Robinson. The meeting led to her recording her first album. "One day, I was at my hairdresser, and Dave Robinson's wife Rosemary leant over and said, 'Do you want to make a record?' I was having some of those Boy George kind of dreadlock things put in and I went, 'Yeah I want to make a record.' I would have tried anything".
Her future husband Allan McKeown had reservations about her launching a music career and tried talking her out of it. "When I first met Miss Ullman, I was a TV producer, and I called her into my office in London and I told her that she had a big career in comedy, and she said to me, 'Well actually, I'm doing a record next week,' and I said, 'Now listen here Miss Ullman, if I know anything about show business, is that you shouldn't get involved with singing. Imagine how stupid I felt about four months later, I'm in London driving around and I hear, 'And now, the Top of the Pops, Tracey Ullman with 'They Don't Know About Us.'”
Her 1983 debut album, You Broke My Heart in 17 Places, featured her first hit single, "Breakaway" (famous for her performance with a hairbrush as a microphone), and the international hit cover version of label-mate Kirsty MacColl's "They Don't Know," which reached #2 in the UK, #35 in Germany and #8 in the United States. MacColl sang backing vocals on Ullman's version. In less than two years, Ullman had six songs in the UK Top 100.
A cover of Doris Day's "Move Over Darling" reached #8 in the UK, and a cover of Madness' "My Girl", which she changed to "My Guy", had a video that featured the British Labour Party politician Neil Kinnock, at the time the Leader of the Opposition.
Ullman's songs were over-the-top evocations of 1960s and 1970s pop music with a 1980s edge, "somewhere between Minnie Mouse and the Supremes" as the Melody Maker put it, or "retro before retro was cool," as a reviewer wrote in 2002. Her career received another boost when the video for "They Don't Know" featured a cameo from Paul McCartney; at the time Ullman was filming a minor role in McCartney's film Give My Regards to Broad Street. She released her second (and final) album, You Caught Me Out, in 1984.
She gave up her music career after an incident that occurred on a Dutch television show. "The host said to me, 'Tracey Ullman. Hello!' I said, 'Hello' and he went, 'Guffaw, guffaw. Crazy as ever!' Then I was standing in the background and he slung a rat over my shoulder. I thought, 'That's it, I don't want to do this anymore.'"
While she has chosen to end her recording career, she has continued singing in film, television, and theatre.
Ullman got her first television acting job when she was seventeen, in a Heinz soup advert where she had to wear a cow's head.
She tried her hand at serious drama, playing Lynda Bellingham's daughter in the 1980 BBC TV series Mackenzie, but said that she found that she wasn't cut out to be a straight actress. "I really thought I was great when I did a quite serious soap opera for the BBC. I played a nice girl from St. John's Wood. 'Mummy, I think I'm pregnant. I don't know who's done it.' Then I would fall down a hill or something. 'EEEEE! Oh, no, lost another baby.' It seemed all I ever did was have miscarriages—or make yogurt."
In 1981, the success of her performance in the Royal Court Theatre's production of Four in a Million led to many offers; one being the chance to move into television comedy. The BBC was quick to cast her in the BBC Scotland sketch comedy programme A Kick Up the Eighties. The network was so impressed with her that it offered her her own series. She initially turned down the offer. "My first reaction was you must be joking, as women are treated so shoddily in comedy. Big busty barmaids and all those sort of cliches just bore me rigid." She also had reservations due to a lack of female contemporaries. "At that time English women weren't really allowed to be funny on television. I didn't have any examples. I mean, I didn't have a Gilda Radner, Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin. I mean, my only point of reference, quite honestly, was the Benny Hill girls." Ullman got into her performing arts school by doing an impersonation of Lily Tomlin. Eventually a deal was made with the proviso that she would get to choose the show's writers, have script approval, and choose the costumes. Three of a Kind, co-starring comedians Lenny Henry and David Copperfield, debuted in 1981.
In an interview with Amanda Root for The Musical Express magazine, Ullman was asked about critics labeling the show "non-sexist humour." Did it exist? "Not unless it's cleverly done. When we did Three of a Kind we kept getting sketches sent in about me as a traffic warden, or me being a busty barmaid. Writers that have no idea about women - their typical way of starting a sketch is to say, Tracey is sitting there, filing her nails and chewing gum, as if all girls are stupid. Sketches beginning like that used to really get on my nerves. But as soon as we found the right team of writers, they weren't into that sort of thing, so it worked out OK." She went on to win her first BAFTA Award in the category of Best Light Entertainment Performance for Three of a Kind in 1984.
In 1982, she met her future husband, Allan McKeown, a television producer with his own production company, Witzend Productions. McKeown discovered her when he happened to catch her in an episode of Three of a Kind. The two eventually worked together on a television pilot for Central Television, A Cut Above, about a 1960s hairdresser (McKeown's former profession) who meets a posh girl (Ullman). "Pilot didn't work, but I got a husband out of it," said Ullman in 1990.
In 1983, she signed on to star in a comedy about four women sharing a flat together, Girls on Top (provisionally titled Four-Play, Bitches on Heat, and Four Fs to Share). She was cast as the promiscuous golddigger Candice Valentine. The show didn't go into production until early 1985 due to an electricians' strike at the studio where the series was set to film. The show, co-starring comedians Dawn French, Ruby Wax and Jennifer Saunders (who also wrote the scripts), continued after Ullman bowed out after the first series. In her book, Bonkers: My Life in Laughs, Saunders writes, "If Ruby taught us how to write funny, then Tracey was a lesson in how to act funny. She was by far the most famous of us, having starred with Lenny Henry in 'Three of a Kind.'”
She's just brilliant–a bloodsucker of personalities. You walk away, and she's taken a little bit of your brain.
In April 1984, Five Faces of Tracey, described as an 'all film series of five half hours' starring Ullman as one character per episode in one 'self-contained story,' was announced as scheduled to begin filming in July of that year written by Ruby Wax and herself. The series never came to fruition.
The Tracey Ullman Show
In 1985, Ullman was persuaded by her husband to join him in Los Angeles, where he was already partially based. She was no stranger to the United States, as she had promoted her music career there, appearing and performing on an array of American talk shows. She had also just completed a press junket for her film, the period drama, Plenty there. The US knew her as a singer and a now budding serious film actress; not the television comedian of her homeland. When she agreed to make the move to the America, she had set her sights on a film and stage career, believing that there was little in the way of television for her. "I didn't believe there was anything above Webster standard. I was wrong."
Her British agent put together a videotape containing a compilation of her work and began circulating it around Hollywood. The tape landed in the lap of Craig Kellem, vice president for comedy at Universal Television. "I could not believe my eyes. It was just about the most extraordinary piece of material I'd seen in a long time." He wanted production on a series to begin immediately for her.
A deal was struck right away with CBS television, who went from ordering a pilot to ordering a full series two weeks later. A script for I Love New York, a show about a "slightly wacky" British woman working in New York, was written by Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts. Ullman hated it and the deal deteriorated.
Recalling the project, Ullman said, "We'd just hit on an idea, then some white-haired executive - very, very important - would come in from the race track and say, 'I don't like that idea. I think Tracey should be a caring person. I think there should be a kid in this. Now, I'm just pitching here. I don't know if this is funny. But I think Tracey should love this kid and maybe there's a moment where she tells the kid something about life.' And I'd say, "Look - I don't want to work with little kids being cute who I eventually adopt'."
She was also turned off by the industry's materialistic attitude. "Literally, you start your first meeting and already they're thinking about three years' syndication. 'You're going to be worth $13 million. You're going to be a very rich young lady.' I'd say, 'I don't want to talk about the millions of dollars now. Can we put that on hold? I just want to talk about something good'."
I don't think there's anybody like her, and that's a big deal. If you insist, there are parallels to Peter Sellers, an actor who did brilliant sketch comedy.
Ullman's agent then decided to send producer James L. Brooks some tapes of her work. Brooks, who had had a very successful career producing television sitcoms, had stepped away from the medium, opting instead for a career in film. Ullman's material was so good that it lured him back to television. "I started showing [her work] to people like you'd show home movies," revealed Brooks. "I was just startled by the size of the talent. I got chills."
Brooks felt that a sketch show would best suit her assets (acting, singing, and dancing). "Why would you do something with Tracey playing a single character on TV when her talent requires variety? You can't categorize Tracey, so it's silly to come up with a show that attempted to."
To ensure that she was well-versed in American comedy, Brooks sent her tapes of American sitcoms and variety shows to watch while at home, now pregnant. Ullman refers to it as "homework." She also visited the Museum of Television and Radio, which she would later be inducted into. She had in fact grown up watching American television in the 1970s in England. Two things stood out to her: the vast number of female comedians, as well as their not having to be conventionally attractive to be funny. "It was very true of my childhood that women needed to be sexy in order to be funny."
Brooks assembled a team of writers, and a deal with Fox Television was made. The network was looking to create its own original programming. Ullman's show, along with Married... with Children, would be the first two scripted shows produced and launched.
Scouting for a supporting cast to play opposite her began. Dan Castellaneta, a relative unknown, was asked to read for the show after he was spotted by Ullman at Chicago's Second City. Castellaneta's portrayal of a blind man who wants to be a comedian brought her to tears instead of making her laugh. Actress Julie Kavner had co-starred in Brooks' spin-off series to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, starring Valerie Harper. Kavner played Harper's younger, socially awkward sister Brenda, a role for which she won an Emmy Award. Kavner was at the top of the list of people Brooks wanted to be part of the show. Brooks on Kavner: "When somebody's intrinsically funny -- you know, in-their-bones funny -- they never have to work at (being funny), so they're free to work on other things. We were all nuts about her work. She was the person we most wanted to work with Tracey." Actor Sam McMurray read for a guest spot on the show playing William, lover of thirteen-year-old valley girl Francesca's (Ullman) father. McMurray recalling his casting: "The first Francesca sketch, they said, 'Play the guy not so gay.' And I said 'I disagree.' I had a big mouth then -— still do. I said, 'I think he's more the woman. I think he's more out there.' So I read and I read it big, and they cast me. It was just a one-off, and then we were on hiatus. I did the one week, and I had a friend coincidentally who used to write, a guy named Marc Flanagan, and he was on the show as a staff guy. He called me up and said, 'Did they call your agent?' I said, 'No, why?' He said, 'They wanna make you a regular.'" Another actor who was originally cast for a guest shot which led to becoming a series regular was choreographer Joseph Malone. The show now had its cast.
Singer-songwriter George Clinton provided the theme song for the show, "You're Thinking Right." Dancer Paula Abdul, who had not yet found fame as a singer, was hired to choreograph the show's dance numbers.
Because the Fox network was new to the world of television production, a bureaucracy had not yet been established. This enabled the show to take risks and the freedom to try things that the major networks would never permit. The series landed an initial twenty-six episode commitment deal, unheard of for a television comedy. The Tracey Ullman Show debuted on 5 April 1987. Describing the show proved difficult. Creator Ken Estin dubbed it a "skitcom". A variety of diverse original characters were created for her to perform. Extensive makeup, wigs, teeth, and body padding were utilised, sometimes rendering her unrecognisable. One original character created by Ullman back in Britain was uprooted for the series: long-suffering British spinster Kay Clark.
A typical episode of The Tracey Ullman Show consisted of three sketches, one including a song and/or a heavily choreographed dance routine. Brooks was keen on showing off all of Ullman's abilities. "It's 'Can you juggle this and keep throwing on more plates?' I'm constantly amazed." Ullman opened and closed the show as herself, adding her trademark, "Go home!," which she would shout to the studio audience for the closing. The show was shot on film, a departure from previous variety shows which were routinely shot on tape.
Looking to add "bumpers" (before and after commercial breaks) to the show, two cartoon shorts were created: "Dr. N!Godatu" and "The Simpsons." The Simpsons would go on to be spun off into its own television series.
By the time The Tracey Ullman Show ended in 1990, the show was awarded ten Emmy Awards; Ullman winning three, one in the category of Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program in 1990. The show not only scored the Fox network its first Emmy nomination, but also earned it its first-ever Emmy win.
After four seasons, Ullman decided to end the show in May 1990. In 1991, she filed a lawsuit against Twentieth Century Fox in Los Angeles Superior Court over profits from the later half-hour incarnation of The Simpsons. She wanted a share of The Simpsons' merchandising and gross profits and believed she was entitled to $2.5 million of the estimated $50 million Fox made in 1992. The Fox network had paid her $58,000 in royalties for The Simpsons as well as $3 million for the 3½ seasons her show was on the air. According to an article, as Ullman had continued her professional relationship with former producer Brooks, only the studio and not Brooks was named in the suit. Brooks was allowed to videotape his testimony as he was in the middle of filming I'll Do Anything, in which Ullman appeared. The suit was ultimately dismissed. Ullman wasn't the only one to file a lawsuit; Tracey Ullman Show executive producer Ken Estin filed a similar suit against Fox claiming that his contract called for him to receive 7.5% of revenues from The Simpsons, including a portion of merchandise. Despite losing the 1992 suit, Ullman continues to get an annual share of the show's profits.
After The Tracey Ullman Show, Ullman went on to make her big screen starring debut with I Love You To Death in 1990. That same year she hit the stage with actor Morgan Freeman for Shakespeare in the Park's production of The Taming of the Shrew. After an out-of-town tryout at The Coconut Grove Playhouse, Ullman made her Broadway debut with her one-woman show, The Big Love She had no aspirations to return to the television. In 1991, she had given birth to her second child, Johnny, and her husband was bidding on a television franchise in the South of England. Along with the bid he included a potential television programming lineup. Listed was a Tracey Ullman special. Ullman thought nothing would come of it, but to her horror, she learnt that the bid was successful.
The frantic pace of The Tracey Ullman Show was one of the key factors in her decision to give up television. That show was shot in front of a live studio audience and featured her playing on average three characters a week. She frequently wore layers of costuming to disguise herself. The prosthetic makeup was at times excessive. In her book Tracey Takes On, she recalls an incident where she fainted on the makeup room floor, having to be revived before rushing out to give a performance.
Unlike the Fox show though, this special would be shot entirely on location, allowing ample time to apply makeup, wigs, and other accoutrements for the characters; so Ullman felt less panicked. She decided to do a send up of the British class system. All new characters were created and she was joined by Monty Python's Michael Palin for each of the show's sketches. Tracey Ullman: A Class Act premiered on 9 January 1993 on ITV.
The special, Tracey Ullman Takes on New York debuted on 9 October 1993 and both it and Ullman went on to win two Emmy Awards, a CableAce Award, an American Comedy Award, and a Writers Guild of America Award. The success of the special led the network to broach the subject of a "Takes On" series. Ullman and her husband liked the idea and set up production on Tracey Takes On... in Los Angeles in 1995.
As with the special Takes On New York, each episode of Tracey Takes On... centered on a single subject. Characters created for A Class Act and Takes On New York were adapted for the HBO series, along with several new characters, as well as the character Kay Clark. Unlike The Tracey Ullman Show, Tracey Takes On... had a rotating roster of upwards of twenty characters repeated throughout the run of the show. Also, unlike The Tracey Ullman Show, Tracey Takes On... was a single-camera comedy, shot heavily on location, without a studio audience.
Ullman and the show went on to receive a slew of awards including six Emmy Awards, two CableAce Awards, three American Comedy Awards, two GLAAD Media Awards, as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award in 1999 for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series.
Purple Skirt and Oxygen
In 2001, Ullman took a break from her character-based work and created a fashion-based talk show for Oxygen Network, Tracey Ullman's Visible Panty Lines. The series was spun off from her e-commerce clothing store Purple Skirt, which had been launched a few years prior. Interviewees included Arianna Huffington and Charlize Theron. The show lasted for two seasons and ended in 2002.
Return to HBO
A pilot for a Tracey Takes On... spin-off, Tracey Ullman in the Trailer Tales, was produced in 2003 for HBO. The show spotlighted just one character, Ruby Romaine. Ullman made her directorial debut with the show. No series was commissioned and the episode aired as a one-off comedy special.
Upon her naturalisation in the United States, it was announced in April 2007 that she would be making the switch from her 14-year working relationship with cable network HBO to Showtime. Ullman created a brand new series for the network which was concerned with many aspects of American life: "The good, the bad, and the absolutely ridiculous."
Ullman credits both senior programmer Robert Greenblatt and the network's list of hit shows as having influenced her decision to switch networks. Greenblatt was a young development director during her Tracey Ullman Show days and was enthusiastic to get her over to Showtime. Five episodes were ordered for the first season.
It's been fascinating to watch Ullman evolve from, say, Imogene Coca and Carol Burnett to something leaner and meaner, like a young Whoopi Goldberg. Or Lenny Bruce, with his surreal jive and need to shock. Or Lily Tomlin, signalling in coded transmissions through a worm hole to some parallel universe. Or Anna Deavere Smith, chameleon and exorcist, seeing around corners and speaking in tongues. Or, of course, Robin Williams, before all the bad films and worse career choices, a brilliant mind unmade of equal parts politics and paranoia, music video and psychotherapy, a scrambled shaman egghead and Jack–in–a–Pandora's box. Think of America as performance art.
Ullman commented that the United States is "now able to laugh at itself more," embracing more satiric humour rather than deeming it "unpatriotic." Now that she is a citizen, she joked that she "won't end up in Guantánamo Bay" for speaking her mind.
The show ran for three seasons, concluding in 2010.
Return to British television
On 4 March 2015, it was announced that Ullman would return to the BBC with a new six-part comedy series for BBC One. It was her first project for the broadcaster in thirty years, and her first original project for British television in twenty-two. The press release stated that she would play 'a multitude of diverse and distinct characters living in, or visiting, the busy global hub that is the UK.' On 7 October 2015, it was confirmed that HBO had picked up the American rights to the show, and like the BBC, would broadcast it in 2016. On 25 August 2016, HBO formally announced that it would begin airing the series on 28 October 2016.
Tracey Ullman's Show premiered 11 January 2016. Ullman became internationally famous for parodying German chancellor Angela Merkel in this show. A German media website, Meedia, described Ullman's impersonation as the best spoof of Merkel in the world.
The BBC ordered a second series of the show in 2016. HBO in the United States aired the show's second series 20 October 2017. On 30 August 2018, HBO announced that Tracey Ullman's Show would return for a third season starting 28 September.
In 2017, Tracey Ullman's Show earned its first Primetime Emmy Award nomination in the category of Outstanding Variety Sketch Series. In 2018, it garnered two additional Primetime Emmy Award nominations in the categories of Outstanding Variety Sketch Series and Outstanding Costumes for a Variety, Nonfiction, or Reality Programming.
On 26 May 2017, the BBC announced that it had ordered a new topical half-hour Tracey Ullman special, Tracey Breaks the News for BBC One. The show was aired on 23 June 2017, shortly after the 2017 United Kingdom general election. Impersonations included Angela Merkel, Nicola Sturgeon, as well as Ullman's first take on then Prime Minister Theresa May and First Lady of the United States Melania Trump. Like Tracey Ullman's Show, it featured a mix of famous and everyday people all reacting to the aftermath of the general election along with the anniversary of the Brexit vote. It included the reaction of not only the UK, but Europeans and Russians. "I'm excited the BBC has asked me to make a show at this time. We've decided to shake it up with a more topical format because things move so fast these days it's like every 10 minutes I'm voting for something. There's never been a better time to be imitating world famous political women, and I admire and thank them all: Angela Merkel, Nicola Sturgeon, and my home girl newbie Theresa May. I can't wait to get stuck in - thanks to the BBC and my brilliant team. It really is a privilege." The special aired 23 June.
On 13 September 2017, the BBC announced that it had ordered a full series of Tracey Breaks the News following the success of the one-off special that aired in June. Like the one-off special, the three new shows were descrided to "tackle topical stories and current issues in a sketch show written and filmed right up to the day of broadcast". Ullman impersonated French First Lady Brigitte Macron and Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. The programme debuted on 27 October on BBC One. On 15 May 2018, it was formally announced that the show had been picked up for a second series to begin airing the following June on BBC One.
Other notable work
In 1995, she became the first modern-day cartoon voice of Little Lulu. In 1999, she had a recurring role as an unconventional psychotherapist on Ally McBeal. Her performance garnered her an Emmy Award and an American Comedy Award.
In 2005, she co-starred with Carol Burnett in the television adaptation of Once Upon a Mattress. She played Princess Winnifred, a role originally made famous by Burnett on Broadway. This time Burnett took on the role of the overbearing Queen Aggravain.
On 15 February 2017, it was announced that she would star in the Starz-BBC co-produced limited series adaptation of Howards End playing Aunt Juley Mund. The four-part series, directed by Hettie MacDonald, co-starring Hayley Atwell and Matthew Macfadyen, will be shot in and around London and is expected to air on BBC One in the United Kingdom and on the Starz network in the United States. On 14 September, it was announced that the series would begin broadcasting in November 2017 on BBC One.
On 14 May 2019, it was announced that Ullman would be portraying Betty Friedan in the FX limited series Mrs. America. The nine-episode series premiered April 15, 2020 on Hulu to favourable reviews. Her performance garnered her an Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie Primetime Emmy nomination.
Along with her television work, Ullman has featured in many films throughout her career. Her first theatrical film was a small role in Paul McCartney's 1984 film Give My Regards to Broad Street. This was followed by a supporting role in the 1985 Meryl Streep drama Plenty. She re-teamed with Streep for 1992's Death Becomes Her, playing Toni, a bartender who runs away with Ernest (Bruce Willis) and lives happily ever after. Director Robert Zemeckis decided to re-shoot the ending, opting for a darker, "more risky ending." This meant that Ullman's scenes would have to be cut. "We were all heartbroken over losing the character. (She) was so great." Despite the cut, some of her scenes were released in an early trailer for the film. Death Becomes Her is one of two instances in which her scenes in a film have ended up on the cutting room floor. Due to time constraints, her song in 1996's Everyone Says I Love You was deleted.
She made her big screen leading role debut in 1990's I Love You to Death acting alongside Kevin Kline, River Phoenix and Joan Plowright. She subsequently appeared in lead and supporting roles in films such as Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Nancy Savoca's Household Saints, Bullets over Broadway, Small Time Crooks and A Dirty Shame. She was nominated for a Golden Globe Award in the category of Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for her work in Small Time Crooks in 2001.
Her voice work in film includes Tim Burton's Corpse Bride and the computer-animated The Tale of Despereaux. She acted as creative consultant on the 2006 DreamWorks feature, Flushed Away.
Ullman was under serious consideration for a number of roles: Betty Rubble in 1994's The Flintstones; Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games. Director Adrian Lyne asked her to screen test for his film Fatal Attraction. She passed on the idea and the role went to Glenn Close. She was also sought for reuniting with her Plenty co-star Meryl Streep in She-Devil. The part ultimately went to comedian Roseanne Barr.
Ullman has an extensive stage career spanning back to the 1970s.
In 1983, she took part in the workshops for Andrew Lloyd Webber's upcoming musical, Starlight Express, playing the part of Pearl and Snoo Wilson's The Grass Widow at the Royal Court Theatre with actor Alan Rickman.
In 1990, she starred opposite actor Morgan Freeman as Kate in Shakespeare in the Park's production of Taming of the Shrew set in the Wild West for Joe Papp. In 1991, she made her Broadway debut with Jay Presson Allen's one-woman show The Big Love, based on the book of the same name. The Big Love recounts an alleged love affair between actor Errol Flynn and a then fifteen-year-old actress Beverly Aadland, as told by her mother, Florence Aadland (Ullman). Both Taming of the Shrew and The Big Love garnered her Theatre World Awards.
In 2012, she joined the cast of Eric Idle's What About Dick?, described as a 1940s-style stand-up improv musical comedy radio play, taking on three roles. The show played for four nights in April in Los Angeles at the Orpheum Theater. She had performed the piece previously in a test run for Idle back in 2007. Cast members included Idle, Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly, Russell Brand, Tim Curry, Jane Leeves, Jim Piddock, and Sophie Winkleman.
On 6 October 2014, it was formally announced that she would star in a limited engagement of The Band Wagon, from 6 to 16 November 2014 at City Center. The production was directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall.
Ullman married producer Allan McKeown in 1983. They had two children: Mabel, born in 1986, and Johnny, born in 1991. Mabel worked as assistant to former Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman; she stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party in 2015, and subsequently became a charity director. Johnny is an actor and currently writes for The Late Late Show with James Corden. On 24 December 2013, Allan McKeown died at home from prostate cancer, three days before their 30th wedding anniversary. Ullman's mother died in a fire at her flat on 23 March 2015. An inquest ruled the death to be accidental. She was 85 years old. On 18 September 2018, Ullman revealed that her daughter was pregnant and that she was about to be a grandmother for the first time.
Ullman became an American citizen in December 2006 and holds dual citizenship in the United States and the United Kingdom. The results of the 2004 United States presidential election, and a comment made by actor Tom Hanks, prompted her desire to naturalise. "Tom Hanks was standing in a corridor at a party and I said something, and he was just very nice and he went, 'Oh, yeah. I know that but you're British. You know, you don't have to put up with that stuff ... I went, 'No. Actually I've been here a long time.' I thought, that's it. I'm going to join in. So I took the [citizenship] test".
In 2006, she topped the list for the "Wealthiest British Comedians", with an estimated wealth of £75 million. In 2015, Ullman's wealth was estimated[by whom?] to be £77 million, making her the wealthiest British actress and female comedian. In 2017, The Sunday Times increased it to £80 million.
She has described herself as a British republican. "Even as a kid, I never got why we pay people millions of pounds to be better than us." On a particular incident: "An MP once suggested I be put in the Tower of London for saying derogatory things about the royals."
|1980||Mackenzie||Lisa Mackenzie||TV series|
|1981||Screenplay||Karen||Episode: "Happy Since I Met You"|
|A Kick Up the Eighties||Various||TV series|
|1981–83||Three of a Kind||Various||TV series|
|1985||Girls on Top||Candice Valentine||Series 1 only; additional material credit|
|1987||Saturday Night Live||Herself (uncredited)||Episode: "Garry Shandling/Los Lobos"|
"Hollywood Mom" (sketch)
|1987–1990||The Tracey Ullman Show||Various|
|Episode 2584; Season 20; 6 April 1989|
|I, Martin Short, Goes Hollywood||Tina Wise||TV film|
|1991||The Full Wax||Herself||Episode: #1.4|
|The Simpsons||Emily Winthrop (voice)
Mrs. Winfield (voice)
|Episode: "Bart's Dog Gets An F"|
|Funny Women of Television||Herself|
|1992||Sibs||Episode: "If I Only Had a Dad"|
|1993||Love & War||Dava Levine||Episode: "The Prima Dava"|
|Tracey Ullman: A Class Act||Various||Additional material credit|
|Tracey Ullman Takes on New York||Various|
|1995||The Little Lulu Show||Lulu||Season 1|
|Women of the Night IV||Herself|
|1996–99||Tracey Takes On...||Various||Creator; writer; executive producer; second unit director (season 4)|
|1998–99||Ally McBeal||Dr. Tracey Clark||Episode: "Troubled Water"|
Episode: "The Real World"
Episode: "The Playing Field"
Episode: "Theme of Life"
|2001–02||Tracey Ullman's Visible Panty Lines||Herself||TV series|
|2003||Tracey Ullman in the Trailer Tales||Ruby Romaine
|Directorial debut; writer; executive producer|
|2004||Will & Grace||Ann||Episode: "Looking for Mr. Good Enough"|
|2005||Tracey Ullman: Live and Exposed||Herself||Writer|
|Once Upon a Mattress||Princess Winnifred||TV film|
|2006||Dawn French's Girls Who Do Comedy||Herself||3 episodes|
|2007||If It Ain't Stiff||Herself|
|2008||Mumbai Calling||Telephone Voice||7 episodes|
|2008–2010||Tracey Ullman's State of the Union||Various||Creator; writer; director; executive producer|
|2011||Kennedy Center Honors||Herself||Tribute to Meryl Streep|
|2014||How I Met Your Mother||Genevieve Scherbatsky||Episode: "Vesuvius"|
Episode: "The End of the Aisle"
|Sofia the First||Marla (voice)||Episode: "Mom's the Word"|
|2015||Shakespeare Uncovered||Herself||Episode: "The Taming of the Shrew With Morgan Freeman"|
|2016||Have I Got News for You||Herself||Guest presenter; Series 51, Episode 2|
|2016–18||Tracey Ullman's Show||Various||Devised by credit; executive producer|
|2017||Girls||Ode Montgomery||Episode: "Painful Evacuation"|
|Tracey Breaks the News||Various||Devised by credit; executive producer|
|Howards End||Aunt Juley||Miniseries|
|The President Show||Herself||Episode: "I Came Up with Christmas: A President Show Christmas"|
|2017–18||Tracey Breaks the News||Various||TV series|
|2018||Have I Got News for You||Herself||Guest host; Series 55, Episode 9|
|2020||Mrs. America||Betty Friedan||Miniseries|
|Death to 2020||The Queen||Television special|
|1984||Give My Regards to Broad Street||Sandra|
|The Young Visiters||Ethel Monticue|
|1985||Plenty||Alice Park||Nominated - BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role|
|1986||Jumpin' Jack Flash||Fiona|
|1990||I Love You to Death||Rosalie Boca|
|Happily Ever After||Thunderella (voice)
|1992||Death Becomes Her||Toni||Scenes deleted|
|1993||Robin Hood: Men in Tights||Latrine|
|Household Saints||Catherine Falconetti|
|1994||I'll Do Anything||Beth Hobbs|
|Bullets over Broadway||Eden Brent|
|1996||Everyone Says I Love You||Scenes deleted|
|Small Time Crooks||Frenchy||Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical|
|2004||A Dirty Shame||Sylvia Stickles|
|The Cat That Looked at a King||The Cat (voice)||Video|
|2005||Corpse Bride||Nell Van Dort (voice)
|Kronk's New Groove||Ms. Birdwell (voice)||Video|
|2006||The Queen||Self (uncredited)||Archive footage|
|Flushed Away||Creative consultant|
|2007||I Could Never Be Your Woman||Mother Nature|
|2008||The Tale of Despereaux||Mig (voice)|
|2014||Into the Woods||Jack's Mother|
|The Prom||Vera Glickman|
|"They Don't Know"||Dave Robinson|
|"Move Over Darling"|
|1991||"Monster in the Mirror"||Laura Di Trapani|
|2013||"Queenie Eye"||Simon Aboud|
|1976||Gigi||Theater des Westens, Berlin|
|1977||Second Generation||Blackpool and Liverpool|
|1978||Elvis The Musical||London Astoria|
|Oh! Boy||London Astoria|
|The Rocky Horror Show||Janet||Comedy Theatre|
|It's a Madhouse||Vera||Everyman Theatre|
|1981||Four in a Million||Beverly||Royal Court Theatre|
|1981–82||Dick Whittington||Dick||Theatre Royal, Newcastle|
|1982||Rita, Sue and Bob Too||Bob's wife||Royal Court Theatre|
|She Stoops to Conquer||Kate Hardcastle||Lyric Hammersmith|
|Bows and Arrows||Henrietta||Young Writer's Festival|
|1983||The Grass Widow||Carmen||Royal Court Theatre|
|1990||The Taming of the Shrew||Kate||Delacorte Theater|
|1991||The Big Love||Florence Aadland||The Orpheum Theatre|
|2005||Tracey Ullman: Live and Exposed||Self||The Fonda Theatre|
|2011||My City||Elizabeth Lambert||Almeida Theatre|
|2012||What About Dick?||Aunt Maggie
The Countess von Kuns
|The Orpheum Theatre|
|2014||The Band Wagon||Lily Martin||New York City Center|
|You Broke My Heart in 17 Places||14||34|
|You Caught Me Out||
|"—" denotes a recording that failed to chart or was not released in that territory.|
|Title||Album details||Peak chart positions|
|ARIA||US||US Billboard Top Soundtracks||SNEP|
|Into the Woods||13||8||2||—|
|"—" denotes releases that did not chart or were not released in that territory.|
|Three of a Kind (with Lenny Henry and David Copperfield)|
|Forever – The Best of Tracey Ullman|
|The Best of Tracey Ullman: You Broke My Heart in 17 Places||
|Breakaway: The Very Best of...||
|The Very Best of Tracey Ullman||
|The Best of... Tracey Ullman||
|Tracey Ullman Takes on the Hits||
|Tracey Ullman - Move Over Darling: The Complete Stiff Recordings||
- Puss in Boots (Told by Tracey Ullman with Music by Jean Luc Ponty, Rabbit Ears Entertainment), 1993.
- Wise Children (Performed by Tracey Ullman, Audible Studios), 2018.
|Title||Year||Peak chart positions||Album|
|"Breakaway"||1983||—||4||70||—||You Broke My Heart in 17 Places|
|"They Don't Know"||56||2||8||11|
|"Move Over Darling"||—||8||—||—|
|"My Guy"||1984||—||23||—||—||You Caught Me Out|
|"—" denotes a recording that failed to chart or was not released in that territory.|
Awards and honours
Ullman has won seven Emmy Awards to date, along with twenty-seven nominations.
On 5 December 2006, she was honoured at the Museum of Television and Radio along with the likes of Carol Burnett, Lesley Visser, Lesley Stahl, Jane Pauley, and Betty White, in the "She Made It" category.
In April 2009, it was announced that Ullman would be awarded a Lifetime Achievement BAFTA Award the following May. She became the first recipient of the Charlie Chaplin Lifetime Achievement Award for Comedy on 9 May 2009.
- 1988–Funniest Female Performer of the Year
- 1988–Funniest Female Performer in a TV Series (Leading Role) Network, Cable or Syndication, The Tracey Ullman Show
- 1989–Funniest Female Performer in a TV Special (Leading or Supporting) Network, Cable or Syndication, Tracey Ullman: Backstage
- 1990–Funniest Female Performer in a TV Series (Leading Role) Network, Cable or Syndication, The Tracey Ullman Show
- 1991–Funniest Female Performer in a TV Series (Leading Role) Network, Cable or Syndication, The Tracey Ullman Show
- 1992–American Comedy Award Funniest Female Performer in a Television Special, Funny Women of Television
- 1994–Funniest Female Performer in a TV Special (Leading or Supporting) Network, Cable or Syndication, Tracey Takes on New York
- 1996–American Comedy Award Funniest Female Performer in a Television Special, Women of the Night IV
- 1998–American Comedy Award Funniest Female Leading Performer in a Television Series, Tracey Takes On...
- 1999–American Comedy Award Funniest Female Guest Appearance in a Television Series, Ally McBeal
- 1999–American Comedy Award Funniest Female Leading Performer in a Television Series, Tracey Takes On...
- 2000–American Comedy Award Funniest Female Leading Performer in a Television Series Tracey Takes On...
- 1984–Best Light Entertainment Performance, Three of a Kind
- 2009–Lifetime Achievement Award
- 1995–Best Performance in a Comedy Series, Tracey Ullman: Takes on New York
- 1996–Best Actress in a Comedy Series, Tracey Takes On...
- 1996–Best Variety Special or Series, Tracey Takes On...
- 1989–Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Program, The Tracey Ullman Show
- 1990–Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program, The Tracey Ullman Show
- 1990–Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program, The Best of the Tracey Ullman Show
- 1993–Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, Love & War
- 1994–Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Programme, Tracey Ullman: Takes on New York
- 1997–Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series, Tracey Takes On...
- 1999–Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, Ally McBeal
- 1988–Best Actress in a Television Series - Comedy or Musical
- 1981–Most Promising New Actress, Four in a Million
- 2006–She Made It
- 1998–Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Comedy or Musical, Tracey Takes On...
- 2008–Best Actress in a Series, Comedy or Musical, State of the Union
- 1999–Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series, Tracey Takes On...
- 1991–Taming of the Shrew
- 1991–The Big Love
- 1995–Lucy Award in recognition of her excellence and innovation in her creative works that have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television
- French, Dawn; Wax, Ruby; Saunders, Jennifer (1986). Girls on Top. HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0586068929.
- Ullman, Tracey (1998). Tracey Takes On. Hyperion. ISBN 978-0-7868-6340-2.
- Ullman, Tracey; Clark, Mel (2006). Knit 2 Together: Patterns and Stories for Serious Knitting Fun. Stewart, Tabori and Chang. ISBN 9781584795346.
- Ullman, Tracey (2019). On Dogs: An Anthology. Notting Hill Editions. ISBN 978-1912559152.
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- "Return of the Prodigal Daughter". The Daily Telegraph. 5 July 1997. Retrieved 29 August 2018.
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- The International Who's Who 2004. Psychology Press. 2003. p. 1712. ISBN 9781857430813.
- Look in TV Annual (Independent Television Books Ltd, 1984), p. 67.
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- Amanda Root (24 December 1983). "Uncle Butch Castle & The Song & Dance Kid". New Musical Express. p. 61.
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- Handbook of Intermediality: Literature – Image – Sound – Music edited by Gabriele Rippl, publ. 20 July 2015, De Gruyter, ISBN 3110308363, chapter 1 (retrieved 22 December 2018): https://books.google.com/books?id=MR1BDAAAQBAJ&pg=PT399
- The Best of My Guy: A Collection of the Very Best of Everyone's Favourite 80s Weekly Magazine Hardcover – 28 Sep 2006 by Frank Hopkinson, publ. 28 September 2006, Robson Books Ltd, ISBN 1861059795 – 'photostories featuring many stars before they were famous including Hugh Grant, Tracey Ullman, Lesley Ash, Alex Kingston and Tony Hadley etc.': https://www.amazon.co.uk/Best-Guy-Collection-Everyones-Favourite/dp/1861059795
- Black, Bill (24 December 1983). "Tracey Ullman Pours Her Heart Out to Bill Black". Sounds. United Kingdom: Spotlight Publications.
- "20 Questions Tracey Ullman". Playboy. Playboy Enterprises. 35 (9): 166. September 1988.
- "1982 Stiff Records press release". The Tracey Ullman Archives. Tumblr.com. Retrieved 7 December 2015.
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- History Of The RHPS. Retrieved 1 April 2007.
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- "Scandal". Tracey Takes On... 20 January 1999. HBO.
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- Balls, Richard (2014). Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story. Soundcheck Books. p. 274. ISBN 9780957570061.
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- . Promo Poster of Tracey Ullman MTV Guest VJ.
- "Stars Come Out For Paul McCartney's "Queenie Eye" Video". American Songwriter. Americansongwriter.com. Retrieved 13 September 2015.
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