Some all-time great character actresses (many of whom double as leading ladies). Alphabetically.
Slight, birdlike Jean Adair came to the screen after playing a succession of crotchety or maternal roles on the stage. She was born Violet McNaughton in Ontario, Canada, and absolved her acting studies in Chicago. After extensive touring with local stock companies and a few seasons on the vaudeville Orpheum Circuit performing in one-act plays...
Dublin-born Sara Allgood started her acting career in her native country with the famed Abbey Theatre. From there she traveled to the English stage, where she played for many years before making her film debut in 1918. Her warm, open Irish face meant that she spent a lot of time playing Irish mothers...
Dame Judith Anderson was born Frances Margaret Anderson on February 10, 1897 in Adelaide, South Australia. She began her acting career in Australia before moving to New York in 1918. There she established herself as one of the greatest theatrical actresses and was a major star on Broadway throughout the 1930s...
Eve was born just north of San Francisco in Mill Valley and was interested in show business from an early age. At 16, she made her stage debut after quitting school to joined a stock company. After appearing in minor roles in two films under her real name, Eunice Quedens, she found that the stage offered her the same minor roles...
Academy Award-winning, legendary English actress - who maintained her status in the British acting elite for decades. Made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II
in 1956. Almost always on stage, she appeared rarely in film, her first being The Wandering Jew
. On stage she was cast in many a Shakespearean role...
Mary Astor was born, Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke, on May 3, 1906 in Quincy, Illinois to a German immigrant father, Otto Ludwig Langhanke, and an American mother from Illinois, Helen Marie Vasconcellos, of Portuguese and Irish ancestry. Her parents were very ambitious for her as they recognized Mary's beauty and knowing if they played their cards right...
Fay Bainter's career began as a child performer in 1898. For some time, she was a member of the traveling cast of the Morosco Stock Company in Los Angeles. In 1912, she made her Broadway debut in 'The Rose of Panama', but this and her subsequent play 'The Bridal Path' (1913), were conspicuous failures...
For someone who has made an award-winning impact in all three mediums (stage, film and TV), actress Kathy Baker has been strangely denied all-out stardom, yet continues to demonstrate her versatility in whatever material comes her way. The comely blonde was born Katherine Whitton Baker in Midland, Texas...
Ethel Barrymore was the second of three children seemingly destined for the actor's life of their parents Maurice and Georgiana. Maurice Barrymore had emigrated from England in 1875, and after graduating from Cambridge in law had shocked his family by becoming an actor. Georgiana Drew of Philadelphia acted in her parents' stage company...
Multi-talented Kathleen Doyle Bates was born on June 28, 1948, and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. She is the youngest of three girls born to Bertye Kathleen (Talbot), a homemaker, and Langdon Doyle Bates, a mechanical engineer. Her grandfather was author Finis L. Bates. Kathy has English, as well as Irish...
Cate Blanchett was born on May 14, 1969 in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, to June (Gamble), an Australian teacher and property developer, and Robert DeWitt Blanchett, Jr., an American advertising executive, originally from Texas. She has an older brother and a younger sister. When she was ten years old...
With blonde hair, big blue eyes and a big smile, Joan was usually cast as the wisecracking working girl who was the lead's best friend. Born into vaudeville to a comic named Eddie, Joan was on the stage when she was three years old. For years, she toured the circuit with her parents and joined a stock company when she was 17...
Lively, buxom character actress Mary Boland made a name for herself playing vacuous or pixillated motherly types during the 1930's. One of her most memorable performances was as the addle-brained Mrs. Rimplegar of Three Cornered Moon
, who gives away her family fortune to a swindler because he seemed like 'such a nice young man'...
Character actress Beulah Bondi was a favorite of directors and audiences and is one of the reasons so many films from the 1930s and 1940s remain so enjoyable, as she was an integral part of many of the ensemble casts (a hallmark of the studio system) of major and/or great films, including The Trail of the Lonesome Pine
Character actress Shirley Booth could play everything in all facets of show business, whether it was a smart-mouthed cashier on radio's "Duffy's Tavern", the sassy maid on TV's Hazel
or the pathetic woman in Come Back, Little Sheba
. For those who only know her through her sitcom, it might be hard to believe she was a seasoned theatrical veteran...
Pamela Britton was born Armilda Jane Owen in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her mother was Ethel Owen
, a prominent stage, radio and early television actress. Pam first used Gloria Jane Owen as her stage name, but not wanting to trade on her mother's reputation, chose Pamela from a British book, and then Britton to emphasize its source...
Billie Burke was born Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke on August 7, 1885 in Washington, D.C. Her father was a circus clown, and as a child she toured the United States and Europe with the circus (before motion pictures and after the stage, circuses were the biggest form of entertainment in the world)...
The possessor of one of Hollywood's gentlest faces and warmest voices, and about as sweet as Tupelo honey both on-and-off camera, character actress Spring Byington was seldom called upon to play callous or unsympathetic (she did once play a half-crazed housekeeper in Dragonwyck
). Although playing the part of Mrs...
Genteel London-born actress Joyce Carey came from a distinguished theatrical family. Her own lengthy career on the stage began in 1916, when she played Princess Katherine in an all-female ensemble of "Henry V". She made her debut on the legitimate stage in a small part in the West End production of the exotic melodrama "Mr.Wu"...
Helena Bonham Carter
Helena Bonham Carter is an actress of great versatility, one of the UK's finest and most successful. Bonham Carter was born May 26, 1966 in Golders Green, London, England, the youngest of three children of Elena (née Propper de Callejón), a psychotherapist, and Raymond Bonham Carter, a merchant banker...
Mary Clare was a versatile British character actress of redoubtable presence. On the London stage from 1910 (some sources say 1912), she later alternated her theatrical appearances with acting on screen. During the 1920's and 30's, she specialised in stately characters and villainesses in period dramas...
Toni Collette is an Academy Award-nominated Australian actress, best known for her roles in The Sixth Sense
and Little Miss Sunshine
. Collette was born Toni Collett (she later added an "e") on November 1, 1972, in Blacktown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. She is the first of three children of Judith (Cook)...
In a career that covered six decades, Constance Collier evolved into one of Broadway and London's finest tragediennes during the first half of the 1900s. While the regal, dark-featured beauty who bore classic Romanesque features enjoyed a transcontinental career like a number of her contemporaries, her theatre success did not encourage an enviable film career...
Veteran stage actress Frances Conroy was introduced and encouraged by her parents to explore the elements of theater. Born in Georgia in 1953, she attended high school in Long Island and experienced classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse as a teenager. The pale, blue-eyed redhead also studied at Juilliard where she was taught by theater greats John Houseman
and Marian Seldes
Jennifer Coolidge is a versatile character actress and experimental comedienne, best known for playing Stifler's mom in American Pie
. She was born on August 28, 1961, in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, to Gretchen (Knauff) and Paul Constant Coolidge, a plastics manufacturer. Young Coolidge was dreaming of becoming a singer...
Gladys Cooper was the daughter of journalist William Frederick Cooper and his wife Mabel Barnett. As a child she was very striking and was used as a photographic model beginning at six years old. She wanted to become an actress and started on that road in 1905 after being discovered by Seymour Hicks to tour with his company in "Bluebell in Fairyland"...
Ellen Corby was born Ellen Hansen on June 3, 1911, in Racine, Wisconsin. She began her career as a bit player in the film Speed Limited
in 1940. Ellen would not be seen on the big screen again until 1945 in Cornered
. In 1946, she appeared in 14 films, although mostly in small, minor roles. One of them was in the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life
Actress Joan Cusack was born in New York City, New York, and is the daughter of Nancy (née Carolan) and Dick Cusack
. Her father was an advertising executive, writer and actor, and her mother was a math teacher. Her siblings - Susie Cusack
, John Cusack
, Ann Cusack
and Bill Cusack
also act. Her family is of Irish descent...
Missouri-born Jane Darwell was the daughter of a railroad president and grew up on a ranch in Missouri. She nursed ambitions to be an opera singer, but put it off because of her father's disapproval (she eventually changed her name to Darwell from the family name of Woodward so as not to "sully" the family name)...
Judy Davis was born April 23, 1955 in Perth, Western Australia. She was educated at Loreto Convent and the Western Institute of Technology, and graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 1977. She came to prominence as Sybylla Melvyn in the film adaptation of Miles Franklin
RoseMary De Camp was the quintessential small-town American mother, a calming and steadying presence in scores of films in the 1940s and 1950s. She came to Hollywood after a successful career on the stage and in radio, making her film debut in 1941. Though she worked for many studios, she was most closely associated with Warner Bros....
Feisty, ebullient character comedienne who, for three decades, enlivened Hollywood films with her drollery and quick-fire repartee. The daughter of a newspaper editor and music critic, Ruth made her stage debut in the chorus of the touring production 'The Quaker Girl' in 1913. Four years later, she had made it to Broadway...
Once you saw her, you would not forget her. Despite her age and weight, she became one of the top box office draws of the sound era. She was 14 when she joined a theater group and she went on to work on stage and in light opera. By 1892, she was on Broadway and she later became a star comedienne on the vaudeville circuit...
Margaret Dumont would probably consider it a tragedy that she is best-known for her performances as the ultimate straight woman in seven of the Marx Brothers' films (including most of their best). By all accounts she never understood their jokes (offscreen and on), which is of course a major reason why she's so funny...
Petite American character actress who was celebrated for her definitive portrayal of long-suffering Linda Loman in Arthur Miller
's "Death of a Salesman", a part she played opposite Lee J. Cobb
at the Morosco Theatre for 742 consecutive performances between 1949 and 1950. Mildred recreated her...
Although there may have been "bigger" actresses in Hollywood's history, there were few "larger" than Hope Emerson. At 6' 2" and 230 pounds, she towered over many of her male co-stars, and her size, brusque voice and stern demeanor typed her for a career in villainous roles, such as her star turn as the sadistic prison matron in Caged
Dark-haired, slender-faced Hollywood actress generally typecast as nosy or prudish: sometimes spinster, sometimes gossip and sometimes efficient secretary or officious shop clerk - but ever-obnoxious withal.
Geraldine Fitzgerald was the only actress to appear as both Laurence Olivier
's wife and Rodney Dangerfield
's mother-in-law, which surely qualifies her as running the gamut (if not the gauntlet, in the latter case) of A to Z for co-starring with cinema immortals. The Irish lass appeared in many masterpieces of Hollywood's Golden Age...
A tall, cool drink of water best sums up this confidant blonde actress of 40s "B" mysteries, melodrama, film, and the occasional sparkling comedy at Columbia Studios. Nina was born with the unusually multi-ethnic name of Nina Consuelo Maud Fock, her father being the renowned Dutch composer and conductor Dirk Fock...
Whether portraying a glum, withering wallflower, a drab and dowdy housewife, a klutzy maid or a cynical gossip, eccentric character comedienne Alice Ghostley had the ability to draw laughs from the skimpiest of material with a simple fret or whine. Making a name for herself on the Tony-winning Broadway stage...
One of stage, screen, radio and TV's most delightful, inimitable eccentrics, Hermione Ferdinanda Gingold was born the daughter of an upscale Austrian financier and English homemaker. She made her stage debut in 1908, thus beginning a long, commanding presence in London playing everything from Jessica...
Lillian Diana Gish was born on October 14, 1893 in Springfield, Ohio. Her father James Lee Gish was an alcoholic who caroused around, was rarely at home and left the family to more or less to fend for themselves. To help make ends meet, Lillian, her sister Dorothy Gish
and their mother Mary Gish
Whoopi Goldberg was born Caryn Elaine Johnson in the Chelsea section of Manhattan on November 13, 1955. Her mother, Emma (Harris), was a teacher and a nurse, and her father, Robert James Johnson, Jr., was a clergyman. Whoopi's recent ancestors were from Georgia, Florida, and Virginia. She worked in a funeral parlor and as a bricklayer while taking small parts on Broadway...
Her quivery, high-pitched, Southern-cracked tones were once described as sounding like "a Tweetie Pie cartoon bird strangling on peanut butter." Just the absurdity of that description fits comedienne Dody Goodman to a tee. One did not know what to make of her, but she could certainly induce laughter with a mere perplexed look...
When Ruth Gordon convinced her father, a sea captain, to let her pursue acting she came to New York and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She acted in a few silents made at Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1915. She made her Broadway debut in "Peter Pan" as Nibs the same year. The next 20 years she spent on stage...
Gloria Hallward, an acting pupil of her mother (stage actress and teacher Jean Grahame), acted professionally while still in high school. In 1944 Louis B. Mayer
saw her on Broadway and gave her an MGM contract under the name Gloria Grahame. Her debut in the title role of Blonde Fever
Her mother, Anna Griffiths, is an art consultant. Her uncle is a Jesuit priest. Has two older brothers. One brother, Ben, is a ski instructor. Lived on the Gold Coast, Queensland until age five, then moved to Melbourne. Attended Star of the Sea Catholic Girls' College, did well at school and learned ballet...
Margaret Hamilton was Born December 9, 1902 in Cleveland, Ohio to Jennie and Walter Hamilton. She later attended Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and practiced acting doing children's theater while a Junior League of Cleveland member. Margaret had already built her resume with several performances in film before she came to her most memorable and astronomically successful role...
Marcia Gay Harden
Marcia Gay Harden was born on August 14, 1959, in La Jolla, California, the third of five children. Her mother, Beverly (Bushfield), was a homemaker, and her father, Thad Harold Harden, was in the military. The family relocated often -- she first became interested in the theater when the family was living in Greece...
Making people laugh is only one facet of Valerie Harper's career, which extends from the stage to television and feature films. A native of Suffern, New York -- "I was born to suffer" -- Harper began her career as a dancer with the corps de ballet at Radio City Hall during its spectacular heyday. She gradually moved into acting...
Versatile, award-winning character actress Eileen Heckart, with the lean, horsey face and assured, fervent gait, was born Anna Eileen Stark on March 29, 1919, in Columbus, Ohio. An only child, she lived with her mother after her parents separated at age 2. Her childhood was an acutely unhappy one. Her mother...
Wendy Hiller, daughter of Frank and Marie Hiller, was born on 15th August 1912 in Bramhall, near Stockport, Cheshire, England. She was educated at Winceby House School, Bexhill then moved on to Manchester Repertory Theatre. She appeared on stage in Sir John Barry's tour of Evensong, then as Sally Hardcastle in Love on the Dole...
was an only child, born into a home where her mother was a painter and her father worked in insurance. She would study acting at the University of Chicago and make her stage debut in 1936. Her Broadway debut came when she was 19. She appeared in many successful plays, including "The Women"...
Josephine Sherwood changed her name after marrying stage actor Shelly Hull
in 1910. She studied drama at Radcliffe College -- much to the dismay of her parents -- and first worked on the stage in a stock company in Boston. Her husband died in 1919, aged 35, of Spanish influenza. Josephine left the...
Veteran character actress Linda Hunt was Born April 2, 1945 in Morristown, New Jersey to Raymond Davy Hunter and Elsie Doying Hunter. She attended the Interlochen Arts Academy, and the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago (now part of DePaul University). Her film debut was in Robert Altman
Stardom somehow eluded this vastly gifted actress. Had it not perhaps been for her low-level profile compounded by her McCarthy-era blacklisting in the early 1950s, there is no telling what higher tier Marsha Hunt might have attained. Perhaps her work was not flashy enough, or too subdued, or perhaps her intelligence too often disguised a genuine sex appeal to stand out among the other lovelies...
Popular British character actress known for her rich cluster of queens, dowagers, shrews and evildoers, Martita Hunt was born on a ranch in Argentina to British parents, but moved with her family to England at age 10 for her formal education. On stage at age 21 with the Liverpool Repertory Theatre,...
Her father, Donald Cole, was a consulting engineer, and died in 1926 when Kim was only 3 years old. Her mother, Grace Lind, once performed as a concert pianist. She had one brother who was eight years older than she, and she was educated at Miami Beach High. According to an in-depth article on Kim Hunter by Joseph Collura
in the October 2009 issue of "Classic Images"...
A graduate of the University of Michigan School of Drama, Ruth Hussey's first show-business job was as a fashion commentator on a local radio station. She journeyed to New York City, where she was signed as a model by the world-famous Powers agency. She obtained some stage roles with touring companies and was noticed by MGM...
Anjelica Huston was born on July 8, 1951 in Santa Monica, California, to prima ballerina Enrica "Ricki" (Soma) and director and actor John Huston
. Her mother, who was from New York, was of Italian descent, and her father had English, Scottish, and Scots-Irish ancestry. Huston spent most of her childhood overseas...
Few in modern British history have come as far or achieved as much from humble beginnings as Glenda Jackson has. From acclaimed actress to respected MP (Member of Parliament), she is known for her high intelligence and meticulous approach to her work. She was born to a working-class household in Birkenhead...
Husky voiced Glynis is the daughter of actor Mervyn Johns
. Best known for her light comedy roles and often playful flirtation, Glynis was born in South Africa while her parents were on tour there (her mother was a concert pianist) but was always proud of her Welsh roots and took delight in playing the female lead (opposite Richard Burton
) in the classic Under Milk Wood
Katy Jurado was born María Cristina Estela Marcela Jurado García into a wealthy family on January 16, 1924, in Guadalajara, Mexico. Her early years were spent amid luxury until her family's lands were confiscated by the federal government for redistribution to the landless peasantry. Despite the loss of property...
An out-of-wedlock child, Eartha Kitt was born in the cotton fields of South Carolina. Kitt's mother was a sharecropper of African-American and Cherokee Native American descent who became pregnant after being raped by a white plantation owner. Given away by her mother, she arrived in Harlem at age nine...
Nancy Kulp wore many hats: Publicity person, actress, linguist, would-be politician and teacher. Originally from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Kulp attended college in Florida, then headed for Hollywood to work in publicity for the movies, not star in them. Soon after arriving in Hollywood, Kulp was convinced...
Swoosie is the only child of author Margo and Frank Kurtz. As her father was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, she moved often during her school years, living in eight different states. At the University of Southern California she majored in drama; later she attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art...
Southern belle Diane Ladd was born Rose Diane Ladner in Meridian, Mississippi. Her mother, Mary Bernadette (Anderson), was a former actress, from a Norwegian and German immigrant family, and her father, Preston Paul Ladner, was a veterinarian, from a family with deep roots in the American South. Ladd has earned recognition for her Academy Award-nominated performance as the comical...
Elsa Sullivan Lanchester was born into an unconventional a family at the turn of the 20th century. Her parents, James "Shamus" Sullivan and Edith "Biddy" Lanchester, were socialists - very active members of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in a rather broad sense and did not believe in the institution of marriage and being tied to any conventions of legality for that matter...
British character actress, long in the United States. The daughter of an actress and the granddaughter of a high-ranking politician, Lansbury studied acting from her youth, departing for the United States as the Second World War began. She was contracted by MGM while still a teenager and nominated for an Academy Award for her first film...
Often considered hip-hop's first lady (though some would attribute that to Roxanne Shanté
), the woman behind the moniker Queen Latifah was born Dana Owens on March 18th, 1970, in East Orange, New Jersey. She is the daughter of Rita (Bray), a teacher, and Lancelot Owens, Sr. She came from a police family--both her father and older brother were cops...
Piper Laurie was born Rosetta Jacobs in Detroit, Michigan, on January 22, 1932, to Charlotte Sadie (Alperin) and Alfred Jacobs, a furniture dealer. Her father was a Polish Jewish immigrant and her mother was of Russian Jewish descent. Her father moved the family to Los Angeles, California, when she was 6-years-old...
The record-breaking actress set a record when at age 82, she appeared on Dancing with the Stars
. Cloris Leachman was born on April 30, 1926 in Des Moines, Iowa to Berkeley Claiborne "Buck" Leachman and the former Cloris Wallace. Her father's family owned a lumber company, Leachman Lumber Co. She is of Czech (from her maternal grandmother) and English descent...
Ms. Lindfors was a Swedish born actress whose stage and screen career in the U.S. and Sweden spanned more than a half century. She was brought to Hollywood in 1946 by Warner Brothers in the hope that she would be a new Greta Garbo
or Ingrid Bergman
. She appeared with Ronald Reagan
in her first Hollywood film...
Forever embraced as the mumbling, bumbling Aunt Clara on the Bewitched
television series, endearing character actress Marion Lorne had a five-decade-long career on the stage before ever becoming a familiar TV household name. Born Marion Lorne MacDougall on August 12, 1883 (other sources list 1885 and 1888)...
In the 1960s, Amy attended St. Philip Neri grammar school and Aquinas High School, both in Chicago, where she performed in school plays and was known as the school tomboy. In the early 1970s, Amy was featured in Playboy Magazine wearing only jelly, to promote her music band, Jelly. Amy is the daughter of John Madigan
, a media personality in Chicago, Illinois.
Her father was a minister, and when she joined a local stock company as a youngster she changed her name to avoid embarrassing her family. She worked in vaudeville and debuted on Broadway in 1916. Her film debut was in A House Divided
. She repeated her stage role in Dead End
as Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart
Nancy Marchand's mother, a pianist, sent her shy daughter to acting classes in hopes of breaking her out of her shell. As a student at Carnegie Tech (Carnegie Mellon University), she studied the works of William Shakespeare
and the other great playwrights and, upon graduation, set off to New York City....
Penny Marshall was born Carole Penny Marshall in the Bronx, New York, on October 15, 1943. The Libra is 5' 6 1/2", with brown hair and green eyes. She is the daughter of Marjorie (Ward), a tap dance teacher, and Anthony "Tony" Marshall, an industrial film director. She is the younger sister of filmmakers Garry Marshall
and Ronny Hallin
Mercedes McCambridge is a highly-talented radio performer who won a best supporting Actress Oscar for her film debut. Mercedes McCambridge was born in Joliet, Illinois, to Marie (Mahaffry) and John Patrick McCambridge, a farmer. She was of mostly Irish (with a small amount of English and German) ancestry...
Thelma McQueen attended public school in Augusta, Georgia and graduated from high school in Long Island, New York. She studied dance with Katherine Dunham
, Geoffrey Holder
, and Janet Collins
. She danced with the Venezuela Jones Negro Youth Group. The "Butterfly" stage name, which does describe her constantly moving arms...
Born in the Astoria section of Queens, New York City, Ethel Merman was surely the pre-eminent star of 'Broadway' musical comedy. Though untrained in singing, she could belt out a song like quite no one else, and was sought after by major songwriters such as Irving Berlin
and Cole Porter
. Having debuted in 1930 in "Girl Crazy...
Laurie Metcalf was born June 16, 1955 in Carbondale, Illinois, the oldest of three children of Libby (Mars), a librarian, and James Metcalf, a budget director. She was raised in Edwardsville, Illinois. Laurie attended Illinois State University, where she obtained her bachelor of arts in theater in 1977...
Monique received a standing ovation when she stepped on stage for the first time in the hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, giving her confidence to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian. After numerous stand-up performances, she took a leap forward with one of the starring roles in The Parkers