McDonnell, Mary

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McDonnell, Mary



B orn April 28, 1952, in Wilkes-Barre, PA; married Randle Mell (an actor); children: Olivia, Michael. Education: Attended the State University of New York—Fredonia.

Addresses: AgentWilliam Morris Agency, 151 El Camino Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90212; The Gersh Agency, 232 North Canon Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.


A ctress in films, including: Garbo Talks, 1984; Matewan, 1987; Tiger Warsaw, 1988; Dances with Wolves, 1990; Grand Canyon, 1991; Sneakers, 1992; Passion Fish, 1992; Blue Chips, 1994; Independence Day, 1996; Mumford, 1999; Donnie Darko, 2001; Crazy Like a Fox, 2004. Theater appearances include: Buried Child, Theatre de Lys, 1978-79; Letters Home, American Place Theatre, New York City, 1979; Still Life, American Place Theatre, New York City, 1981; A Doll’s Life, Hartford Stage Company, Hartford, CT, 1986-87; National Anthems, New Haven, CT, 1988; The Heidi Chronicles, Plymouth Theatre, New York City, 1990; O, Pioneers!, Boston, MA, 1990; Summer and Smoke, Criterion Center Stage Right Theatre, New York City, 1996. Television appearances include: As the World Turns, CBS, 1980; E/R, CBS, 1984-95; O, Pioneers! (play), 1991; The American Clock (play), 1993; High Society, CBS, 1995-96; Replacing Dad (movie), CBS, 1999; Ryan Caulfield: Year One, Fox, 1999; ER, NBC, 2001-02; Battlestar Galactica (miniseries), Sci Fi, 2003; Battlestar Galactica, Sci Fi, 2004-08. Also worked as an acting teacher with her husband.

Awards: Obie Award, Village Voice, for Still Life, 1981.


F inding success on stage, screen, and television, Mary McDonnell has had a long, varied acting career. She has been nominated and won numerous awards for her work, including anAcademyAward-nominated turn in the western Dances with Wolves and an Obie Award-winning performance in Still Life. In the early 2000s, McDonnell was receiving acclaim for her television work, including a stint on ER and playing the president in the Sci Fi remake of the series Battlestar Galactica.

McDonnell was born on April 28, 1952, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a consultant for big corporations. Raised in Ithaca, New York, McDonnell had five sisters and one brother. Sports held more interest for her than the arts as a youth. She was a competitive swimmer throughout her childhood. McDonnell also had dramatic moments as a young person, which she believed led her father to understand she might pursue acting.

McDonnell told the Associated Press’s Hillel Italie: “I would have an emotional reaction to an imaginary situation that was extraordinary. In seventh grade there was a movie I saw about the sinking of the Titanic, and I projected into it so deeply I ran into the bathroom afterwards and locked the door. I was hysterical. My mother had to open the door with a screwdriver.”

McDonnell did not begin acting until college, however. She got the desire to act while a student at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Acting soon came to mean much to McDonnell. She told Candace Burke-Block of the Chicago Sun-Times, “Acting gives me the opportunity to contact things that I have inside of myself that I can’t necessarily touch in my daily life. It gives me a chance to express it, to open up. For me there is so much going on internally that acting allows me to channel it creatively, so that it doesn’t explode inside of me and turn into daily neuroses. It’s hard work, but it’s a very healthy thing for me to do, a real opportunity to be a healthier person.”

After college, McDonnell focused on stage work, both regional productions and in New York City, throughout the late 1970s and the whole of the 1980s. Early notable roles included playing emotionally abused Shelly in Sam Shepard’s play Buried Child beginning in 1978 in New York City. The appearance marked her New York debut as an actress. In 1981, McDonnell nabbed an Obie Award for her work as Cheryl in Still Life at the American Place Theatre. By 1986, she was playing Nora in a production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House for the Hartford Stage Company. Her work in the role was praised as was her turn as the wife in the 1988 production of National Anthems at New Haven, Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre.

McDonnell also occasionally worked in film in the 1980s. Her first film role came in 1984’s Garbo Talks as Lady Cauplet. McDonnell followed this film with a more acclaimed turn in Matewan. In this film, which was directed by John Sayles and released in 1987, McDonnell played Elma Radnor, a boardinghouse owner in West Virginia in the 1930s. The film focused on a labor dispute in local coal fields.

By 1990, McDonnell was appearing in the title role of the New York City production of Heidi Chronicles and as Alexandra Bergson in the classic Oh Pioneers! in Boston. The latter production was filmed for television, and critics singled out McDonnell for her performance. John Voorhees of the Seattle Times wrote, “While McDonnell is excellent, and makes this production worth watching, the rest of the company seldom achieves her level of emotional involvement.”

In 1990, McDonnell had the breakout role of her film career when she played Stands With a Fist in Dances With Wolves. The role was challenging for McDonnell as she played a white woman who had been living with Sioux Indians since she was a young child. Her parents had been killed by the Pawnee, but she escaped and was later found and adopted by the Sioux medicine man, Kicking Bird. With the Sioux way of life being encrouched upon by whites and an attractive white man, Lt. John Dunbar (played by the film’s director, Kevin Costner) showing interest in her, McDonnell’s character is forced to recall her English in order to serve as translator between Dunbar and Kicking Bird. This process causes her to confront the trauma and loss she had buried since childhood.

McDonnell found the role complex. She told Peter M. Nichols of the New York Times, “She has to set up a duality. As an adult she again has to let in that pain, face up to it and move forward with it. In the process, she wins love and intimacy. That’s an interesting lesson of a life well lived.” For her sensitive portrayal of Stands With a Fist in Dances With Wolves, McDonnell was honored with an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress as well as a Golden Globe Award nomination.

After Dances With Wolves, McDonnell’s film career blossomed through much of the 1990s. She told Catherine Dunphy of the Toronto Star, “I’m not surprised I’m making movies but I would never have seen myself in these movies.” In 1991, she appeared in Grand Canyon, which contrasted the lives of upper-middle-class white people and working-class African Americans in Los Angeles. McDonnell played Claire in the film, a married woman who wants to adopt an abandoned baby she finds. After such serious fare, McDonnell was happy to co-star as Liz in a caper comedy, 1992’s Sneakers, about a long-time group of friends.

While such films brought McDonnell some attention, she received additional Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominations for her work in the film Passion Fish. Also released in 1992 and directed by Sayles, McDonnell starred as May-Alice Culhane, a diva soap opera actress who is left a paraplegic after a taxi accident. McDonnell’s Cul-hane is compelled to leave New York City and return home to Louisiana to live out her days with bitterness. One live-in attendant (played by Alfre Woodard) she hires to take care of her also comes with a set of problems. The Culhane character surmounts the depression caused by her physical disability with the help of her wise and disciplined attendant.

After Passion Fish, McDonnell appeared in several films of note in the 1990s, including playing First Lady Marilyn Whitmore in the 1996 sci-fi smash Independence Day and empty rich woman Althea Brockett in 1999’s Mumford. However, a few of her film roles were more questionable. In addition to roles in several independent films, McDonnell played Jenny Bell in 1994’s Blue Chips, the film showcasing basketball star Shaquille O’Neal. Besides one appearance on stage in 1996, in a production of Summer and Smoke, McDonnell soon found herself working more and more in television.

In 1993, McDonnell appeared in a sweeping minis-eries adaptation of theArthur Miller play The American Clock. Set during the Great Depression, McDonnell played Rose Baumler, the wife of a successful dress manufacturer. She must cope with the family’s financial losses as they move downward socially and economically from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

A few years later, McDonnell made a return to series television. After flirting with the genre in the 1980s—she appeared in a soap, As the World Turns, and a comedy, E/R, she next appeared in another situation comedy, High Society. She played a high-flying, hard-living Manhattan publisher in the short-lived series. After an even shorter stint on the quickly cancelled Ryan Caulfield: Year One in 1999, McDonnell was nominated for an Emmy Award for her work on the hit drama ER. She took on the role of Eleanor Carter for the 2001 to 2002 season.

Series were not McDonnell’s only television work. She appeared in a number of television movies, especially in the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s. One television movie in which McDonnell received praise for her acting was 1999’s Replacing Dad. She played Linda Marsh, whose school principal husband, George, leaves her for a younger woman, their daughter’s teacher. The New York Times’ Anita Gates wrote, “Ms. McDonnell is the attraction here. She is a fine actress and is so beautifully directed by Joyce Chopra that her shock, pain, and intelligence mingle to uncommonly powerful effect.”

In 2003, McDonnell took a leading role in another science-fiction show. That year, she appeared in the miniseries based on the 1970s series Battlestar Galactica. This version with its darker, grittier plot still incorporated the humans running away from their lost civilization and the Cylons who want to continue to control them; it featured many of the same characters and concepts as the 1970s show. The success of the original miniseries justified a full-blown series, which began airing in 2004.

In both the miniseries and series, McDonnell played the president of the colonies, Laura Roslin. In addition to being in conflict with the ship’s commander, played by Edward James Olmos, McDonnell’s character suffers from breast cancer and experiences drug-induced hallucinations that cause her to believe her actions are the will of the gods. Over the years, the series also shifted from dealing with the conflict with the Cylons to conflicts with the fleet. Because the series also explored complex ideas about religion and conflict, the actress saw parallels to contemporary times.

McDonnell told Rob Owen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “From the outset, I found it extraordinarily relevant to the issues we’re facing right now in terms of war and, in particular, in terms of how we perceive ourselves in relation to the concept of the enemy. I think we are in the process of desperately trying to evolve that into a more sophisticated understanding of what that means, and we’re not doing a very good job of it.” McDonnell also told Entertainment Weekly that Roslin meant much to her and had influenced her as well. She stated, “She’s released me, in a way . This part has taken me [and] Laura—we’ve gone together—into understanding the levels on which a great deal of the powerful people on the planet are thinking and need to be thinking in order to survive this very dark time.”

While McDonnell was initially unsure about taking the role on Battlestar Galactica, she came to embrace it and enjoy the challenge. Though she had done a few films in the early 2000s, such as 2001’s cult hit Donnie Darko, it was this science-fiction series that meant so much to her. Scheduled to air its last season in 2008, McDonnell could not imagine life without Battlestar Galactica. She told Entertainment Weekly, “I feel very satiated. Oh my gosh, how does one move on from Battlestar? Because having had the opportunity to delve into these issues and try to articulate them, I don’t want to stop.”



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Who’s Who in America,56th ed., Marquis Who’s Who, 2007.


Associated Press, January 29, 1993.

Calgary Herald (Alberta, Canada), May 20, 1993, p. D10.

Chicago Sun-Times, January 20, 1992, sec. 2, p. 4; October 30, 1995, p. 35.

Daily Variety, August 23, 1993.

Entertainment Weekly, March 30, 2007, pp. 19-20.

Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2007, p. S12.

New York Times, December 2, 1990, sec. 2, p. 26; September 6, 1996, p. C5; March 12, 1999, p. E34.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA), July 10, 2005, p. E1.

Seattle Times, May 16, 1991, p. D10.

Toronto Star, September 11, 1992, p. C7.

USA Today, September 24, 1999, p. 8E.

Wilkes Barre Times Leader (PA), March 7, 2007, p. D3.


“Mary McDonnell,” Internet Movie Database, (November 5, 2007).

—A. Petruso

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