Actress Merrin Dungey is best known for her television portrayals of characters she has referred to as "sassy black sidekicks," according to Back Stage West. Most well-known for her best-friend roles in the spy show Alias and the soap opera-style Summerland, Dungey also gained attention for comedic turns on Malcolm in the Middle and The King of Queens. She also landed a starring role in the pilot episode of the Grey's Anatomy spin-off Private Practice, in which she portrayed Dr. Naomi Bennett, the best friend of central character Addison Montegomery-Shepherd, played by Kate Walsh. Despite being replaced by Audra McDonald in Private Practice, Dungey remained a sought-after actress.
Dungey was born on August 6, 1971, in Sacramento, California. She has been performing since she was a child, including ballet at age four and piano recitals and figure skating competitions through her teen years. She began appearing on television while she was still a student at Sacramento's Rio Americano High School, hosting a local talk show for teens and appearing in commercials. She graduated from high school in 1989, and despite her performance background, she entered UCLA intent on majoring in English. She appeared in plays at the school, however, and after winning the university's prestigious American Theater Award as a sophomore—the youngest person ever to win the award—she switched her major to theater. Dungey's father later told Mike McLaren of the Fair Oaks Guardian the on-line newspaper for Fair Oaks, California, that the best part of the award ceremony for his daughter was that Denzel Washington presented the prize.
After graduation in 1993 Dungey studied with acting coach Milton Katselas at the legendary Beverly Hills Playhouse acting school. As an assignment for the class, she developed a comic monologue about her experiences growing up in a white suburb, which she eventually expanded into a one-woman show called Black Like Who? In an interview with PopGurls.com she said, "Believe me, the journey of a black girl who had to hide her Valley Girl accent and love of Duran Duran, and learn to be ‘black’ to make it in Hollywood, had some yuks in it, if not for the slide show of my prom pictures alone." The show was broadcast on HBO's Comedy Workspace. She even adapted a portion of the show into a stand-up comedy routine. The success of Black Like Who? enabled Dungey to land representation by the influential William Morris Agency.
Dungey quickly built an impressive resume of recurring and guest roles on a variety of television shows. Comedy provided her entrée to her first series, the 1996 FOX situation comedy Party Girl, on which she played a librarian's assistant. A recurring role on the CBS sitcom The King of Queens as the wife of series star Kevin James's best friend proved a saving grace. She landed the part in 1998, at a time when "I was working three day jobs," Dungey told Bruce Fretts of Entertainment Weekly. "I was delivering Zone food to people like Hank Azaria, I was a personal assistant to an executive at Warner Bros., and I was working at a bar. After the first season, I was able to quit them all."
Dungey continued to win dozens of smaller roles in television series and films. She won a recurring role on Malcolm in the Middle in 2000, as Kitty Kenarban, the overprotective mother of Stevie. She also guest starred on series such as The West Wing, Friends, Seinfeld, Babylon 5, Boston Legal, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. She branched out to appear in such films as Ed TV, Deep Impact, and Scream at the Sound of the Beep.
The role that she considered her big break came in 2001 when Dungey was cast as Francie Calfo, the best friend of CIA double agent Sydney Bristow on ABC's Alias. The part enabled her to display the range of her acting talent, especially in the show's second season when her character was killed and replaced by an evil double. She considered that role her best to date, telling PopGurls.com, "An evil twin! Is that, or is that not, the dream part?" Dungey was so enamored of the part that when she later put together an amateur rock band she called it Bad Francie. However, she knew that the evil character's days on the series were numbered. "If you start out bad on Alias, you can set up some real estate," she told Jennifer Armstrong of Entertainment Weekly. "But if you turn bad…You better start looking for a new home." Dungey moved on in 2004 to play the part of the best friend and business partner of a fashion designer played by Lori Loughlin on the WB's beachside drama, Summerland. Discussing her "sidekick" roles with Back Stage West, Dungey said, "With the parts I've been given, I've just tried to make the most of what I have on the page…. Sometimes it's very specific, and you have to just play what's on the page, but the more you get to make it your own, the better."
She appeared in the pilot episode of the keenly anticipated show Private Practice, a spinoff of the popular ABC series Grey's Anatomy. The pilot of Private Practice served as the season finale of Grey's Anatomy. Grey's Anatomy fans were introduced to the medical practitioners and support staff at a Los Angeles, California, wellness center when Addison Montgomery-Shepherd, played by Kate Walsh, traveled there to meet up with Dungey's character, her friend from medical school and renowned fertility expert, Naomi Bennett. The anticipation that Private Practice would enjoy the high ratings of Grey's Anatomy would have made this Dungey's biggest role, yet she was cut from the cast in July 2007 for creative reasons. Speculators suggested that the onscreen chemistry between Dungey and other characters on the show lacked spark. Nevertheless, Dungey would likely find another more suitable vehicle for her rising star.
Party Girl, Wanda, 1996.
The King of Queens, Kelly Palmer 1998-2007.
Grosse Pointe, Joan, 2000-01.
Malcolm in the Middle, 2000-04.
Alias, 2001-03, 2006.
Private Practice, 2007.
Deep Impact, 1998.
The Sky Is Falling, 2000.
Scream at the Sound of the Beep, 2002.
At a Glance …
Born Merrin Dungey on August 6, 1971, in Sacramento, CA. Education: UCLA, BA, theater, 1993.
Career: Actor in numerous television series, including Alias, Summerland, The King of Queens, and the forthcoming Private Practice.
Awards: UCLA School of Theater, American Theater Award, 1990.
Addresses: Agent—William Morris Agency, One William Morris Place, Beverly Hills, CA, 90212.
Who's Who Among African Americans, 20th ed. Gale, 2007.
Back Stage West, May 12, 2005, p. 7.
Ebony, October 2001, p. 114.
Entertainment Weekly, November 23, 2001, p. 63; June 25, 2004, p. 153.
Sacramento Observer, May 10-16, 2007, p. E2.
Seattle Times, May 10, 2007, p. F2.
Self, December 2002, p. 78.
"Alias," TV.com, www.tv,com/alias/show/3451/summary.html?q=Alias&tag=search_results;more;0 (June 26, 2007).
"The King of Queens," TV.com, www.tv.com/theking-of-queens/show/239/summary.html?q=the%-20king%20of%20queens&tag=search_results;more;0 (June 26, 2007).
"Malcolm in the Middle," TV.com, www.tv.com/malcolm-in-the-middle/show/248/summary.html? q=malcolm%20in%20the%20middle&tag=search_results;more;0 (June 26, 2007).
"Merrin Dungey," Internet Movie Database,www.imdb.com/name/nm0242257 (June 26, 2007).
"Merrin Dungey," Starpulse,www.starpulse.com/Actresses/Dungey,_Merrin/index.html (June 26, 2007).
"Merrin Dungey," TV.com,www.tv.com/merrin-dungey/person/6179/summary.html (June 26, 2007).
"Party Girl," TV.com, www.tv.com/party0girl/show/2287/summary.html?q=party%20girl&tag=search_results;more;0_ (June 26, 2007).
"Pride of the Lions President Shines for his Daughters," Fair Oaks Guardian,http://cwww.com/FOG/text/story10.htm (June 26, 2007).
"Summerland," TV.com, www.tv.com/summerland/show/20542/summary.html?=summerland&tag=search_results;more;0 (June 26, 2007).
"20 Questions with Summerland's Merrin Dungey," Popgurls,www.popgurls.com/article_show.php3?id=469 (June 26, 2007).
"UCLA Alumni Cross Paths in ‘Alias,’" The Daily Bruin,www.dailybruin.ucla.edu/archives/id/16774 (June 26, 2007).
Dungey, Merrin 1971-
Dungey, Merrin 1971-
Surname pronounced DUN-JEE; born August 6, 1971, in Sacramento, CA; daughter of Don (a general services manager) and Judy Dungey; sister of Channing Dungey (a studio production executive); children: one. Education: University of California, Los Angeles, School of Theater, Film and Television, B.A., 1993; studied acting with Milton Katselas at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.
Agent—The Gersh Agency, 232 North Canon Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Manager—Artistry Entertainment, 340 North Camden Dr., Suite 302, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
Actress and stand-up comic. Appeared in commercials; member of a rock band. Worked as a personal assistant, a food delivery person, and in a bar.
Television Appearances; Series:
Wanda, Party Girl, Fox, 1996.
Kelly Palmer, The King of Queens, CBS, 1998-2007.
Kitty Kenarban, Malcolm in the Middle (also known as Fighting in Underpants), Fox, 2000-2004.
Francine "Francie" Calfo and Alison Doran, Alias, ABC, 2001-2006.
Susannah Rexford, Summerland (also known as Immediate Family and Summerland Beach), The WB, 2004-2005.
Hosted a talk show for teenagers in the Sacramento, CA area.
Television Appearances; Specials:
Herself, Alias Ricky Gervais, [Great Britain], 2004.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
Monique, "Girlfriend," Martin, Fox, 1995.
Laura, "Woman to Woman," Living Single (also known as My Girls), Fox, 1996.
Second security guard, "Messages from Earth," Babylon 5 (also known as B5, Babylon 5., and Spacecenter Babylon 5), syndicated, 1996.
Daphina (Carla's friend), "When the Bough Breaks," ER (also known as Emergency Room), NBC, 1997.
Female prostitute, "Caroline and the Buyer," Caroline in the City (also known as Caroline), NBC, 1997.
Woman, "From the Terrace," Murphy Brown, CBS, 1997.
Cashier, "The Bookstore," Seinfeld (also known as The Seinfeld Chronicles and Stand-Up), NBC, 1998.
Mitzi, "The Last Cub Scout," Damon, Fox, 1998.
Coach Williams, "Prescription for Trouble," Saved by the Bell: The New Class, NBC, 1999.
Daisy, "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc," The West Wing (also known as West Wing and El ala oeste de la Casablanca), NBC, 1999.
Nancy, "Drugs," Tracey Takes On …, HBO, 1999.
Rebecca Clemens, "Cliffhanger," GvsE (also known as G vs. E), USA Network, 1999, later known as Good versus Evil, Sci-Fi Channel.
Joan, "Prelude to a Kiss," Grosse Pointe (also known as Starlets), The WB, 2000.
Joan, "Satisfaction," Grosse Pointe (also known as Starlets), The WB, 2000.
Mrs. Lombard, "Deliver the Male," City of Angels (also known as Anglarnas stad, Englenes by, Enkelten kaupunki, and Orasul ingerilor), CBS, 2000.
Museum official, "The One Where Paul's the Man," Friends (also known as Across the Hall, Friends Like Us, Insomnia Cafe, and Six of One), NBC, 2000.
Rosemary, "Kurt Slips, Niagara Falls," Jesse, NBC, 2000.
Herself, Premium Blend, Comedy Central, 2000.
Amy, "The Doll," Curb Your Enthusiasm (also known as Curb and Larry David), HBO, 2001.
Joan, "Opposite of Sex," Grosse Pointe (also known as Starlets), The WB, 2001.
Joan, "Passion Fish," Grosse Pointe (also known as Starlets), The WB, 2001.
Herself, Jimmy Kimmel Live! (also known as The Jimmy Kimmel Project), ABC, 2001.
Herself, Comic Remix, Comedy Central, 2002.
Herself, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher (also known as P.I. and Politically Incorrect), ABC, 2002.
Herself, The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn (also known as The Late Late Show), CBS, 2003.
Herself, "Myths That Kill a Relationship," The Greg Behrendt Show, The CW, 2006.
Dr. Naomi Bennett, "The Other Side of This Life: Parts 1 & 2," Grey's Anatomy (also known as Complications, Procedure, Surgeons, Under the Knife, and Grey's Anatomy—Die jungen Aerzte), ABC, 2007, broadcast as the pilot for Private Practice (also known as Untitled Grey's Anatomy Spin-Off), ABC.
Television Appearances; Pilots:
Wanda, Party Girl, Fox, 1996.
Ms. Hogan (Malcolm's teacher), Malcolm in the Middle (also known as Fighting in Underpants), Fox, 2000.
Francine "Francie" Calfo, "Truth Be Told," Alias, ABC, 2001.
Susannah Rexford, Summerland (also known as Immediate Family and Summerland Beach), The WB, 2004.
Debbie Sprague, Beyond, Fox, 2006.
Dr. Naomi Bennett, "The Other Side of This Life: Parts 1 & 2," Private Practice (also known as Untitled Grey's Anatomy Spin-Off), ABC, 2007, broadcast as an episode of Grey's Anatomy (also known as Complications, Procedure, Surgeons, Under the Knife, and Grey's Anatomy—Die jungen Aerzte), ABC.
Sheila Bradley, Deep Impact (also known as Impact), Paramount, 1998.
Ms. Seaver, Edtv (also known as EDtv and Ed TV), Universal, 1999.
Sheila, The Sky Is Falling, Showcase Entertainment, 2000.
Disgruntled diner, Odessa or Bust (short film), 2001.
Jill, Scream at the Sound of the Beep, SMD Productions, 2002.
Appeared in Black Like Who? (solo show), produced at the HBO Comedy Workspace. Appeared in theatrical productions in the Los Angeles area; performed as a comedienne at the Just for Laughs Festival (comedy festival), Montreal, Quebec, Canada and at various venues.
Premium Blend, Comedy Central, 2000.
Comic Remix, Comedy Central, 2002.
Author of comedy material that has appeared in various programs.
Writings for the Stage:
Wrote Black Like Who? (solo show), produced at the HBO Comedy Workspace; and author of comedy material performed at various venues.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 62, Gale, 2008.
Who's Who among African Americans, 20th edition, Gale, 2007.
Entertainment Weekly, November 23, 2001, p. 63; June 25, 2004, p. 153.