The title of playwright Wendy Wasserstein's 1977 off-Broadway hit, "Uncommon Women and Others," accurately described the roles which brought original cast member Swoosie Kurtz several awards and universal renown as a character actress par excellence. In the years since she first caught theatergoers' attention with her quirky performance as a sex-obsessed Mount Holyoke graduate in Wasserstein's semi-autobiographical ensemble drama, Kurtz demonstrated her formidable range on stage, screen and television for decades to come. She made a memorable impression in a brief appearance as a world-weary prostitute in "The World According to Garp" (1982) before hitting the stage for a number of roles, including her Tony-winning performance in "The House of Blue Leaves" (1986). After several years bouncing around various mediums, Kurtz started making a name for herself as one of four "Sisters" (NBC, 1991-96) and in notable supporting roles in major features like "Liar Liar" (1997). Following rather thankless parts in "Bubble Boy" (2001) and "Rules of Attraction" (2002), she played a grieving mother confronting her daughter's killer in Broadway's "Frozen" (2004) before landing a regular series role as an ex-synchronized swimmer on "Pushing Daisies" (ABC, 2007-09) respectively. Even as she slummed by taking recurring roles in rather mediocre sitcoms like "Suddenly Susan" (NBC, 1996-2000) and "Still Standing"(CBS, 2002-06), Kurtz maintained her reputation as a critical darling and one of the finest character actresses working in the business.
Born on Sept. 6, 1944 in Omaha, NE, Kurtz was raised by her father, Frank Kurtz, an Olympic bronze medalist in diving in 1932 and the Air Force's most decorated bomber pilot during World War II, and her mother, Margo. It was her father who bestowed his only child with her distinctive first name, which derived from the B-17 Flying Fortress, nicknamed the "Swoose" because its unusual design evoked Kay Kyser's big band hit "Alexander the Swoose." A military brat who attended no less than 17 different schools, Kurtz was often poked fun at for having such an odd and invariably mispronounced name. Eventually, she enrolled at the University of Southern California as a drama major, where the typically shy and introspective Kurtz felt liberated onstage. She continued her studies at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where she took classes in voice, diction, and movement for two years before returning home to jump-start her New York stage career.
But Kurtz quickly found herself struggling to win parts that were generally being handed out to graduates from Juilliard and the Yale Drama School. Having started to work in regional theater in 1966, Kurtz graduated to performing onscreen when she landed episodes of the daytime soap opera, "As the World Turns" (CBS, 1956-2010) in 1971. While continuing to struggle in regional theater, she did appear on the small screen in a "Great Performances" telecast of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" (PBS, 1976) and in an episode of the popular cop show, "Kojak" (CBS, 1973-78). But the plum Broadway roles continued to elude her. Fortunately, Kurtz's singular talent eventually won her a supporting role in the 1977 Circle in the Square Theater revival of Moliere's "Tartuffe." Sharing the stage with John Wood, Mildred Dunnock and Tammy Grimes, Kurtz wowed the critics with her splendid performance, earning a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Play. Next came her breakout, Obie Award-winning performance in "Uncommon Women and Others" (1977), followed by a Drama Desk Award-winning performance in Christopher Durang's musical comedy, "A History of American Film."
At the age of 33, the self-described late bloomer finally began working steadily on stage, as well as in film and on television, albeit with wildly mixed results. In 1978, Kurtz, along with fellow newcomers Michael Keaton and David Letterman, joined the cast of Mary Tyler Moore's highly touted CBS variety series, "Mary" (1978), which was axed after three episodes. Nor did Kurtz fare much better in her early big screen roles. She briefly enlivened "Oliver Story" (1978), the critically reviled sequel to "Love Story" (1970), but her part was essentially a glorified walk-on. Only when she reprised her stage role in the "Great Performances" adaptation of "Uncommon Women and Others" (PBS, 1978), co-starring Meryl Streep and Jill Eikenberry, did Kurtz finally have the opportunity to shine. She earned further attention for her seriocomic, tour-de-force stage performance in Lanford Wilson's "The Fifth of July" (1981). As Gwen, an eccentric, foul-mouthed, pill-popping heiress-cum-wannabe rock singer, Kurtz won a Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award and a Tony for Best Actress. The role marked both an artistic and commercial turning point in her career. While a lesser actress may have resorted to shtick, Kurtz skillfully revealed the pathos and decency lurking beneath the character's extroverted façade.
Kurtz's gift for humanizing borderline freakish characters became her calling card and eventually caught the attention of Hollywood. She would return to series television to co-star in Tony Randall's short-lived sitcom "Love, Sidney" (NBC, 1981-83), while winning raves for her brief role as a no-nonsense hooker who deflowers Robin Williams' title character in "The World According to Garp" (1982). Despite her growing list of film and television credits, however, Kurtz remained very much a creature of the stage. In 1986, she won her second Tony Award for her alternately heartbreaking and hilarious performance as the aptly named Bananas, a mentally unstable housewife in the Broadway revival of John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves." Over the next few years, the workaholic actress headlined plays by Guare, Terrence McNally, and Paula Vogel between film and television roles. In 1988, she more than held her own as Madame de Volanges opposite Glenn Close and John Malkovich in Stephen Frears' brilliant film version of "Dangerous Liaisons." Two years later, her guest spot on Carol Burnett's "Carol & Company" (NBC, 1990-91) won her the Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.
But Kurtz failed to achieve above-the-title film stardom like her fellow New York theater veterans Streep and Close, despite strong roles like playing the unemployed sister of a working mother (Jane Fonda) who develops a strong friendship with an illiterate cafeteria worker (Robert De Niro) in "Stanley & Iris" (1990). She nevertheless became a television favorite, due largely to her role on the hit series "Sisters" (NBC, 1991-96). As Alex, the eldest of the four Halsey sisters (Sela Ward, Patricia Kalember and Julianne Phillips), Kurtz brought emotional depth and flashes of astringent wit to a character who skirted the edge of caricature: a snooty Midwestern matron married to a cross-dressing plastic surgeon (David Dukes). The role earned Kurtz Emmy Award nominations for Best Lead Actress in 1993 and 1994. During her run on the show, Kurtz had a small role in the acclaimed AIDS docudrama, "And the Band Played On" (HBO, 1993), followed by more significant supporting parts in "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleading-Murdering Mom" (HBO, 1993) and the grunge-era classic, "Reality Bites" (1994).
Following the end of "Sisters" in 1996, Kurtz successfully balanced her film and television career with numerous projects on both sides. She had a co-starring role in Alexander Payne's biting abortion satire, "Citizen Ruth" (1996), which deftly skewered both sides of the debate without favoring either. Back on television, she had a recurring role as Brooke Shields' mother on "Suddenly Susan" (NBC, 1996-2000) while landing a major supporting part opposite Jim Carrey in the hit comedy "Liar Liar" (1997). She next appeared in "My Own Country" (Showtime, 1998) and "Cruel Intentions" (1999), before making a return to the stage to star in Paula Vogel's "The Mineola Twins" (1999). As the new millennium rolled around, Kurtz continued to make a wide variety of screen appearances without landing that one breakout role, becoming a face without a name. In the irreverent comedy "Bubble Boy" (2001), she was the mother of a teenager (Jake Gyllenhaal) with an immune deficiency disorder who dons a bubble suit and goes on a 3,000 mile journey to claim the woman he loves (Marley Shelton). After a four-episode arc on the short-lived dramedy, "That's Life" (CBS, 2000-02), Kurtz had a small supporting part in the critically acclaimed "Rules of Attraction" (2002), a dark satirical comedy about the sordid lives of rich and amoral college students.
Kurtz continued to churn out quality performances in movies like "Duplex" (2003) while remaining a force to be reckoned with on the small screen, playing the mother of John Locke (Terry O'Quinn), who gives up her son for adoption, in an episode of "Lost" (ABC, 2004-2010). Following a pair of episodes on the sitcom "Still Standing" (CBS, 2002-06), she earned a Tony Award nomination for her performance in Doug Hughes' play "Frozen" (2004) before landing a recurring role as Madeline Sullivan on "Huff" (Showtime, 2004-06). Kurtz eared another Tony Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance in the revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House" (2006), while returning to regular series prominence with the acclaimed, but short-lived dramedy, "Pushing Daisies" (ABC, 2007-09), which centered on a pie-maker (Lee Pace) who has the ability to bring people back to life with a single touch, only to send them back to their deaths if he touches them a second time. Kurtz played the aunt of the pie-maker's murdered sweetheart, whom he brought back from the dead only to never be able to touch her again. After that quirky show's early demise, the actress landed a series of guest spots on shows like "Desperate Housewives" (ABC, 2004-12), "Heroes" (NBC, 2006-2010), "Nurse Jackie" (Showtime, 2009-15) and "Chuck" (NBC, 2007-12), before scoring another series as a regular with the Chuck Lorre-created sitcom, "Mike & Molly" (CBS, 2010-16).
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Worked in regional theater
TV acting debut in the CBS daytime drama "As the World Turns"
TV movie debut in "Ah! Wilderness"
Film acting debut in "Slap Shot"
Primetime series debut, part of the ensemble cast of the short lived variety series "Mary" (CBS)
Appeared as the female lead in the NBC series "Love, Sydney"
Played wealthy divorcee Alex Reed Halsey on the NBC drama "Sisters"; earned Lead Actress Emmy nominations in 1993 and 1994
Cast in a recurring role as Brooke Shields' mother in "Suddenly Susan" (NBC)
Cast as a librarian in the FOX series "Party Girl"
Returned to the NY stage as star of Paula Vogel's "The Mineola Twins"
Cast opposite Ryan Phillippe in "Cruel Intentions," a modern re-telling of Dangerous Liasons
Co-starred in the CBS sitcom "Love & Money"
Starred opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in the comedy "Bubble Boy"
Appeared in "Rules of Attraction," based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis
Cast as Madeleine Sullivan on the Showtime series "Huff"; received Emmy nominations in 2005 and 2006
Starred in Doug Hughes's play "Frozen"; received a Tony nomination
Cast in a revival of "Heartbreak House"; earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress
Cast as Lily Charles in the ABC series "Pushing Daisies"
Cast in the CBS sitcom "Mike & Molly"