Mary Steenburgen, Young 'Melvin And Howard' Actress, Then And Now

Entertainment | February 9, 2021

Mary Steenburgen. Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Mary Steenburgen is an Oscar-winning actress who had early successes with Goin' South (1978), Time After Time (1979), Melvin And Howard (1980) and Ragtime (1981), and has been a regular presence in movies ever since, usually -- though not always -- in supporting roles. In the second half of her 40-plus year career, she has worked more frequently in television. Steenburgen's Hollywood life is also notable for her two marriages to famous actors: Malcolm McDowell, whom she met while making Time After Time, and sitcom star Ted Danson.

Her First Role Was A Leading Role

With Jack Nicholson in Goin' South. Source: (IMDb).

Mary Steenburgen was born on February 8, 1953, in Newport, Arkansas. She started studying drama at Hendrix College in 1971, and she travelled to Dallas to audition for New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse at the suggestion of her drama teacher. In 1972, she then moved to New York to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, a move which would determine the path her life would take. Steenburgen cofounded an improv group with other alumni from the Neighborhood Playhouse, a group which became the resident company of the Manhattan Theater Club. Christopher Guest’s mother saw her perform, and one thing led to another, and she ended up auditioning with a casting director, as well as Jack Nicholson. They flew her out to Hollywood for a screen test, and cast her in 1978’s Goin’ South, the second film Nicholson directed, which also featured Christopher Lloyd and John Belushi. She came to Hollywood two months prior to filming to study with Nicholson, living in the Chateau Marmont as she prepped for her first film role, watching films and then discussing them with Nicholson.  

A Second Role And A First Marriage

With Malcolm McDowell. Source: (HaphazardStuff)

In 1979, she played a leading role in Time After Time, a part for which she won the Saturn Award for Best Actress. In the film, she played a contemporary woman who falls in love with H.G. Wells. Wells was played by Malcolm McDowell, and the year after they appeared in the film together, the couple married. While she was married to McDowell, the couple had two children together. The marriage ended in divorce, however.   

An Academy Award Winning Role

In Melvin and Howard, with Elizabeth Cheshire and Paul Le Mot. Source: (IMDb)

Jack Nicholson played a role in her life again prior to the making of her third film, Melvin and Howard (1980). Nicholson received the script but was committed to The Shining at the time and didn’t have the time to take on another project. However, Nicholson passed the script on to Steenburgen because he thought it was an example of a great script. Steenburgen landed the role of Lynda Dummar, a go-go dancer whose husband, Melvin claimed that he had met and befriended Howard Hughes. In the movie, Steenburgen’s character dances in a strip club and tap dances on a game show called Easy Street. For her performance, she won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.  

She Goes Back To The Future

With Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future III. Source: (YouTube)

In 1983, she portrayed the author of The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, in Cross Creek. She starred in One Magic Christmas in 1985, as a woman who relies on a Christmas miracle. She was cast opposite Steve Martin as Karen Buckman in Parenthood in 1989, and in 1990, she was Clara Clayton, a teacher in love with Doc Brown, in Back to the Future Part III. Her list of credits continued throughout the ‘90s, with roles in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), My Summer Story (1994), Nixon (1995), and Pontiac Moon (1994). Pontiac Moon was notable as it was here that She met Ted Danson, and they married. She has continued to act and appeared in Elf (2003), Step Brothers (2008),The Proposal (2009), The Help (2011), Last Vegas (2013) and Book Club (2018).

A Television Star As Well 

With January Jones and Cleopatra Coleman, on Last Man on Earth. Source: (IMDb)

Over Steenburgen’s career she has had more than 100 acting credits, which also includes roles on television; in 1985, she starred as Nicole Diver in the television miniseries Tender is the Night, based on the book of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald; she was nominated for a BAFTA award for the role. She also landed regular appearances on shows including Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock, Justified, Last Man on Earth, and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.  

Surgery Uncovers A New Talent

With husband Ted Danson. Source: (Heavy.com)

 In 2007, Steenburgen discovered a new passion: songwriting. Steenburgen underwent minor arm surgery, and when the anesthesia began to wear off, she said that she felt like her brain was consumed by music and that everything became musical, from everything people said to her, to all of her thoughts. For two months, she was unable to act or memorize any lines, and she was unable to focus. Eventually, she asked a friend to turn the songs in her head into songs. Steenburgen chose 12 of the best and sent them to a music lawyer under her mother’s name, Nellie Wall. She signed on to Universal and in 2017, a young British filmmaker, Harper, was working on a script called Wild Rose and needed a climactic song for the lead character to sing at the end of the film. Steenburgen began working on the song after reading the script, and approached writing the song as an actor, stepping into the role of the character. Harper decided to use the song, “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” and Steenburgen had a new credit to her name.   

Tags: Ladies | Mary Steenburgen | Then And Now

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!