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Mary McDonnell was born in April 1952 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, USA, and raised in Ithaca, New York state, and attended Fredonia State University. After graduation she attended drama school and joined the East Coast's prestigious Long Wharf Theatre Company, with whom she worked for over 20 years. In 1981, she received an Obie Award for her performance in Emily Mann's Still Life. Her other stage credits include the New York premieres of John Patrick Shanley's Savage in Limbo, John O'Keefe's All Night Long, Michael Cristofer's Black Angel, Kathleen Tolan's A Weekend Near Madison, Paula Cizmar's Death of a Miner and Dennis McIntyre's National Anthem, which premiered at the Long Wharf Theatre starring McDonnell and Tom Berenger.
She is married to actor Randle Mell, with whom she has had two children, Olivia and Michael. They currently reside in Los Angeles.
Over the years, McDonnell has played a wide variety of leading roles both Off-Broadway and in many of the country's most renowned regional theatres. Her New York debut was in Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child. She has worked steadily ever since, playing the classic heroines of Ibsen, Shakespeare and Chekov, while originating roles in the works of the most prestigious contemporary playwrights.
In 1980, McDonnell had her first television role, as "Claudia Colfax" in the long-running series As the World Turns. There followed a number of TV and film roles before what was considered her breakthrough role as Stands With a Fist, opposite Kevin Costner in his lavish, and Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves (1990). As a result of this role, she received her first Oscar nomination in 1991, and received the first of two Golden Globe nominations for the role.
Equally at home in film and theater, McDonnell starred on Broadway in the title role of Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Heidi Chronicles. Her stage performance as the lead in Darrah Cloud's adaptation of Willa Cather's O Pioneers! was filmed for PBS' American Playhouse and aired in 1991.
In 1993 she received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination as well as Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of a paraplegic soap-opera star in John Sayles' critically acclaimed Passion Fish, a story portraying the relationship between a woman and her taciturn caretaker.
That character was a reversal from McDonnell's role that year as the sole female lead in the popular high-tech caper Sneakers, which drew rave reviews. Starring with Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Ben Kingsley, James Earl Jones, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix and David Strathairn, McDonnell played the part of "Liz", an intelligent and highly motivated teacher of gifted children who provides more than intellectual support for former boyfriend Martin Bishop, played by Redford. The actress won acclaim the previous year for her role as a Santa Monica mother facing the tumult of contemporary urban life in Kasdan's Grand Canyon, also starring Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, Steve Martin and Alfre Woodward.
In 1995, McDonnell starred as flamboyant publisher Dott Emerson in the CBS series High Society. In 1994, McDonnell received glowing reviews in TNT's adaptation of Arthur Miller's The American Clock. She starred as Rosie Baumler, the matriarch of a prosperous Depression-era family suddenly hit with economic despair. Also in 1994, she starred opposite Nick Nolte in William Friedkin's Blue Chips.
In the summer of 1996, McDonnell starred with Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman and Will Smith in Independence Day, the sci-fi thriller directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich. Also, McDonnell returned to Broadway to star in Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke, with Harry Hamlin.
In 1997, she starred in Two Small Voices with Gail O'Grady for Lifetime Television, and completed production on the film You Can Thank Me Later, a comedy of morals and values shared by a Jewish family during a crisis.
In the fall of 1999, McDonnell reunited with filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan, with whom she'd worked on his acclaimed Grand Canyon, to star in Touchstone Pictures' Mumford, a film about a small Midwestern town whose citizens are shocked to learn that a beloved local psychologist and matchmaker is an impostor. Earlier that year, she appeared with Donald Sutherland and Matthew Fox in the critically acclaimed CBS-TV movie Behind The Mask, and starred in Replacing Dad, a made-for-TV movie for CBS, garnering rave reviews. Of the former, The New York Times said, "Ms. McDonnell is the attraction here. She is such a fine actress and is so beautifully directed by Joyce Chopra that her shock, pain and intelligence mingle to uncommonly powerful effect."
Her most recent work includes the acclaimed art-house hit Donnie Darko and the lighthearted Nola, a selection of the Tribeca Film Festival in May 2003. She also starred in the Fox drama series Ryan Caulfield: Year One, and had a recurring role as Eleanor Carter in the television medical drama ER (not to be confused with her role as Dr. Eve Sheridan on the 1984 sitcom E/R, co-starring Elliott Gould where she replaced Marcia Strassman in the role).
Joining Battlestar Galactica
When Ron Moore and David Eick were casting the roles of Laura Roslin and William Adama, they used Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos, respectively, as the template for their "ideal" casting choice, which they didn't think they'd actually get (i.e. "The perfect person for this role would be McDonnell, but we'll never get an actress that big"). However, Moore and Eick were shocked when both McDonnell and Olmos agreed to join the show. Ron Moore revealed that when he was actually writing the part of Laura Roslin in the Miniseries script, he was watching McDonnell's previous film, "Donnie Darko", in the backround and specifically wrote the role with McDonnell in mind.
Although Mary McDonnell was always the first choice for the role of Roslin, in the event that the production team couldn't convince her to join alternative casting choices (actresses similar to McDonnell) included Susan Sarandon, Star Trek:First Contact's Alfre Woodard, and Apollo 13's Kathleen Quinlan.