Sissy Spacek

Sissy Spacek Headshot

Actress • Singer

Birth Date: December 25, 1949

Age: 74 years old

Birth Place: Quitman, Texas

Children: Schuyler Fisk

Multiple Oscar nominee Sissy Spacek is an American actress and singer who was one of Hollywood's leading actresses during the 1970s and 1980s, initially gaining attention for the startling character transformations of her wide-eyed innocents in "Badlands" (1973) and the blood-drenched "Carrie" (1977). The Texas-bred actress had a penchant for embodying strong, independent women and what she called "ordinary people in extraordinary situations" - both apt descriptions for her portrayals of real-life figures like hardscrabble country music star Loretta Lynn in "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980) and Beth Horman, a woman who took on international forces following the disappearance of her journalist husband in "Missing" (1982). Later in her career, Spacek developed into an earthy, mothering persona who often found her calling in TV movies that explored political or social issues, though she made several notable big screen turns in JFK" (1991), "The Straight Story" (1996), "North Country" (2005) and "In The Bedroom" (2001) - the latter of which earned her among the highest accolades of her career. She also appeared in "An American Haunting" (2006) and "Gray Matters," and on television in "Picture of Hollis Woods" (CBS, 2007) and an Emmy-nominated guest turn on "Big Love" (HBO, 2006-2011). Spacek remained an accomplished actress who delivered high quality performances time and again in a wide array of projects.

Mary Elizabeth Spacek (dubbed "Sissy" by her older brothers) was born on Christmas day 1949 and grew up in the north Texas town of Quitman. It was an idyllic small town upbringing, where the freckled strawberry-blonde sang and danced in local talent shows and dreamed of becoming a performer. Her cousin Rip Torn was beginning to make a name for himself as an actor in New York and Spacek joined him after her high school graduation and the death of her older brother from leukemia - a traumatic event that underscored the unpredictable nature of life and inspired her to waste no time pursuing her dreams. Spacek initially landed in New York with her sights set on becoming a singer. For several years, she sang and played guitar in Greenwich Village coffeehouses and landed some paying work singing commercial jingles. She had a break of sorts when, under the pseudonym Rainbo, she recorded a novelty number called "John, You've Gone Too Far This Time" (about John Lennon posing nude on the Two Virgins album cover). The single failed to chart high and that spelled the end of Rainbo. Spacek decided to next try her hand at acting, taking classes at the famed Lee Strasberg institute and landing an uncredited film role in Andy Warhol's "Trash" (1970).

She eventually secured an agent and her first substantial movie part as a teenager abducted by a white slavery ring in the lurid "Prime Cut" (1972). Her earthy country-girl looks began to serve her well, especially her several appearances as a spunky love interest to John-Boy Walton (Richard Thomas) in the rural drama, "The Waltons" (CBS, 1972-1981). The same year, she landed attention for her starring role as a naive teenager wo d into an interstate crime spree by her psychopathic garbage man in Terrence Malick's "Badlands" (1973). Inspired by the real-life 1958 case of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, "Badlands" was chilling, beautiful and provocative. While not a box office hit, it earned the actress a BAFTA nomination and in the years since its release, developed enormous respect. Spacek would joke that she was "not known for making career moves," and thus, did not jump at Hollywood offers as a result of her newfound attention. Plus, she had fallen in love with then fledgling director, Jack Fisk. The couple would marry in 1974.

Off the success of "Badlands," she opted to play a disaffected 1960s radical in the powerful ABC TV movie "Katherine" (1975), before winning the role of the heroine in Brian De Palma's adaptation of Stephen King's "Carrie" (1977) - a part which elevated her profile to a whole new level for the first time. She gave an extraordinary performance as an outcast teen with an overly zealous religious mother (Piper Laurie), unleashing newly discovered telekinetic powers on her tormentors. In a rare occurrence for a horror film, she earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Better than that accolade, however, she achieved film immortality when she is drenched with pig blood by her petty classmates when being crowned prom queen. Wearing the crown, holding roses and covered in blood, the scene became one of the most famous in film history regardless of genre.

Spacek took on another young adult role as a naïve hospital worker in Robert Altman's curious study, "3 Women" (1977), but began a transition to more adult material with the title role in the PBS production "Verna: USO Girl" (1977). Two years later, she essayed Carolyn Cassady opposite Nick Nolte in the uneven biopic "Heart Beat," but her career-making role was just around the corner. Spacek's incredibly detailed, deeply moving portrayal of country singer Loretta Lynn in the biographical drama "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980) catapulted her to the front ranks of American actresses. Not only did she play Lynn from preteen into her forties, but Spacek did her own vocals and imbued the character with spot-on folksy charm and fierce country grit. She garnered practically every accolade for her performance, including the Best Actress Academy Award and a Grammy nomination for the film's theme song.

True to form, Spacek again eschewed a deluge of Hollywood offers and decided on a role in her husband's directorial debut, "Raggedy Man" (1981), a period drama in which she played a divorced mother with two small children whose relationship with a sailor (Eric Roberts) leads to trouble. The film was a critical success, making Spacek an even more admired figure in the industry. Taking on yet another real-life figure, Spacek earned another Oscar nomination for her role as the wife of an American journalist who disappears in Central America in "Missing" (1982), co-starring film legend Jack Lemmon. She was back in contention for the prize as a farm matriarch struggling to survive during economic hardships in the earnest drama "The River" (1984).

With that one-two-three punch of critically acclaimed features, Spacek went on to essay a Tennessee mom who blows the whistle on corruption in the parole system in "MARIE: A True Story" (1985) and then appeared in film versions of two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays. In Marsha Norman's "'Night Mother" she played a pre-suicidal woman preparing her mother (Anne Bancroft) for her departure, while in "Crimes of the Heart" (1986), for which she earned a fifth Best Actress Academy Award nomination, she was the eccentric, would-be murderer Babe, a character who put a darkly comic spin on the many child-like women she had played in her career. That same year, she was again directed by her husband in the modest romance, "Violets Are Blue," about former high school lovers who attempt to rekindle an old relationship.

Around this time, Spacek took several years off from acting, spending time on her horse ranch in Virginia and focusing on family life, which now included children. She resumed her big screen career in the well-intentioned, if little-seen, civil rights drama "The Long Walk Home" (1990). She appeared opposite Kevin Costner as the wife of his Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone's much ballyho d "JFK" (1991), and continued her involvement with political-tinged fare as a children's TV show host seeking an abortion in the HBO drama "A Private Matter" (1992) and as a caregiver for an HIV-infected child in "A Place for Annie" (ABC, 1994). She netted her first Emmy nomination in "The Good Old Boys" (TNT, 1996), co-written, directed and starring her "Coal Miner's Daughter" co-star Tommy Lee Jones.

Back on the big screen, Spacek reunited with "Carrie" mom Piper Laurie to play a pair of sisters in the 1996 film adaptation of the Truman Capote novel "The Grass Harp." In a spate of character roles as she grew older but no less beautiful, Spacek played the patient, long-suffering girlfriend of a troubled small-town traffic cop (Nick Nolte) in "Affliction" (1997), and David Lynch cast her as the "simple" daughter of a man who rides a lawnmower several hundred miles in order to reconcile with his dying brother in "The Straight Story" (1999).

Having earned a comforting reputation playing solid and supportive caregivers, Spacek was seen as a single mother struggling to raise a family who takes in a mysterious boarder in the CBS drama "Songs in Ordinary Time" (2000). In 2001, she gave one of the best performances of her career as a mother whose family is on the verge of collapse due in part to her son's bad choices in "In the Bedroom" (2001). When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, it was greeted with rapturous response, with Spacek and co-star Tom Wilkinson being awarded a Special Jury Prize for their stellar performances. Spacek also garnered her sixth career Best Actress Oscar nomination for her impressive work in the deeply moving film.

Taking a detour from the tragic, she was next seen on the big screen in "Tuck Everlasting" (2002), an adaptation of the novel about a family who discovers a fountain of youth. She gave a stirring performance as F. Scott Fitzgerald's disturbed wife in the Showtime miniseries "Last Call," and as a result, was nominated for an Emmy in 2002. As one of the original "scream queens" to go on to a major film career, Spacek's memorable cameo in "The Ring 2" (2005) as the unhinged mother of the ghostly pursuer, proved a treat for horror fans. In 2005, she appeared alongside Charlize Theron as the long-suffering but surprisingly iron-willed mother of a sexually harassed Minnesota miner in the drama "North Country" (2005).

On the small screen, Spacek was part of a strong ensemble cast in Rodrigo Garcia's "Nine Lives" (2005), an episodic drama which centered around nine different women thematically connected through their various travails. In 2007, the versatile actress again gave a moving performance as a retired art teacher who takes in a foster child in the TV movie "Pictures of Hollis Woods" (CBS), which was recognized with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie. Also that year, she delivered a turn as the therapist of a young woman (Heather Graham) who shocks everyone - including herself - when she falls for another woman (Bridget Moynahan) in the indie romantic comedy, "Gray Matters" (2007). After playing the New Age mother of a put-upon husband (Vince Vaughn) in "Four Christmases" (2008), she was a desperate mother trying to protect her son (Troy Garity) from a ruthless drug dealer (Dave Matthews) in the little-seen crime drama, "Lake City" (2008). Back on television, Spacek narrated the four-part documentary series "Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People" (PBS, 2009), which she followed with an acclaimed recurring role on the hit series, "Big Love" (HBO, 2006-2011), playing a conniving lobbyist who butts heads with aspiring state senator and longtime polygamist Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton). The role earned Spacek an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series.

By Susan Clarke

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