Twice nominated for an Oscar, actress Jill Clayburgh personified the joys and pitfalls of the newly liberated woman of the 1970s in films like "An Unmarried Woman" (1978), "Starting Over" (1979) and "I'm Dancing As Fast as I Can" (1982). Stage-trained and equally adept at high comedy, as seen by her turns in "Silver Streak" (1976) and "Semi-Tough" (1977), Clayburgh's forte was intense, personal drama, to which she brought uncommon grace and grit. She took a hiatus from features in the 1980s but returned to television and stage in the 1990s and 2000s, most notably as the brittle matriarch of the wealthy Darling family on "Dirty Sexy Money" (ABC, 2007-09). Her death in 2010 robbed the acting world of one of its most versatile performers.
Born in New York City, NY on April 30, 1944, Clayburgh's mother was the production secretary to theatre impresario David Merrick, while her father, Albert Henry "Bill" Clayburgh, was a manufacturing executive. Clayburgh's childhood was a wealthy and privileged one; she attended the exclusive Brearley School and later Sarah Lawrence College, where she developed an interest in acting. While still an undergraduate, she made her film debut as a bride-to-be alongside a young Robert De Niro in "The Wedding Party" (1963), which also marked Brian De Palma's first credit as a director. The film was not released to theaters until 1969, when De Niro was beginning to gain notice for his theater and early film work.
Clayburgh pursued summer stock at the Williamstown Theater Festival while in college, later taking up residency at the Charles Street Repertory Theater in Boston, MA, where she met fellow up-and-coming actor Al Pacino, with whom she was involved for much of the early 1970s. She made her off-Broadway debut in 1968 in "The Sudden and Accidental Re-Education of Horse Johnson," and logged a year (1969-1970) on the daytime soap "Search for Tomorrow" (CBS/NBC, 1951-1986) before making her debut on the Great White Way in the original productions of "The Rothschilds" (1970) and "Pippin" (1972). After landing an uncredited bit part in the cult film "The Telephone Book" (1971), Clayburgh made her major motion picture debut in the much-disliked film version of Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" (1972).
Her next few features gave her limited screen time in supporting roles - she was Ryan O'Neal's wife in "The Thief Who Came to Dinner" (1973), and a victim of brain surgery candidate-turned-killer George Segal in Michael Crichton's "The Terminal Man" (1974). But an Emmy-nominated turn as a hooker who introduces reporter Lee Remick to the world of high-class prostitution in the 1975 TV movie "Hustling" earned her the attention of critics and viewers, as did her dim portrayal of screen legend Carole Lombard in "Gable and Lombard" (1976) and the 1976 TV movie "Griffin and Phoenix: A Love Story," in which she and Peter Falk played terminally ill lovers. Her combination of beauty and talent was soon placing her at the top of casting agents' lists for female leads, which led to her appearing in two major features - as Gene Wilder's love interest in the comedy/thriller "Silver Streak" (1976) and the daughter of a football team owner caught in a love triangle with two players - Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson - in "Semi-Tough" (1977). Both films were respectable hits, and Clayburgh's star status was quickly on the rise.
1978 was Clayburgh's year, thanks to her starring role in Paul Mazursky's "An Unmarried Woman," a comedy/drama that attempted to capture both the zeitgeist of 1970s New York and the experience of a woman as she searches for love and identity after the collapse of her marriage. Critics were knocked out by Clayburgh's portrayal of a realistic female character, awarding her an Oscar nomination as well as the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival. She stumbled a bit with a risky role in Bernardo Bertolucci's "La Luna" (1979) as an opera singer who dallies with incest in an attempt to draw her son away from a life of drug addiction, but recovered by re-teaming with Burt Reynolds in "Starting Over" (1979), a comedy about a divorced man who must choose between his ex-wife (Candice Bergen) and a new love interest (Jill Clayburgh). Both actresses received Oscar nods for their performances.
Clayburgh also returned to the stage that year in a revival of David Rabe's "In the Boom Boom Room." In addition to landing the lead role of Chrissy, a naïve go-go dancer struggling to navigate through a string of bad relationships and emotional upheavals, offstage, she married Rabe, with whom she had two children, daughter Lily (born 1982) and son Michael (born 1986). Her playwright husband later penned the script for her 1982 film, "I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can," which was based on author Barbara Gordon's experiences with Valium addiction, earning Clayburgh some of her best reviews to date.
Clayburgh's third and final film as the emblematic single woman of the 1970s and 1980s came with "It's My Turn" (1980), in which she played a successful math professor who falls for Michael Douglas, the son of her father's new wife. She then segued into a Golden Globe-nominated role as a conservative Supreme Court appointee who butts heads with an older and more liberal judge (Walter Matthau) in the film version of "First Monday in October" (1981), the acclaimed stage play about political opponents on the Supreme Court by Jerome Lawrence and Robert K. Lee of "Inherit the Wind" fame. The picture would be Clayburgh's last box office success for some time.
She received her first negative reviews for Costa Gavras' muddled Middle Eastern drama "Hannah K." (1983), which drew fire from critics for its controversial pro-Palestine stance. Clayburgh countered by focusing her energy on her family and the occasional television project, including "Where Are the Children" (1986), based on the Mary Higgins Clark thriller, and Andrei Konchalovsky's "Shy People" (1987), about a journalist (Clayburgh) who meets her bayou resident cousin (Barbara Hershey). The rest of the eighties found the former A-list actress completely flying under the radar.
Her output increased during the 1990, with television remaining her format of choice, but there was also the occasional feature like the psychological thriller "Whispers in the Dark" (1992) and "Rich in Love" (1994), with Clayburgh as a Southern matriarch who abandons her eccentric family. On television, she played actress Jill Ireland in "Reason For Living: The Jill Ireland Story" (1991), which recounted her struggle with cancer, and the ill-fated Kitty Menendez in "Honor Thy Mother and Father: The True Story of the Menendez Murders" (1994). She also began appearing in episodes of popular series like "Law and Order" (NBC, 1990-2010), as an unscrupulous lawyer, and "Ally McBeal" (Fox, 1997-2002) as Calista Flockhart's mother. Clayburgh also tried her hand as a series regular on three short-lived shows - the Emmy-winning drama "Trinity" (NBC, 1990), the dysfunctional family sitcom "Everything's Relative" (NBC, 1999), and the much-reviled "Leap of Faith" (NBC, 2002).
Clayburgh received an Emmy nomination in 2005 for her turn as a dissatisfied liposuction patient who causes trouble for the plastic surgery team of Troy/McNamara on "Nip/Tuck" (FX, 2003-09). That same year, she returned to Broadway in a critically dismissed revival of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" as Amanda Peet's mother. "Nip/Tuck" creator Ryan Murphy was so impressed with the now character actress that he also tapped her to play the depressed adoptive mother of Augusten Burroughs in his film version of the author's best-selling memoir, "Running with Scissors" (2006) - in which she was often cited as the best thing about the depressing, bizarre film. She also starred as Pat Nixon in "Dirty Tricks" (2008), about the life of Martha Mitchell, wife of Richard Nixon's Attorney General, John Mitchell. In 2008, she joined the cast of the sudsy drama "Dirty Sexy Money" (ABC) as the female head of a wealthy and unscrupulous family. After a 21-year battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, she passed away at age 66 on Nov. 5, 2010. Fans were shocked, as the classic actress had kept her illness a well-kept secret. Her husband, Tony Award-winning playwright David Rabe, said she was surrounded by her family and brother when she died. "She dealt with the disease courageously, quietly and privately... and made it into an opportunity for her children to grow and be human."