An actress since early childhood, Nancy McKeon made her show business debut at age five, starring in a number of commercials during the early 1970s, as well as appearing on the soap operas "The Secret Storm" (CBS, 1954-1974) and "Another World" (NBC, 1969-1999). But it was her turn as the tough-but-level headed tomboy Jo Polniaczek on the long-running sitcom "The Facts of Life" (NBC, 1979-1988) that earned McKeon her greatest recognition. For eight years, McKeon played the rough-and-tumble Jo, though her image was gradually softened as she grew to be a twenty-something woman by show's end. Both during and after the show's run, she starred in a number of made-for-TV movies, most notably opposite Michael J. Fox in "Poison Ivy" (NBC, 1985). While her career stalled a bit in the 1990s, McKeon emerged in the new millennium with a regular role as Inspector Jinny Exstead on "The Division" (Lifetime, 2001-04), a crime drama about a female team of police officers struggling to juggle their personal and professional lives. Though her career slowed again after "The Division," McKeon still maintained a steady presence on the small screen.
A native of Westbury, NY, Nancy Justine McKeon was born on April 4, 1966. The second child of Donald and Barbara McKeon, the future television star appeared in countless commercials during the early 1970s alongside her older brother, Philip. In 1975, McKeon and her family moved to Los Angeles when her 12-year-old brother Philip won the co-starring role of Tommy Hyatt on the long-running sitcom, "Alice" (CBS, 1976-1985). As luck would have it, big brother's good fortune trickled down, benefiting his little sister as well. In 1978, McKeon made the first of two guest appearances on "Alice." This led the burgeoning young actress to more work, most notably a 1979 Hallmark greeting card commercial. In it, young McKeon played a role that would eventually become her signature archetype: that of an adorable tomboy with a heart of gold. Extremely well-received, the commercial not only launched McKeon's career, it set the standard for all future Hallmark campaigns and their trademark blend of "warm & fuzzy" sentimentality.
Following a string of memorable TV guest appearances, McKeon finally landed her big break in 1980 when she was cast as Jo Polniaczek on "The Facts of Life." A ratings-challenged spin-off of the monster hit "Diff'rent Strokes" (NBC/ABC, 1978-1986), the show was originally designed as a vehicle for comedic actress Charlotte Rae and featured a large ensemble cast of young preteen actresses (including a young Molly Ringwald). Not satisfied with the ratings, however, NBC demanded and got a major re-tooling of "Facts" for its sophomore season. Reducing the number of central characters by half, the show returned for its second season with its focus tightened on just a small core group of girls at the fictional Eastland Academy. Among them was McKeon's new character, Jo. The revised formula evidently worked. "The Facts of Life" gradually became a ratings hit, consistently landing in the Nielsen Top 30 for much of its nine year run.
During the 1980s, McKeon supplemented her regular gig on "Facts" with a number of high-profile television movie-of-the-week roles. Aimed primarily at female teen audiences, McKeon starred in such innocuous date comedies as "Dusty" (1983), "High School, U.S.A." (1983) and 1985's "Poison Ivy" (Not to be confused with the risqué 1992 feature of the same name starring Drew Barrymore). In addition to keeping McKeon's name in the spotlight, the made-for-TV movies had a profound impact on her personal life as well. McKeon's onscreen chemistry with frequent co-star, Michael J. Fox, bloomed into a budding romance off-screen. The relationship lasted for a number of years, before the couple finally split in the late Eighties.
Following the cancellation of "The Facts of Life," McKeon attempted to move on to other television projects, but found the transition more difficult than expected. In 1990, McKeon signed on to star in "Working Girl" (NBC, 1990), a weekly sitcom based on the hit 1988 film starring Melanie Griffith. A troubled enterprise from the get-go, the series was doomed to failure early on, when star McKeon was unceremoniously fired after shooting the pilot. Reportedly nervous that McKeon's tough girl persona would harm the show, NBC replaced her with a "softer" newbie actress named Sandra Bullock in her stead. In the end, however, the recasting proved little relief. "Working Girl" was canceled after just half a season. McKeon's spate of bad luck continued for the next few years. In 1994, McKeon auditioned for the role of straight-laced Monica Geller on the long-running hit, "Friends" (NBC, 1994-2004). After an extremely close race, McKeon wound up losing the role to friend and fellow actress Courteney Cox. McKeon rebounded later that year with another series, the short-lived "Can't Hurry Love" (CBS, 1995). A modest critical success at best, the show hurriedly tanked in the ratings and was dropped after just one season.
After an extended and self-imposed sabbatical from acting, McKeon reemerged on the small screen once again in 2001. Eschewing her light-hearted comedic roots this time, McKeon found an unexpectedly comfortable fit on "The Division" (Lifetime, 2001-04). Created by producer Deborah Joy Levine of "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" (ABC, 1993-97) fame, "The Division" was boldly billed as primetime's first ever "cop drama for women." Well written and solidly cast, the show was a modest hit (by basic cable standards) and ran for four seasons. While the show lacked huge ratings, McKeon unanimously wowed both critics and audiences alike with her complex portrayal of the alcoholic, sexually promiscuous homicide detective, Jinny Exstead.
An avowed hater of nostalgic reunion specials, McKeon was noticeably absent from 2001's made-for-TV "The Facts of Life Reunion" movie. To explain her absence, the script originally called for the death of McKeon's character, Jo, to be the catalyst for the remaining friends' reconnection. The plot device was abandoned, however, after NBC deemed it too gloomy, and was replaced with the far more light-hearted premise of Natalie (Mindy Cohn) getting engaged. As for the reason behind McKeon's no-show, the matter was addressed in a single line of dialogue that explained Jo's no-show due to her busy new career as a cop - an obvious tip of the hat to McKeon's work on "The Division." She returned to making television movies with "Category 6: Day of Destruction" (CBS, 2004) and "Wild Hearts" (Hallmark Channel, 2006), and appeared in an episode of the long-running procedural "Without a Trace" (CBS, 2002-09). She appeared less frequently on screen later in the decade, logging only a recurring role on the tween sketch comedy "So Random!" (Disney Channel, 2009-2011).