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Ellen Burstyn Biography, Career, Marriages, Son, Net Worth

Ellen Burstyn is an actress who has worked in theater, television, and film, earning six Academy Award nominations. She had her breakthrough in 1971’s The Last Picture Show, before going on to star in The Exorcist and Martin Scorsese‘s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

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Burstyn won an Oscar for Best Actress for the latter in 1975. She also won a Tony Award that year for the play Same Time, Next Year. From 1982 to 1985, she was the first woman president of Actors’ Equity Association, and she is currently co-president of The Actors Studio with Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin.

Early Life

Ellen Burstyn was born Edna Rae Gillooly on December 7, 1932, in Detroit, and grew up in a troubled home. Her parents split when she was very young, John Austin and Correine Marie Gillooly. Burstyn told that she only remembers one interaction with her father while she was at boarding school. Similarly, she has portrayed her mother’s relationship as abusive.

“My mother was tough, and she cared for us. I mean, we always, in her words, had a roof over our head and food on the table,” Burstyn said. “But she was controlling and violent. So that sets up a certain pattern of punishment and of feeling you’re not really worthy, that you’re wrong.”

Burstyn had her own personal struggles, confessing subsequently that she had previously had an illegal abortion before the age of 18. She left home at the age of 15 with only 50 cents in her pocket in order to work as a model.

Early Career: Theater, ‘The Exorcist,’ and Oscar Win

In the late 1950s, she received her first regular acting role as Erica Dean, a dancer on The Jackie Gleason Show. She made her Broadway debut in 1957 as Ellen McRae in the play Fair Game. She would use that moniker for the following ten years, appearing in the daytime drama The Doctors (1964) and the western-themed series The Iron Horse (1966-68), as well as modest cinema parts.

She scored her breakout role as Lois Farrow in The Last Picture Show (1971), costarring Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd after changing her name yet again, this time to Ellen Burstyn. Burstyn received her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance. Her second Oscar nomination, for Best Actress, came two years later for her performance in William Friedkin’s cult classic The Exorcist. Chris MacNeil, played by Burstyn, is a middle-aged actor whose daughter (Linda Blair) is possessed by demonic forces.

She co-produced and featured in Martin Scorsese’s poignant drama Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in 1974. Burstyn campaigned for Scorsese to direct the picture after seeing his breakthrough film Mean Streets in 1973. Burstyn received her third Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of a single mother fighting to support herself and her small son, and she won the Best Actress award this time.

Burstyn won a Tony Award in 1975 for her portrayal opposite Charles Grodin in Same Time, Next Year, in addition to her cinematic achievements. She then repeated her part in the 1978 film adaptation, co-starring Alan Alda, and received another Oscar nod for lead actress. Two years later, for Resurrection (1980), she received her fourth Best Actress nomination.

Television Success

Burstyn, a well-known member of the film and theater communities, was the first female president of the Actors’ Equity Association from 1982 to 1985. In 1982, she and Al Pacino took over as co-artistic directors of the Actors Studio, succeeding Lee Strasberg. Burstyn remained at the Actors Studio for the next six years (Pacino retired in 1984).

Beginning in 1981 with her Emmy-nominated performance in the fact-based miniseries The People vs. Jean Harris, she amassed a substantial résumé of outstanding television appearances and programs during the 1980s. Burstyn attempted her hand at humor with her own series, The Ellen Burstyn Show (1986-87), in addition to such dramatic TV movies as Surviving (1985), Into Thin Air (1985), and the Emmy-nominated Pack of Lies (1987).

Burstyn had a consistent stream of TV movies in the 1990s until landing her next series role on the CBS drama That’s Life in 2000. Heather Dubrow played a 32-year-old bartender who broke off her engagement and decides to attend college. Burstyn played Dubrow’s onscreen mother during the first two seasons of the show.

In the late 2000s, guest parts proved to be more productive ground. Burstyn had a regular guest appearance on HBO’s Big Love, for which she received an Emmy nomination in 2008. She received an Emmy the following year for her appearance on the crime drama Law & Order: SVU. (She played the part again in many episodes of Law & Order: SVU as recently as May 2023.)

Burstyn thrived on the tiny screen for the next decade. She co-starred with Sigourney Weaver and Carla Gugino in the 2012 television drama Political Animals. The following year, she received her second Emmy Award for her role on the miniseries. Burstyn appeared as a supporting character in the 2014 television film Flowers in the Attic, based on V.C. Andrews’ novel of the same name. Her disturbing performance as a deranged grandmother earned her yet another Emmy nomination. Burstyn had a recurring appearance on Louis C.K.’s sitcom Louie that same year. Burstyn received her eighth and most current Emmy nomination in 2016 for her role in five episodes of the Netflix political drama House of Cards.

Burstyn most recently acted in Showtime’s The First Lady, a recounting of American history through the perspective of first ladies such as Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson). Burstyn portrayed Sara Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor’s mother-in-law and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mother. The series was not renewed after one season in 2022.

‘Requiem for a Dream’ and More Movies

During the 1990s, Burstyn appeared in a number of films, including How to Make an American Quilt (1995), starring Winona Ryder, and The Spitfire Grill (1996). She appeared in the 1998 film Playing By Heart as part of an amazing ensemble cast that included Sean Connery, Gena Rowlands, and Angelina Jolie. In the film, Burstyn plays a woman struggling with her grown son’s AIDS diagnosis. After co-starring in the underappreciated Walking Across Egypt in 1999, Burstyn was cast in the criminal drama The Yards (2000), alongside Mark Wahlberg, James Caan, and Joaquin Phoenix.

Shortly after The Yards, she gave a heartbreaking performance as a woman addicted to diet pills in Darren Aronofsky’s edgy, frightening thriller Requiem for a Dream (2000), starring Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly. Burstyn received her sixth Academy Award nomination overall, and her fifth for Best Actress.

Burstyn subsequently told CNN that in order to represent her character’s significant weight drop, she wore 40- and 20-pound fat suits and eventually lost 10 pounds herself during a two-week production break. “But I think the most difficult part was dealing with the emotional demands of the role, because she goes to some horrible depths.” And getting there is difficult,” she explained.

Consistent film work persisted, albeit generally in films that did not fare well. Her starring appearance in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002) alongside Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd, Maggie Smith, and James Garner was an exception. She has appeared in the films Interstellar (2014) and The Age of Adaline (2015).

Burstyn appeared as Vanessa Kirby’s onscreen mother in the Netflix miniseries Pieces of a Woman in 2020. The picture received largely positive reviews, and Kirby received her own Academy Award nomination.

‘The Exorcist: Believer’

Burstyn will be 90 in 2022 and her career is far from over. In October 2023, she will reprise her role as Chris MacNeil from The Exorcist in Believer, a direct sequel. Burstyn had previously turned down opportunities to reprise her role in the franchise, but changed her mind when Universal and the production firms agreed to sponsor a scholarship program at Pace University, where she teaches an Actors Studio class.

Burstyn has been a co-president of The Actors Studio, a theater workshop where actors can hone their skills in private, since 1995. She presently co-chairs the organization with Alec Baldwin and Al Pacino and was previously the artistic director of its New York studio location.

Husbands and Son

Burstyn has been married and divorced three times and has one son.

Her first husband was poet William C. Alexander. Their marriage lasted about five years through the mid-1950s.

In 1957, she met her second husband while performing in her debut Broadway musical, Fair Game. The play’s director, Paul Roberts, and they began dating. Burstyn and Roberts adopted a son, Jefferson, soon before their divorce after realizing she was infertile. Jefferson, she claims, is named after previous President Thomas Jefferson. Burstyn told The Los Angeles Times in 1975 that her relationship with her son Tommy in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was inspired by chats with Jefferson, who was 13 at the time.

Neil Burstyn, Burstyn’s third spouse, was a promising actor and writer who suffered from schizophrenia and displayed violent tendencies. They married in 1964 and separated before divorcing in 1972. She reported Neil stalking her after they were separated in an interview with She also claims he r**ed her inside her home while they were still married, but no one called the cops. “[They] said no crime had been committed. He had a perfect right to do that because we were still married,” Ellen explained.

Neil eventually died by suicide in 1978, and Ellen experienced feelings of guilt. “It was because so many things coincided—he went crazy right as I started to get work, and he was an actor who didn’t get work,” she said. “It seemed like somehow my success had caused his insanity.” Ellen also wrote about their tumultuous relationship in her 2007 memoir Lessons in Becoming Myself.

Net Worth

Ellen Burstyn’s net worth is approximately $20 million, according to Celebrity Net Worth.

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