Gena Rowlands

Active - 1958 - 2014  |   Born - Jun 19, 1930 in Cambria, Wisconsin, United States  |   Genres - Drama

Share on

Biography by Hal Erickson

An alumnus of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Wisconsin-born actress Gena Rowlands entered the Broadway talent pool in 1952. From 1955 through 1957, the blonde, frosty-eyed actress co-starred with Edward G. Robinson in the original Broadway production of Middle of the Night. She also did plenty of Manhattan-based television during this period, including a recurring role on the forgotten syndicated series Top Secret U.S.A.

Rowlands made her first film, The High Cost of Loving, in 1958, the same year that she married legendary actor/director John Cassavetes. The excellent response to her performance as the deaf-mute wife of a detective on the 1961 TV series 87th Precinct sparked a grass-roots campaign to have Rowlands appear on the series on a weekly basis, but her film commitments were such that she couldn't be confined to any one part for very long. Always a capable leading lady, Rowlands blossomed into full stardom in the films directed by her husband. She first collaborated with him on A Child Is Waiting (1963) and then starred as a prostitute in his 1968 film Faces. Rowlands went on to earn Oscar nominations for her work in two of her husband's other films, A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Gloria (1980).

After Cassavetes' death in 1989, Rowlands took a two-year sabbatical from films, returning to play Holly Hunter's mother -- and Richard Dreyfuss' mother-in-law -- in Once Around (1991). That same year, she appeared as a casting agent in Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth. After starring in such films as 1995's The Neon Bible and Something to Talk About (the latter of which featured her as the "steel magnolia" wife of Robert Duvall and mother of Julia Roberts), Rowlands stepped in front the camera for her son Nick Cassavetes' 1996 directorial debut, Unhook the Stars. The actress turned in a strong performance as a matriarch experiencing various life upheavals, and the following year again collaborated with her son in his romantic comedy She's So Lovely. Rowlands continued to stay busy with work for other directors, appearing in no less than three films in 1998. Particularly notable appearances included her role as Sean Connery's estranged wife in Playing by Heart and her portrayal of the grandmother of a disabled boy in The Mighty. In addition to her film work, Rowlands has earned considerable acclaim for her television roles. In 1985, she earned an Emmy nomination for her role in the powerful AIDS drama An Early Frost, and has won Emmys for her performances in The Betty Ford Story (1987) and Face of a Stranger (1991).

At the beginning of the 21st century Rowlands continued to work steadily racking up credits in a variety of projects including Wild Iris, Hysterical Blindness, and Taking Lives. IN 2004 she acted again for her son in the cult hit The Notebook, and she followed that up with a role in the supernatural thriller The Skeleton Key. In 2007 she provided one of the voices in the well-reviewed Persepolis, and after a five-year hiatus from screens she returned in yet another project directed by her son, the quirky psychological drama Yellow.

Movie Highlights

See Full Filmography


  • Made her film debut in 1958's The High Cost of Loving.
  • First met husband John Cassavetes when he approached her after seeing her on stage in an American Academy of Dramatic Arts production.
  • Is the only woman ever nominated for two Best Actress Academy Awards in films directed by her husband, A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Gloria (1980).
  • Her performance as unstable housewife Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence ranked No. 63 on Premiere magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time.
  • After her husband's death in 1989, she took a break from acting in films.
  • Appeared in the directorial debuts of her filmmaker children: her son Nick's Unhook the Stars (1996) and her daughter Zoe's Broken English (2007).