Curly haired, sandy-voiced actress Mary Steenburgen is a natural when it comes to playing Southerners, probably because she hails from the region herself. Born in Arkansas on February 8, 1953, Steenburgen was the daughter of a railroad employee. Pursuing drama in college, she headed to New York in 1972, where she worked with an improvisational troupe. She was spotted by Jack Nicholson, who cast her as his feisty "in name only" frontier wife in 1978's Goin' South. Two years later, she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Melvin Dummar's inamorata in Melvin and Howard (1980).
Able to convey a wide age and character range, Steenburgen was effectively cast as a free-spirited Frisco girl in Time After Time (1979), the corseted matriarch of a turn-of-the-century household in Ragtime (1981), prim authoress Marjorie Rawlins in Cross Creek (1983), a long-suffering suburban housewife in Parenthood (1989), and a Marcia Clark-like attorney in Philadelphia (1993). She also portrayed the Jules Verne-loving Western schoolmarm Clara in Back to the Future 3 (1990), a role she perpetuated (via voice-over) on the Back to the Future TV cartoon series. In 1988, she was executive producer of End of the Line, in which she also appeared. Steenburgen's film appearances throughout the 1990s were erratic: some highlights, in addition to Philadelphia, include What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Nixon (1995), and The Grass Harp (1995). In 1999, she starred as Noah's wife in the biblical epic Noah's Ark, sharing the screen with the likes of Jon Voight, F. Murray Abraham, James Coburn, and Carol Kane.
As the 21st century began, Steenburgen continued to work steadily in projects such as Life as a House, I Am Sam, Sunshine State, and Elf. She was cast in the CBS drama Joan of Arcadia in 2003. In 2006 she appeared in David Lynch's Inland Empire, and the next year she starred opposite Jodie Foster in the vigilante drama The Brave One. She was cast in the comedies Step Brothers and Four Christmases in 2008, and in 2011 she was the editor who inspires the main character to write the book in The Help.
Formerly married for several years to actor Malcolm McDowell, Steenburgen married former Cheers star Ted Danson in 1995. The two have collaborated on a number of projects, including 1994's Pontiac Moon and the made-for-TV Gulliver's Travels in 1996.