A balding supporting actor with a grin that suggests he knows something you don't, Richard Jenkins has become one of the most in-demand character actors in Hollywood. Though he has worked steadily since the early '80s, Jenkins may have made his most memorable impression, at least to HBO subscribers, as the patriarch of the family of undertakers on the hit 2001 drama Six Feet Under. His character was killed off in the first episode, but Jenkins continued to appear as a spirit lingering in the family's memory -- a good metaphor for the actor's lingering impact on viewers, even when he appears in small roles.
Jenkins, who shares the birth name of Richard Burton and sometimes appears as Richard E. Jenkins, was born and raised in Dekalb, IL, before studying theater at Illinois Wesleyan University. The actor developed a long and distinguished regional theater career, most notably a 15-year stint at Rhode Island's Trinity Repertory Theater, where he served as artistic director for four years. He snagged his first role as early as 1975, in the TV movie Brother to Dragons, but did not begin working regularly until a small role in the Lawrence Kasdan film Silverado (1985). Supporting work in such films as Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), The Witches of Eastwick (1987), and Sea of Love (1989) followed, and Jenkins spent the early '90s specializing in made-for-TV movies, including the adaptation of Randy Shilts' AIDS opus And the Band Played On (1993).
It was not until the late '90s that Jenkins started gaining wider appreciation, especially as he indulged in his talent for comedy. His appearance as an uptight gay FBI agent who gets accidentally drugged was one of the highlights of David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster (1996), allowing him to convincingly (and riotously) act out an acid trip. Working again with Ben Stiller, Jenkins appeared as a psychiatrist in There's Something About Mary (1998), which launched a relationship with directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly, who hail from the state (Rhode Island) where Jenkins did much of his stage work. Jenkins appeared in the Farrelly-produced Outside Providence (1999) and Say It Isn't So (2001), as well as in the Farrelly-directed Me, Myself & Irene (2000). The actor then shifted over to another set of brother directors to portray the father of Scarlet Johansson's character in Joel and Ethan Coen's noir The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). In 2001, Jenkins also appeared in the first season of HBO's Six Feet Under as Nathaniel Fisher Sr., the sardonic funeral home director whom the characters remember as an impenetrable mystery, frugal with his praise and emotions.
Jenkins continued working steadily, carrying on his role on Six Feet Under, while turning in supporting work in varied projects like Changing Lanes, Shall We Dance, and Fun With Dick & Jane. With 2005's North Country he earned strong reviews as the father of a sexually harassed woman.
After decades in the business, he won his first starring role in Tom McCarthy's The Visitor. For his work as the repressed professor who learns to engage in life again thanks to an unexpected friendship with a Syrian immigrant, Jenkins earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, as well as a SAG nomination. That film was the highlight of his 2008, a very busy year for the actor that also saw him reunite for a third time with the Coen Brothers in Burn After Reading, and play opposite Will Ferrell and John C. Riley in Step Brothers. The coming years would continue to earn the actor both a wider audience and more accolades, in projects like Burn After Reading, Let Me In, The Rum Diary, and The Cabin in the Woods.