No one could have predicted that brash, acerbic, and earthy standup comedienne Rosie O'Donnell would become the American sweetheart (dubbed the Queen of Nice) of daytime talk shows. She is also a veteran character actress of feature films and television. Born and raised on Long Island, NY, the third of five children in an Irish family, O'Donnell's father was the primary caretaker after her mother passed away from cancer when the comedienne was just ten. An avowed television freak, her favorite shows were Merv Griffin and The Mike Douglas Show, both of which would inspire her own talk show decades later. Inspired by Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand, O'Donnell dreamed of becoming a performer, performing on stage for the first time at age 16.
Despite the trauma of losing her mother, O'Donnell grew to become a vivacious and popular teen; in her high school year book (class of 1980) she was named Homecoming Queen, Class Clown, and Personality Plus, and she was also elected Senior Class President and was a member of the student council. She participated in every class sport and was a drummer in a garage band. Following high school, she briefly attended Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and Boston University, but dropped out to establish herself on the live comedy circuit. After appearing in nearly every state, she successfully auditioned for Ed McMahon's television talent show Star Search and went on to become a five-time winner. In 1986, she won a recurring role as Nell Carter's neighbor on the final season of the sitcom Gimme a Break (1986). From there, O'Donnell hosted and produced a comedy showcase, Stand Up Spotlight, for VH-1. She next appeared on the Fox short-lived comedy Stand By Your Man (1992).
Having established herself as a formidable funny lady, O'Donnell landed the role of tough-talking but goodhearted baseball player Doris Murphy in Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own (1992) and found herself a national star. She continued her film career with a small role as Meg Ryan's confidante in Sleepless in Seattle (1993), followed by a co-starring part opposite Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez in Another Stakeout (1993). As the bubbly Betty Rubble, she stole the show from John Goodman and Rick Moranis in The Flintstones (1994) and she had her first flop, playing a cop who masquerades as a leather-clad dominatrix opposite Dan Aykroyd in Exit to Eden (1994). She added Broadway to her list of successes when she breathed new life into the feisty Rizzo in the revival of Grease. In 1996, she played an understanding nanny in Harriet the Spy.
Though she could have continued to have steady work as an actress and live performer, O'Donnell steered her career in a different direction; capitalizing on her phenomenal popularity as a talk show guest by becoming the host of her own gab fest, The Rosie O'Donnell Show, in 1996. Not wanting her program to be yet another of the exploitational, issues-oriented freak shows that characterized the 1990s, she chose to pattern hers after the afternoon talk/variety shows of old, focusing on celebrity interviews, entertaining acts, helpful household hints, and current events. Daytime audiences were hungry for what she offered and, in no time, her show became the most popular of its kind, topping even the venerable Oprah Winfrey Show. During its first three years, O'Donnell and her series garnered numerous Emmys and Emmy nominations.
In 2002, after 6 years on television, The Rosie O'Donnell Show bowed, but not before its host ended long speculation by coming out as a lesbian. After leaving the show, O'Donnell transformed her persona to a passionate champion of GLBT-related causes. The adopted mother of four, she particularly focused her attention on lobbying against legal hurdles for gays and lesbians wishing to adopt.
In 2005, O'Donnell appeared in her first feature role in several years, playing a mentally-disabled woman in the made-for-TV melodrama Riding the Bus with My Sister. The following year, it was announced that O'Donnell would step in for the departing Meredith Viera on ABC's long-running daytime panel show The View. Her presence on the show regularly sparked controversy, with a public feud between O'Donnell and mogul Donald Trump gaining particular attention.
In 2007, after a year on the show, O'Donnell announced that a deal could not be reached with ABC, and she would be leaving the program. But anyone who knew O'Donnell knew that she wouldn't stay out of the spotlight for long, and with recurring roles on Drop Dead Diva, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Lisa Kudrow's Web Therapy she managed to keep her fans laughing. In 2009 she took on a double role as producer and star of the made-for-television movie America -- which told the tale of a youth center psychologist (O'Donnell) treating a bi-racial teen with a turbulent past -- and two years later she joined the Oprah Winfrey Network as host of the nightly talk show The Rosie Show, which featured celebrity guests discussing their careers, as well as current issues. In early 2012, however, the troubled network announced the cancellation of the show, with Winfrey calling O'Donnell personally to break the news. In 2014, she briefly returned to The View, before announcing she was leaving the show after five months due to personal and health issues.