Born Susan Williams Antonia Stockard Channing Schmidt on February 13, 1944, Channing is the daughter of a wealthy shipping executive, and became interested in the dramatic arts while attending college at Radcliffe. After graduating in the mid-sixties, Channing joined Boston's experimental Theater Company. Several unsuccessful Broadway auditions later, she landed a lead role in a Los Angeles production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Eventually, Channing made it to Broadway, and won a Tony for her performance in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.
In the early '70s, Channing appeared in several small television roles, and made her big screen debut in 1971's The Hospital. In 1973, the actress starred in the Joan Rivers-penned black comedy The Girl Most Likely To..., a TV movie about an overweight college girl who loses weight, gets cosmetic surgery, and sets off in hopes of getting even. Channing's first major film role came two years later, when she starred in Mike Nichols' The Fortune with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. It wasn't until 1978, however, that Channing would win her most memorable role to date -- tough gal Rizzo in the retro-musical Grease. Interestingly enough, although she was cast as a teenager, the actress was in her early thirties when she was chosen for the film. Around the same time, Channing starred in two similar and short-lived sitcoms: Stockard Channing in Just Friends and The Stockard Channing Show.
By 1980, Channing's film career was idling in neutral, so she focused her energies on the theater, though she began showing up in various supporting film roles in the mid to late eighties. In 1993, she was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for playing the formidable Upper East Side matron of Six Degrees of Separation; the role had also earned her a Tony nomination when she performed it in the film's stage version. Channing subsequently made steady appearances in both film and television, and co-starred as a witch in Practical Magic with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, as well as The First Wives Club, Moll Flanders, Edie & Pen, and An Unexpected Family. In 2000, Channing would play one of the more eccentric residents of a small Oklahoma town in Where the Heart Is. After filming Other Voices in 2001, which was screened at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, Channing would receive a solid amount of critical success for her role in The Business of Strangers (2001), in which she starred as a high-level corporate player who saves her own job only to find out her boss is a rapist. In between filming a variety of television and documentary appearances - namely, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (2002), A Girl Thing (2001), Out of the Closet, Off the Screen: The William Haines Story (2001), and New York Firefighters: The Brotherhood of 9/11 (2002) -- Channing joined up with Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie in Stephen Herek's Life or Something Like It.
In 2003, Channing made a cameo appearance in Bright Young Things, and went on to co-star in Le Divorce with Kate Hudson, Glenn Close, and Matthew Modine during the same year. The actress also signed on with the legendary Woody Allen in Anything Else, in which she played a middle-aged mother determined to land a role in a cabaret production. She would find particular success on the small screen over the coming years, with a starring role as first lady Abbey Bartlet on The West Wing.