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Melissa Leo
Melissa Leo at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.jpg
Born (1960-09-14) September 14, 1960 (age 60)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
EducationState University of New York, Purchase
Years active1984–present
RelativesChristine Leo Roussel
(paternal aunt)

Melissa Leo (born September 14, 1960) is an American actress. She is the recipient of several accolades, including an Academy Award, two Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, two Critics' Choice Awards, and a Screen Actors Guild Award.

After appearing on several television shows and films in the 1980s, Leo became a regular on the television shows All My Children, which won her a Daytime Emmy Award, and The Young Riders. Her breakthrough role came in 1993 as detective and later sergeant Kay Howard on the television series Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–1997).

Leo received critical acclaim for her performance as Ray Eddy in the 2008 film Frozen River, earning her several nominations and awards, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. In 2010, Leo won several awards for her performance as Alice Eklund-Ward in the film The Fighter, including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

In 2013, she won a Primetime Emmy Award for her guest role on the television series Louie. She starred in the 2015 Fox event series Wayward Pines as Nurse Pam. She then starred in the 2017 Netflix film The Most Hated Woman in America as American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

Early life

Leo was born in Manhattan and grew up on the Lower East Side.[1] She is the daughter of Margaret (née Chessington), a California-born teacher, and Arnold Leo III, an editor at Grove Press, fisherman, and former spokesman for the East Hampton Baymen's Association. She has one brother, Erik Leo.[2] Her aunt is art historian Christine Leo Roussel.[3] Leo's parents divorced, and her mother moved them to Red Clover Commune, in Putney, Vermont.

Leo began performing as a child with the Bread and Puppet Theater Company. She attended Bellows Falls High School in Bellows Falls, Vermont, and studied acting at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London and SUNY Purchase, but did not graduate, choosing to leave school and move to New York City to begin auditioning for acting jobs.[4][5][6][7][8] Leo spent summers at her father's house in Springs, a section of East Hampton, New York.[1][9]


Leo's acting debut came in 1984, for which she was nominated for a Daytime Emmy at the 12th Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Ingenue/Woman in a Drama Series for All My Children. Following this, Leo appeared in several films, including the lead role as a straitlaced girl named Cookie who succumbed to prostitution in Streetwalkin', A Time of Destiny, Last Summer in the Hamptons, and Venice/Venice. She also had several appearances on television, most notably her role as Det. Sgt. Kay Howard on Homicide: Life on the Street until 1997. Three years later she reprised her role in the television movie, Homicide: The Movie. After a brief hiatus from acting, Leo's breakthrough came three years later in the Alejandro González Iñárritu film, 21 Grams released to critical acclaim. Leo appeared in a supporting role alongside Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio del Toro, and Clea DuVall. Leo shared a Best Ensemble Acting award from the Phoenix Film Critics Society in 2003 and the runner-up for the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for Best Supporting Actress.

Leo in January 2006
Leo in January 2006

Leo appeared in supporting roles throughout the 2000s including the film Hide and Seek, the independent film American Gun, both in 2005, and a minor role in the comedy Mr. Woodcock. In 2006, she won the Bronze Wrangler at the Western Heritage Awards for Outstanding Theatrical Motion Picture for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada shared with Tommy Lee Jones who also produced the film. In 2008, she won the Maverick Actor Award and also the Best Actress award at the Method Fest for Lullaby (2008).

That same year, Leo earned critical praise for her performance in the film Frozen River, winning several awards, including the Best Actress award from the Independent Spirit Awards, the Spotlight award from the National Board of Review, and Best Actress nominations from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Broadcast Film Critics Association, and Academy Awards. Critic Roger Ebert backed her for a win, stating: "Best Actress: Melissa Leo. What a complete performance, evoking a woman's life in a time of economic hardship. The most timely of films, but that isn't reason enough. I was struck by how intensely determined she was to make the payments, support her two children, carry on after her abandonment by a gambling husband, and still maintain rules and goals around the house. This was a heroic woman."[10]

Following Frozen River, Leo continued to appear in several independent films, and had a minor role in the 2008 film Righteous Kill, with Al Pacino and her Hide and Seek co-star, Robert De Niro. Leo appeared in a series of films throughout 2009, including According to Greta, the title character in Stephanie's Image, True Adolescents, and Veronika Decides to Die.

Melissa Leo at 81st Academy Awards

In 2010, Leo received fame for her role in David O. Russell's The Fighter. Rick Bentley of The Charlotte Observer said: "Both actors (Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale) are very good, but they get blown off the screen by Melissa Leo, who plays their mother, Alice Ward. Leo's Oscar-worthy portrayal of Alice as a master manipulator goes beyond acting to a total transformation."[11] Roger Ebert referred to it as a "teeth-gratingly brilliant performance." Leo and several of the film's actors including her co-star Amy Adams and Bale were nominated. For her performance Leo received several awards, including the Golden Globe, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Circle, Screen Actors Guild, and culminating in her winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. While accepting her Oscar, Leo said: "When I watched Kate two years ago, it looked so fucking easy!" She apologized afterwards for using profanity, admitting that it was "a very inappropriate place to use that particular word ... those words, I apologize to anyone that they offend".[12][13]

Prior to her win, Leo had created some controversy by attempting to self-promote her Oscar campaign, rather than rely on the marketing department of the studio. Leo personally bought ad space in Hollywood trade publications, which was initially thought might backfire in a similar manner to previous Oscar contenders Chill Wills and Margaret Avery.[14]

Following her Oscar win, Leo appeared in the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce alongside Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood and Guy Pearce. Her performance garnered an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie. Her next projects include the satirical horror film Red State, the independent comedy Predisposed with Jesse Eisenberg currently in pre-production[15] and the crime thriller The Dead Circus based on the novel by John Kaye with Michael C. Hall and James Marsden currently in development.[16] She guest-starred in an episode of the hit FX comedy Louie, which garnered her an Emmy win for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.

Leo appeared in the action-thriller Olympus Has Fallen as Ruth McMillan, the Secretary of Defense who was held hostage by terrorists in the White House and Oblivion as the main antagonist Sally. She reprised her role in the Olympus sequel London Has Fallen.

Leo appeared in supporting roles in the thriller films Prisoners, The Equalizer, and The Equalizer 2, having previously appeared in a 1985 episode of the original series. Leo appeared on the Fox series Wayward Pines as Nurse Pam.

Personal life

Leo lives in Stone Ridge, New York.[17] In 1987, she had a son, John Matthew "Jack" Heard, with her former boyfriend, actor John Heard. She considers director Adam Davenport a "son of sorts."[18]

Leo publicly rejected the label of feminist in statements made during a 2012 interview with Salon: "I don't think of myself as a feminist at all. As soon as we start labeling and categorizing ourselves and others, that's going to shut down the world. I would never say that."[19] She reiterated these sentiments in a 2017 interview.[20]



Year Title Role Notes
1985 Always Peggy
1985 Streetwalkin' 'Cookie'
1986 Deadtime Stories Judith 'Mama' Baer
1988 A Time of Destiny Josie Larraneta
1992 Immaculate Conception Hannah
1992 Venice/Venice Peggy
1993 The Ballad of Little Jo Beatrice Grey
1994 Garden Elizabeth
1995 Last Summer in the Hamptons Trish
1997 Under the Bridge Kathy
1999 The 24 Hour Woman Dr. Suzanne Pincus
1999 Code of Ethics Jo DeAngelo
2000 Fear of Fiction Sigrid Anderssen
2003 21 Grams Marianne Jordan
2004 First Breath Detective Waxman
2004 From Other Worlds Miriam
2005 Hide and Seek Laura
2005 Runaway Lisa Adler
2005 No Shoulder Ruth
2005 Patch Maelynn
2005 The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada Rachel
2005 American Gun Louise
2005 Confess Agnes Lessor
2006 Stephanie Daley Miri
2006 The Limbo Room K.C. Collins
2006 Hollywood Dreams Aunt Bee
2006 The House is Burning Mrs. Miller
2006 Falling Objects Helga
2007 Bomb Sharon
2007 Midnight Son Rita
2007 Black Irish Margaret McKay
2007 The Cake Eaters Ceci
2007 Racing Daylight Sadie Stokes / Anna Stokes
2007 I Believe in America Soto
2007 Mr. Woodcock Sally Jansen
2007 One Night Wendy
2008 Frozen River Ray Eddy
2008 The Alphabet Killer Kathy Walsh
2008 Lullaby Stephanie
2008 Night of the Living Jews[21] Jewish Mother Zombie Low budget film
2008 Santa Mesa Maggie
2008 Ball Don't Lie Georgia
2008 This is a Story About Ted and Alice Alice
2008 Righteous Kill Cheryl Brooks
2008 Predisposed Penny
2009 According to Greta Karen
2009 Stephanie's Image Stephanie
2009 True Adolescents Sharon
2009 Veronika Decides to Die Mari
2009 Dear Lemon Lima Mrs. Howard
2009 Don McKay Marie
2009 Everybody's Fine Colleen
2010 Welcome to the Rileys Lois Riley
2010 The Dry Land Martha
2010 The Space Between Montine
2010 The Fighter Alice Eklund-Ward
2010 Conviction Nancy Taylor
2011 Red State Sarah Cooper
2011 The Sea Is All I Know Sara Short film
2012 Flight Ellen Block
2012 Why Stop Now Penny Bloom
2012 Francine Francine
2013 Olympus Has Fallen Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan
2013 Bottled Up Fay
2013 Oblivion Sally
2013 Lee Daniels' The Butler Mamie Eisenhower Scenes deleted
2013 Prisoners Holly Jones
2013 Charlie Countryman Kate Countryman
2014 The Ever After Unknown
2014 The Angriest Man in Brooklyn Bette Altmann
2014 The Equalizer Susan Plummer
2014 Dwegons and Leprechauns[22] Grandma Fitz / Butterfly McDweg / Mrs. Fitzgerald
2015 The Big Short Georgia Hale
2016 London Has Fallen Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan
2016 Burn Country Gloria
2016 Snowden Laura Poitras
2017 Novitiate Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Clair
2017 The Most Hated Woman in America Madalyn Murray O'Hair
2018 The Ashram Chandra
2018 Unlovable Maddie
2018 Furlough Joan Anderson
2018 The Parting Glass Al
2018 The Equalizer 2 Susan Plummer
2021 Body Brokers Dr. White
2021 Thunder Force[23] Allie
2021 Leave Not One Alive Lillian Post-production
2021 Ida Red Ida 'Red' Walker Post-production
TBA Untitled Katie Holmes film [24]


Year Title Role Notes
1984–1988 All My Children Linda Warner Contract cast member (1984–1985)
1985 Silent Witness Patti Mullen TV movie
1985 The Equalizer Irina Dzershinsky Episode: "The Defector"
1987 Spenser: For Hire Mary Hamilton Episode: "Mary Hamilton"
1988 Miami Vice Kathleen Gilfords Episode: "Bad Timing"
1989 Gideon Oliver Rebecca Hecht Episode: "Kennonite"
1989–1990 The Young Riders Emma Shannon Main cast member season 1: 24 episodes
1989 Nasty Boys Katie Morrisey TV movie
1990 The Bride in Black Mary Margaret Muldoon TV movie
1991 Carolina Skeletons Cassie TV movie
1993, 2002, 2008 Law & Order Alice Sutton / Sherri Quinn / Donna Cheponis Episodes: "Sweeps", "Who Let the Dogs Out?", and "Personae Non Grata"
1993–1997 Homicide: Life on the Street Sergeant Kay Howard Main cast member seasons 1–5: 77 episodes
1994 Scarlett Suellen O'Hara Benteen TV mini-series
1995 In the Line of Duty: Hunt for Justice Carol Manning TV movie
1998 Legacy Emma Bradford Episodes: "Emma" and "The Search Party"
2000 Homicide: The Movie Sergeant Kay Howard TV movie
2004 Veronica Mars Julia Smith Episode: "Meet John Smith"
2004 CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Sybil Perez Episode: "Harvest"
2005 Law & Order: Criminal Intent Maureen Curtis Episode: "The Good Child"
2005 The L Word Winnie Mann Episodes: "Luminous", "Loyal", and "Lacuna"
2006 Shark Elizabeth Rourke Episode: "Pilot"
2007 Criminal Minds Georgia Davis Episode: "No Way Out"
2007 Cold Case Tayna Raymes '94–'07 Episode: "Thrill Kill"
2010–2013 Treme Toni Bernette Main cast member seasons 1–4: 36 episodes
2011 Mildred Pierce Lucy Gessler TV mini-series: 5 episodes
2012 Louie Laurie Episode: "Telling Jokes/Set Up"
2013 Call Me Crazy: A Five Film Robin TV movie, segment: "Grace"
2014–2016 BoJack Horseman Diane's Mother (voice) 2 episodes
2015 LFE Julie TV movie
2015–2016 Wayward Pines Nurse Pam Pilcher 11 episodes
2016 Broad City Lori Episode: "Co-Op"
2016 All the Way Lady Bird Johnson TV movie
2017–2018 I'm Dying Up Here Golda 'Goldie' Herschlag 20 episodes
2019 Heartstrings Amelia Meegers Episode: "Two Doors Down"[25]
2020 I Know This Much Is True Ma 5 episodes


Year Title Role(s) Notes Ref.
1982 Don Juan Ensemble [26]
1984 Cinders Stepmother [27]
1986 Today I Am A Fountain Pen Annie [28]
1991 The White Rose Sophie Scholl [29]
1998 How I Learned to Drive Li'l Bit [30]
1999 Tongue of a Bird Dessa [31]
2004 The Distance from Here Cammie [32]
2005 The Argument Sophie [33]

Awards and nominations

Year Award Category Nominated work Result
1985 Daytime Emmy Award Outstanding Younger Actress in a Drama Series Nominated
2003 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated
Phoenix Film Critics Society Award Best Cast Won
2005 Bronze Wrangler Award Outstanding Theatrical Motion Picture Won
2008 Academy Award Best Actress Nominated
Alliance of Women Film Journalists Award Best Breakthrough Performance Nominated
Critics' Choice Movie Award Best Actress Nominated
Chicago Film Critics Association Award Best Actress Nominated
Florida Film Critics Circle Award Best Actress Won
Gotham Awards Breakthrough Actor Won
Independent Spirit Awards Best Female Lead Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award Best Actress Nominated
Marrakech International Film Festival Award Best Actress Won
National Society of Film Critics Award Best Actress Nominated
New York Film Critics Circle Award Best Actress Nominated
Screen Actors Guild Award Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role Nominated
Satellite Award Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama Nominated
San Sebastián International Film Festival Award Best Actress Won
Santa Barbara International Film Festival Virtuoso Award Best Actress Won
Utah Film Critics Association Award Best Actress Won
Women Film Critics Circle Award Best Actress Won
Method Fest Independent Film Festival Award Best Actress
2010 Tribeca Film Festival Award Best New York Narrative – Special Jury Won
Academy Award Best Supporting Actress Won
Alliance of Women Film Journalists Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated
Boston Society of Film Critics Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated
Best Ensemble Won
Broadcast Film Critics Association Award Best Cast Won
Best Supporting Actress Won
Chicago Film Critics Association Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated
Capri Award Best Actress Won
Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association Award Best Supporting Actress Won
Denver Film Critics Society Award Best Supporting Actress Won
Detroit Film Critics Society Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated
Florida Film Critics Circle Award Best Supporting Actress Won
Golden Globe Award Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Won
Houston Film Critics Society Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated
Iowa Film Critics Award Best Supporting Actress Won
Las Vegas Film Critics Society Award Nominated
National Society of Film Critics Award Best Supporting Actress Won
New York Film Critics Online Awards Best Supporting Actress Won
North Texas Film Critics Association Award Best Supporting Actress Won
Online Film Critics Society Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated
Phoenix Film Critics Society Award Best Supporting Actress Won
San Diego Film Critics Society Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated
Best Ensemble Nominated
Screen Actors Guild Award Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture Nominated
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role Won
St. Louis Gateway Film Critics Association Award Best Supporting Actress Won
Southeastern Film Critics Association Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated
Toronto Film Critics Association Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated
Utah Film Critics Association Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated
Vancouver Film Critics Circle Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated
Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association Awards Best Ensemble Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Won
2011 California Independent Film Festival Slate Award Best Actress
The Sea Is All I Know
Rhode Island International Film Festival Award Best Actress Won
Primetime Emmy Award Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie Nominated
2012 Primetime Emmy Award Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series Won
Critics' Choice Television Award Best Guest Performer in a Comedy Series Nominated
2013 National Board of Review Award Best Cast Won
San Diego Film Critics Society Award Best Performance by an Ensemble Nominated
Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association Award Best Ensemble Nominated
Satellite Award Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film Nominated
2015 National Board of Review Award Best Cast Won
Screen Actors Guild Award Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture Nominated
2016 Primetime Emmy Award Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie Nominated


  1. ^ a b "Veteran Actors, First Time Nominees". Wall Street Journal. 2009-02-19. Retrieved 2011-01-18.
  2. ^ Lambert, Pam (December 4, 1995). "She's All Right Jack". People. Retrieved July 22, 2017.
  3. ^ Roussel art website retrieved 3/7/2015
  4. ^ Melissa Leo interview retrieved 3/8/2015
  5. ^ "Actress up for Oscar has longtime ties to Hamptons". Newsday. 2009-02-21. Archived from the original on 2009-02-25. Retrieved 2011-01-18.
  6. ^ "Melissa Leo Biography (1960–)". Retrieved 2011-01-18.
  7. ^ Mother's California birth stated on the 68th Golden Globe Awards, January 16, 2011
  8. ^ Ingrassia, Michele (January 25, 1990). "The Unlikely Bayman Arnold Leo forsook Manhattan years ago for the East End. Today, he's the single most powerful voice for that endangered species, the Long Island fisherman". Newsday.
  9. ^ "Vermonter Nominated". Burlington Free Press. January 23, 2009.[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ Roger Ebert (2011-04-23). "Elevating the Oscar winners, Part #3: Best Leading Actress". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2011-04-23.
  11. ^ "Cast puts punch in scrappy 'Fighter'". 2010-12-18. Retrieved 2011-01-18.[permanent dead link]
  12. ^ Liz Kelly (February 27, 2011). "Melissa Leo drops F-bomb in Oscar Acceptance Speech". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 27, 2011.
  13. ^ Vancouver Sun and wire services (February 27, 2011). "OSCARS: F-Bomb mars speech; Toy Story 3, In a Better World, Christian Bale, Social Network. King's Speech take awards". The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved February 27, 2011.
  14. ^ Melissa Leo's 'rogue' Oscar campaign. The Week (2011-02-11). Retrieved on 2013-07-13.
  15. ^ Vancouver Sun and wire services (March 2, 2011). "Jesse Eisenberg to play Melissa Leo's son in "Predisposed". Up and Comers. Retrieved March 2, 2011.
  16. ^ Jay A. Fernandez (March 3, 2011). "What Oscar Winners Are Doing Next". Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved March 3, 2011.
  17. ^ "Nebraska threads woven into red carpet". Retrieved 2011-01-18.[permanent dead link]
  18. ^ Shafrir, Doree. "How Melissa Leo Became An Overnight Sensation In Just 30 Years". BuzzFeed. Retrieved 2018-12-19.
  19. ^ "Melissa Leo: "I'm no feminist"". August 17, 2012. Retrieved March 30, 2017.
  20. ^ "'The Most Hated Woman in America': Melissa Leo on the Murder of Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair". March 21, 2017. Retrieved March 30, 2017.
  21. ^ Night of the Living Jews – Credits Archived 2013-11-12 at the Wayback Machine on official website.
  22. ^ Dwegons and Leprechauns (2014) - Full Cast & Crew - IMDb Archived 2020-04-22 at the Wayback Machine.
  23. ^ "Melissa Leo To Headline Fox Pilot 'Blood Relative', Lifting the Cast-Contingency". Deadline. February 18, 2020.
  24. ^ D'Alessandro, Anthony (May 4, 2021). "Katie Holmes Wraps Second Film As Director, Connecticut-Set Romance". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved May 4, 2021.
  25. ^ Iannucci, Rebecca (February 11, 2019). "Sarah Shahi, Scandal's Bellamy Young, thirtysomething Alums and More Join Netflix's Dolly Parton Anthology". TVLine.
  26. ^ "Don Juan". Retrieved 2021-06-28.
  27. ^ Rich, Frank (1984-02-21). "THEATER: 'CINDERS,' A LOOK AT POLAND". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-06-28.
  28. ^ Gussow, Mel (1986-01-03). "STAGE: 'FOUNTAIN PEN'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-06-28.
  29. ^ Rich, Frank (1991-10-30). "Review/Theater; 'White Rose' and Good Germans". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-06-28.
  30. ^ "Last Chance: TV's Parlato & Leo Drive Away From MD's Center Stage, June 7". Playbill. 1998-06-06. Retrieved 2021-06-28.
  31. ^ Marks, Peter (1999-04-05). "THEATER REVIEW; Airborne in Thought, Word and Deed". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-06-28.
  32. ^ "The Distance From Here | TheaterMania". Retrieved 2021-06-28.
  33. ^ Isherwood, Charles (2005-05-26). "Involvement May Deepen, Up to a Point". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-06-28.

External links

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