Helen Hunt booking

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ca. 2005 --- Helen Hunt --- Image by © Jack Guy/Corbis Outline

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Despite decades of potential career minefields, Helen Hunt emerged as an Oscar and Emmy winner and one of the most popular actresses of the 1990s. She made the risky transition from precocious TV kid and mainstay in melodramatic movies-of-the-week to land a seven-year run on one of the era’s most awarded sitcoms, “Mad About You” (NBC, 1992-99). Then she made the nearly unheard-of turn from sitcom star to dramatic leading lady, with stellar performances in “Twister” (1996) and “As Good as It Gets” (1997). A grounded, intelligent professional who refused to take the “star” route and doggedly held onto her commitment as an “actress,” Hunt brought a strength, sensitivity and relatable complexity to her characters, which earned her a loyal fan base among modern, independent women.

Born in the Culver City area of Los Angeles, CA on June 15, 1963, Hunt was the daughter of actor-director dad, Gordon, and photographer mom, Jane. When she was three years old, the family moved to New York City, NY where Hunt was first exposed to live theater and began to develop an interest in acting. With her father’s encouragement and coaching, she landed her first acting job upon the family’s return to Los Angeles in 1972. She appeared in the homesteading-themed TV movie “Pioneer Woman” (ABC, 1973) and was soon a series regular on “Amy Prentiss” (NBC, 1974-75), playing the daughter of a San Francisco policewoman (Jessica Walter). She played a young member of the “Swiss Family Robinson” (ABC 1975-76) and appeared on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (CBS, 1970-77) as Murray’s (Gavin Macleod) daughter Laurie before making her big screen debut in the thriller “Rollercoaster” (1977).

The teen worked steadily as a guest player on popular shows like “The Bionic Woman” (ABC, 1976-77; NBC, 1977-78) and “Family” (ABC, 1976-80), with her senior year of high school ending up her busiest yet, with four TV movies including “Child Bride of Short Creek” (NBC, 1981) and “The Miracle of Kathy Miller” (CBS, 1981), an inspirational tale in which Hunt starred as a high school athlete who perseveres despite a serious accident. After graduating from Providence High School in Burbank, CA in the spring of 1981, she attended UCLA that the fall, but having built up such momentum in her film career, she ultimately called college quits after less than a semester. She landed a recurring role on the sitcom “It Takes Two” (ABC, 1982-83) and maintained a high profile in TV, taking the lead as the sole female athlete on a high school football team in CBS’ “Quarterback Princess” (1983) as well as co-starring as a social worker opposite Mickey Rooney’s Emmy-nominated performance as a developmentally challenged senior in “Bill: On His Own” (CBS, 1983).

In 1985, Hunt appeared off-Broadway with Mary Stuart Masterson in “Been Taken” (1985) before inking a deal for a recurring role as the girlfriend of Dr. Jack Morrison (David Morse) on the acclaimed NBC drama series “St. Elsewhere” (NBC, 1982-88). Her film career got a boost with a pair of teenage roles in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (1985) and “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986). But with the thoughtful, sensitive maturity Hunt had been bringing to the screen since she was a child, it was only a matter of time before her young looks caught up to her adult demeanor, leaving the teen roles officially behind her. Co-starring performances as an animal trainer in “Project X” (1987) and as Patrick Swayze’s wife in “Next of Kin” (1989) helped shift her teen image, though for her impressive Broadway debut in 1989, she played Emily Webb in a revival of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” (1989). Enjoying being on stage, she stayed on in New York to appear in “The Taming of the Shrew” opposite Tracey Ullman and Morgan Freeman in Shakespeare in the Park the following summer.

Hunt landed her first leading TV series role in Michael Apted’s ambitious but ultimately short-lived drama “My Life and Times” (ABC) in 1991, as well as receiving a profile boost in the juicy TV film “Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Smart Story” (1991) — a fact- based TV film about a school teacher who plots her husband’s demise along with the help of her 16-year-old lover and student. The much-ballyhooed TV event led to a starring role in Neil Jimenez’s feature “The Waterdance” (1992), where she delivered a delicately nuanced, richly observed portrayal of an editor who becomes involved with her client — a writer crippled from a climbing accident. In 1992, she won praise as a smart-mouthed young agent of Buddy Young, Jr. (Billy Crystal) in the feature comedy misstep, “Mr. Saturday Night” (1992), before receiving a phone call from real life stand-up comic Paul Reiser that would change her life forever.

Co-creator of a sitcom about thirty-something New York newlyweds, Reiser cast Hunt as his Yale-educated, slightly neurotic, but sweetly sensitive new wife Jamie Buchman in “Mad About You.” The show was an instant critical and audience favorite for its focus on the real challenges faced by a couple in love, navigating careers and families and life in the city. Hunt was immediately recognized for her refreshingly modern take on “sitcom wife,” and earned her first Emmy nomination in 1993 and her first Golden Globe Award win in 1994.

During series hiatus, Hunt continued to try to break into big screen success, taking a turn opposite David Caruso in Barbet Schroeder’s “Kiss of Death” (1995), before scoring big with Jan De Bont’s blockbuster “Twister” (1996). It was in the latter film that she brought a strong presence and believable intelligence – to say nothing of a highly imitated hairstyle that summer – to her co-lead as a scientist obsessed with tracking tornadoes alongside her estranged husband (Bill Paxton). The film was a colossal hit, and though there was little doubt the CGI-created tornadoes were the main draw, Hunt was a huge, surprising asset to the film, setting herself up for a possible run as a feature film leading lady.

And what a run it was. Hunt earned the first of four consecutive Emmy wins for “Mad About You” before netting Best Actress Oscar and Golden Globe Awards for playing a long-suffering single mom and waitress who becomes involved with Jack Nicholson’s curmudgeon in “As Good As It Gets” (1997). She swept TV and film awards in 1998, leaving Hollywood in a mad rush to cast the most-talked about talent of the year. Hunt took on directing and producing capacities (and a reported $1 million per episode salary) for the final seasons of “Mad About You,” with the series ending with the birth of the Buchman’s first child in 1999. Hunt marked the end of her TV marriage with a real-life marriage, to actor Hank Azaria, best-known as the voice of Homer Simpson on “The Simpsons” (Fox, 1989- ). In addition to enjoying wedding bliss, Hunt returned to the big screen in four features in 2000. Her casting choices ran the gambit – from Robert Altman’s art house ensemble “Dr. T and the Women” (2000) to the overly-sentimental and cloying drama “Pay it Forward,” co-starring Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment.

The actress enjoyed considerably more success in the familiar role of modern professional in the romantic comedy “What Women Want” (2000), which was a box office smash, despite an absurd plot involving Mel Gibson and a bathtub accident that bestows him with mysterious mind-reading powers. Hunt was also part of that year’s mega-hit drama “Cast Away,” and though most of the screen time was devoted to a grizzled looking Tom Hanks, Hunt served as the inspirational love who fuels the desert island survivor during four grueling years of solitude. Hunt’s breakout film year ended on a sad note when her year and half long marriage to Azaria dissolved in December.

The next year she realized a lifelong dream of working with Woody Allen and landed a starring role in his stylish retro heist “Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” which was unfortunately a box office flop, largely panned by critics. After a Broadway run in Yasmina Reza’s “Life x 3” in 2003, the 41-year-old actress gave birth to a daughter, Makena Lei, in 2004 and settled into a new domestic life with writer and director Joe Carnahan.

In 2005, Hunt starred in another unfortunate misfire, playing a femme fatale in a weak film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “A Good Woman” (2005). Around this time, she remained low-profile, surfacing in a small role in Emilio Estevez “Bobby” in 2006, but behind the scenes Hunt was as busy as ever, working to develop a film adaptation of Elinor Lipman’s novel, Then She Found Me. Hunt’s labor of love, a comedic drama about a librarian who rediscovers her birth mother following the death of her adoptive mother and the end of her marriage, finally hit movie screens in 2008. Hunt took the lead opposite Bette Midler as her birth mother and also made her feature directing debut. Her genuine efforts received 50/50 critical reception but suggested that if she found herself unable to secure the right roles for aging actresses, she had a significant career as a director ahead of her.

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