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Glenne Headly Remembered: ‘She Was a Total Perfectionist’

Variety logo Variety 6/9/2017 Cynthia Littleton
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Glenne Headly was a very serious actress with a gift for comedy. That’s how Anna D. Shapiro, artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Co., remembered the theater’s longtime ensemble member, who died Friday at the age of 62.

“Glenne was a very, very serious actor and one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever worked with,” Shapiro told Variety. “She was a total perfectionist and she was obsessed with the science of acting comedy…She would focus on what it was that made something true, and by that uncovering why it was funny.”

Headly joined the famed Chicago theater company in 1979, five years after it was founded by Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry. Even after Headly moved to the West Coast to work in movies and TV, she maintained a regular presence in Steppenwolf productions through 2005. She won Chicago’s local Joseph Jefferson Awards for her work in productions of “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” “Balm in Gilead,” “The Miss Firecracker Contest,” and “Coyote Ugly.”

Steppenwolf has been a career springboard for numerous prominent actors, including Laurie Metcalf, John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Moira Harris, Tom Irwin, Gary Cole and John Mahoney. Headly’s six-year marriage to Malkovich ended in divorce in 1988.

Headly bowed out of Steppenwolf in 2005 to focus her attention on raising her son. But she returned to work with them after just a few years. Headly had most recently worked with Shapiro on Broadway in Larry David’s 2015 play “Fish In the Dark,” which Shapiro directed.

“She was a comic monster,” Shapiro said. “A couple of times she would say to Larry: ‘I’ll show you what’s funny,’ ” Shapiro recalled.

Headly never became a marquee star in film or TV but she had incredible presence on stage, enhanced by the distinctive pitch of her voice. “You couldn’t take your eyes off of her or your ears off of her,” Shapiro said. “She was absolutely enchanting. You felt like some kind of fairy queen was talking to you — a fairy queen who could kick your ass.”

Off stage, Headly was down to earth and a devoted mother to her son, Stirling. Shapiro had recently exchanged text messages with the actress about the possibility of her appearing in the Steppenwolf production of “The Minutes.” Shapiro sent her the play but there was a miscommunication along the way on the role that Headly was offered. She’d mistakenly been given the name of a character that has only a few lines.

“Anyone else of her stature would have been insulted,” Shapiro said. “With Glenne, she immediately went to a discussion of how she could best play that part.”

Headly’s roots were in theater but she was the type of performer who loved to work in any medium — she was no legit snob. Her recent TV credits ranged from HBO’s “The Night Of” (she played the high-priced defense attorney Alison Crowe) to guest shots on “Parks and Recreation,” “CSI,” “Psych,” “The League” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” She had a recurring role on USA’s “Monk,” as the wife of Ted Levine’s police captain. Earlier in her career, she logged a recurring role on NBC’s “ER.”

“She loved the TV shows she’d been doing,” Shapiro said. “She was having a blast with everything she was doing.”

At the time of her death, Headly was in production on the sci-fi comedy series “Future Man,” for Hulu and Sony Pictures TV. Producers, which include Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, said Headly’s role would not be recast and she would remain in the five episodes completed to date.

“She was funny, interesting, warm, smart, engaging and very, very talented,” the producers of “Future Man” said in a statement. “Working with her was both an honor and a pleasure. She will be sorely missed.”

(Pictured: Glenne Headly and John Mahoney in the 1987-88 Steppenwolf production of “Born Yesterday”)

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