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Incredible actress day: Kathryn Joosten

I'm in awe of late bloomers, of the people whose success is comparatively latter-day, and I like to hope I'll have a similar experience someday. This thought pops up occasionally - and recently as I've happened across the biographies of artists which describe a life a bit less than ordinary and I click away thinking "how did they get from there to here?" This happens in spite of my ongoing misgiving in reading about them since I suspect the scrubbed histories of entertainers are probably lessons in conflation but a good yarn is a fun read and, besides, it's been raining for the past 25 days.

So, here's today's remarkable and possibly true rainy-day story regarding the life of Kathryn Joosten. Kathryn Joosten is an active Hollywood actress and is likely to always be thought of as Mrs. Landingham, administrative assistant to Aaron Sorkin's fictional President Bartlett but that particular good turn in her acting fortune only dates from just before the turn of the century at which time she was already 60 years old. Before that...?

First, I think it's useful to know that it appears she didn't arrive in Hollywood until 1995 and that she didn't start acting until she was 42.

Kathryn grew up aside WWII and the Korean War (she would be the untrustworthy age of 30 during the 60s Summer of Love) and was 24 when her mother died of cancer. It's suggested that nearing death her mother confessed to Kathryn a stark regret of past, unfulfilled dreams. Despite her mother's example and despite her already wanting to become an actress even then, Kathryn found herself postponing her dream as her circumstances proved distracting. She worked as a nurse in a security wing for disturbed teenagers and through this work she met and fell in love with a colleague, a psychiatrist.

She and the psychiatrist settled in Lake Forest near Chicago. They had two children and Kathryn stayed at home. Years passed, and Kathryn turned 40 amongst what sounds like a life of familial idyll. Should have been nice.

But alcoholism and doctors are like rain and umbrellas, often seen together, and at 41 it appears Kathryn found her life in upheaval. She was divorced, a single mother with two boys and a deferred plan. A single life as a mother I imagine to be hard enough and it's at this crossroads that Kathryn decided to instead live a double life. For work by day she would hang wallpaper. (In his novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Dave Eggers claims that Kathryn worked on his childhood room.) By night she took acting classes at Steppenwolf and began performing in community theaters. She also received one-off, tiny roles in two TV shows and two movies.

If the story ended here, I'd be impressed enough.

Many years pass and Kathryn turns 52 years old. Her drive was such, even then, that she decided to stand in line for five hours for a cattle call for street performers for Disney World. She got the part and moved her family to Orlando. Money was tight so they moved in wherever they could, "wherever" being behind an adult arcade.

However, after a year her part in Disney World ended and she returned to non-acting work. The dream deferred again! Like many actors, she worked as a caterer and bartender and returned again to regional theater, still an artist.

I'd be impressed with this ending, too.

Kathryn refused to be deterred, though, and after four years in Florida she moved to Hollywood. She moved without an agent and without an acting job. After five months, she landed a two-line role in "Family Matters", a long-running series that introduced the character of Steve Urkel. (Yikes.)

She was 56. And then... she never stopped working. Better roles, better exposure, better, better, better. She's been on Picket Fences, Murphy Brown, ER, Seinfeld, Frasier, Just Shoot Me!, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Drew Carey Show, Scrubs, Spin City, The X-Files, Judging Amy, Monk, Will & Grace, Joan of Arcadia (she played God), Grey's Anatomy, and The Gilmore Girls. She was recently seen in The Wedding Crashers. She won an Emmy in 2005.

Look at her IMDB profile. She works harder, presumably, than you or I do. And she has a better backstory, I'm guessing.

I dunno if it's a real story. But it's a good story.

Here's to you, Ms. Joosten. *clink*
posted at April 04, 2006, 6:27 PM


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