|January 26, 1958|
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Ellen DeGeneres was born on Jan. 26, 1958, and grew up in New Orleans, LA. DeGeneres first realized her gift for comedy following the break-up of her parents Betty and Elliott in 1974, when her sense of humor proved helpful in consoling her mother. Betty remarried a short time later, with DeGeneres moving with the new couple to the northeast Texas town of Atlanta. Sadly, DeGeneres' older brother Vance, whom she idolized, stayed behind. In Atlanta, DeGeneres had to endure not only being a new kid in town at the age of 16, but her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo a mastectomy. As DeGeneres would later disclose, during that time her stepfather made inappropriate sexual advances towards her, which she kept secret for years. On the surface, things might have looked rosy for a teenager who was a member of the varsity tennis team and had several boyfriends, but Ellen desperately wanted to quit school and get away from her stepfather. She hung in long enough to get her diploma in 1976, after which she packed up and headed straight back to New Orleans. Back safely in her hometown, DeGeneres completed less than a semester at the University of New Orleans before dropping out and embarking on several years of odd jobs at restaurants, stores and offices. It was not until older brother Vance began getting attention on the local music scene and as the co-creator of the "Mr. Bill" shorts on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) that DeGeneres decided she wanted a piece of the comedy spotlight. She began hitting local stages, developing her offbeat g-rated comedy style - her maiden stand-up voyage consisting of consuming a Whopper, fries and a shake onstage in front of an audience.
Moving forward, Degeneres made a name for herself with quirky, observational humor grounded in soaring understatements and punctuated with uncomfortable pregnant pauses. Before long she was hired to emcee at the local club, Clyde's Corner. Around the same time, DeGeneres found a kindred spirit in a similarly young, creative writer and found herself in love with this woman. The pair's romance was cut short when the woman was killed in a car accident. A grieving DeGeneres channeled her loss into a monologue where she pretended to call God on the telephone and ask him to explain the seemingly illogical workings of the world. A video of DeGeneres performing the funny and poignant "phone call to God" act was sent in to a nationwide search by the cable network Showtime, and suddenly the daytime law firm assistant had earned the title of "Funniest Person in America." The newfound recognition gave her credentials enough to begin touring comedy clubs across the country, honing her act, and learning the ropes of show business. She next made her home in San Francisco, which was then a hotbed of stand-up comedy clubs. In 1986, DeGeneres hit the big time when she was invited to appear on "The Tonight Show" (NBC, 1954- ) and Johnny Carson gave the young comic his stamp of approval with one of his infamous invitations to join him at the couch. It was apparently the first time he had ever extended such praise to a first-time female performer on the show. Following DeGeneres' appearance on Carson, she began showing up frequently on the small screen in several HBO comedy specials and playing the regular role of the wisecracking, man-hungry receptionist in the Fox sitcom "Duet" (1988-89) and its spin-off "Open House" (1989-90).
She returned to series TV for another try, playing a flaky nurse on the short-lived sitcom "Laurie Hill" (ABC, 1992) but DeGeneres finally found prime time success when she received an offer from ABC to helm her own sitcom, which premiered as "These Friends of Mine" (ABC, 1994). Though readily embraced by viewers - it ranked third for the week after its first airing - many critics dismissed it as a "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1989-1998) clone, due to its structural similarities and comparable ensemble feel. After the first season the show was retooled to incorporate more of DeGeneres' stage persona and it returned the next fall as the less clunky "Ellen" (ABC, 1994-98). DeGeneres starred as an independent bookshop owner prone to insecurity and bouts of aimless babbling, surrounding herself with a strong cast including J ly Fisher as her ambitious, man-chasing best friend, Arye Gross as her sad sack roommate and old college buddy, David Anthony Higgins as her sarcastic employee, and eventually Jeremy Piven as her high-octane cousin.
This second incarnation of the series clicked, earning DeGeneres four Emmy nominations for Best Comic Actress, while capturing her the statue in 1997 for her scripting contributions to the infamous "coming out" show entitled, "The Puppy Episode." There had long been speculation about the character's sexuality which reached a fever pitch that season when TV Guide leaked the story that producers intended to have the lead disclose her lesbianism. DeGeneres fueled this speculation by appearing on several talk shows and coyly deflecting the question. In April 1997, she herself came out in a Time magazine cover story and in a two-part interview with Diane Sawyer. Not long after, the infamous "Puppy Episode" aired April 30, 1997, attracting more than 36 million viewers anxious to see TV history made when Ellen Morgan disclosed her homosexuality, thereby becoming the first openly gay lead in primetime TV. The fact that DeGeneres was also essentially outing herself added to the interest.
Unfortunately, her "coming out" spelled the end of the sitcom. The executives at ABC saddled the show with warnings - i.e., "This program contains adult content. Parental discretion is advised" - and Chrysler and J.C. Penney temporarily withdrew their sponsorship over prudish objections from the conservative portion of the public. There was truth to DeGeneres' claims that the network caved to pressure from the Christian Right - with Jerry Falwell even referring to her as "Ellen DeGenerate" - and quit supporting the series, but even enthusiastic fans noted that the light touch which had made her a perfect crusader in the first place disappeared when the show became more politicized and gay issue-oriented. Fellow homosexual Elton John may have said it best - "We know you're a lesbian. Shut up! Just be funny!" A year after the historic episode and in the wake of diminishing ratings (averaging just over 12 million viewers), ABC pulled the plug on "Ellen." DeGeneres and her then-lover Anne Heche, having promoted themselves as standard-bearers for homosexual equality, felt the backlash of conservatism circling the wagons in defense of the bottom line. But there was no denying the comic's bravery and for being a torchbearer for helping mainstream audience acceptance of gay characters on primetime television.
After her unceremonious departure from primetime in 1998, DeGeneres managed to land some big screen roles despite the fact that many doors remained closed to her because of her outspoken activism. Her first attempt to transfer her TV persona to the big screen in 1996's "Mr. Wrong" had failed to excite audiences - and now seemed laughable to many, as she played a straight woman looking for the right man. She did not fare much better with Roland Joffe's "Goodbye Lover" (1999), turning in an unappealing portrayal as a wisecracking detective. She did score points for her humorous role as the TV producer who comes up with the idea of televising Matthew McConaughey's life in "EDtv" (1999), with her line to boss Rob Reiner about their network's position apropos the Gardening Channel ("People would rather watch soil") perfect for her classic deadpan delivery. She also got to reveal a girlishly romantic streak beneath her cynical facade for that year's "The Love Letter." She went on to be directed by her then-girlfriend Anne Heche in "Miss Conception," a segment of HBO's "If These Walls Could Talk 2" (2000) featuring DeGeneres and Sharon Stone as a lesbian couple attempting to have a child.
Returning to her sturdy stand-up roots, DeGeneres next embarked on a national comedy tour that included the Emmy-nominated HBO special "Ellen DeGeneres: The Beginning" (2000). CBS stepped forward to invite the comedian back to series TV, and she returned as executive producer and star of the critically admired but ratings-impaired "The Ellen Show" (CBS, 2001-02), playing a lesbian who returns to live in her hometown. While her career seemed to be back on an upswing, DeGeneres' personal life again became tabloid fodder when she and Heche ended their three-plus year relationship in August 2000. Not long afterwards Heche was found wandering in a rural area of California's Central Valley in her underwear, claiming to be looking for a gateway to outer space. She was institutionalized for a period and subsequently released a biography claiming that she had suffered with multiple personalities and delusions for most of her life. DeGeneres wisely took the high road and refused to comment on their private life together, though it was leaked by those closest the couple that Heche had broken DeGeneres heart severely.
In 2001, DeGeneres stepped into one of the most notoriously tough gigs for a comic - hosting the Emmy Awards, and received a standing ovation for delicately handling a gala event clouded by the loss and anxiety from the recent terrorist events of September 11th. After "The Ellen Show" was cancelled in 2002, the unstoppable DeGeneres rose again with a much-praised HBO special "Ellen DeGeneres: Here and Now" (2003). On an obvious upswing, she also voiced the lovable, forgetful fish Dory in the biggest - and best-reviewed - hit of that summer, Disney/Pixar's endearing "Finding Nemo" (2003).
That fall, she entered the syndicated daytime talk arena with "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," which set itself apart from the competition with its contemporary feel, live DJ, and the host's notorious and oftentimes embarrassing grooving through the audience. The show also struck a unique balance by featuring A-list celebrity guests, as well as distinctive comedy pieces and interviews celebrating everyday people, making audience members feel like part of the action. The show's format and the host's down-to-earth appeal were an instant hit, suggesting that in the end, audiences were unconcerned with the sex life of an enjoyable entertainer. And unlike in years past, the comic did not mention it very often, which led to further acceptance with red state viewers. DeGeneres won Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Talk Show Host in 2005, 2006 and 2007. In 2005 DeGeneres was tapped to host yet another post-National disaster Awards show, helming the 57th annual Emmy Awards following the deadly flooding in her hometown of New Orleans. Again, the actress earned praise for injecting the evening with comforting humor while acknowledging the impact of the tragedy.
After receiving rave reviews for hosting the 79th Annual Academy Awards in early 2007, The Queen of Daytime TV was beset by personal criticism, following a pair of high-profile incidents later in the year. News outlets pounced on DeGeneres and live-in girlfriend, actress Portia De Rossi, when they ran afoul of a pet rescue agency after their adopted puppy did not fare well with their cats and they found it another home. The adoption agency repossessed the dog, citing that DeGeneres had violated the adoption contract. DeGeneres made headlines when she replayed the events of the incident and tearfully pleaded for the return of the dog during her show. As the media saturation over that event was beginning to quiet, DeGeneres ignited a firestorm of controversy for crossing the picket line of the striking Writers Guild to continue producing her daytime chat show. The host, a member of both the Writer's Guild and the actor's guild AFTRA, was allegedly bound by her AFTRA membership to continue reporting to work. DeGeneres ceased production for one day, but returned the following day stating that she supported her writers but that she had a duty to her audience. Strike supporters questioned DeGeneres' loyalty, pointing to the fact that she had taken two days off during the puppy scandal, but only deemed support of the Writer's Guild worthy of one lost day of production.
In the summer of 2008, during a brief window of time when California legalized same-sex marriage, DeGeneres and De Rossi were wed in a small ceremony at their Beverly Hills home. That year, the showbiz survivor became a spokesmodel for Cover Girl cosmetics and earned another Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk Show Host. DeGeneres began to dip her t back into primetime TV in 2009 with a guest appearance as a judge on "So You Think You Can Dance?" (Fox, 2005- ). Her ongoing enthusiasm as a pop music fan and her friendly on-camera demeanor made her an excellent candidate to become an "American Idol" (Fox, 2002- ) judge, a position DeGeneres accepted in the wake of Paula Abdul's unexpected departure from the top-rated reality series near the start of its ninth season. Despite bringing some much needed humor and a softer sensibility to the show, DeGeneres publicly announced in July 2010 that she would not be returning to "Idol," citing her schedule and her conscience, stating "while I loved discovering, supporting and nurturing young talent, it was hard for me to judge people and sometimes hurt their feelings."