Actress Ellen Burstyn enjoyed her greatest prominence during the '70s, a decade during which she was a virtual fixture of Academy Award voters' ballots. Born Edna Rae Gillooly in Detroit, MI, on December 7, 1932, as a teen she studied dancing and performed in an acrobatic troupe. She later became a model for paperback book covers, subsequently dancing in a Montréal nightclub under the name "Keri Flynn." In 1954, she was tapped to appear as a Gleason Girl on television's Jackie Gleason Show, and in 1957, she made her Broadway debut in Fair Game, again with a new stage name, "Ellen McRae." While in New York, Burstyn studied acting under Stella Adler, and later married theatrical director Paul Roberts. She briefly relocated to Los Angeles for television work but soon returned east to work at the Actors' Studio. She made her film debut in 1964's For Those Who Think Young, quickly followed by Goodbye Charlie. The cinema did not yet suit her, however, and she spent the remainder of the decade appearing on the daytime soap opera The Doctors.
It was after marrying her third husband, actor Neil Burstyn, that she adopted the name most familiar to audiences, and was so billed in 1969's film adaptation of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. While the picture was unsuccessful, it did attract the notice of director Paul Mazursky, who cast her in his 1970 project Alex in Wonderland. Burstyn then began a string of high-profile films which established her among the preeminent actresses of the decade: The first, Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 masterpiece The Last Picture Show, earned her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination, but she lost out to co-star Cloris Leachman. Burstyn next appeared opposite Jack Nicholson in Bob Rafelson's acclaimed The King of Marvin Gardens before starring in William Friedkin's 1973 horror hit The Exorcist, a performance which earned her a Best Actress nomination. For Mazursky, she co-starred in the whimsical 1974 tale Harry and Tonto, and then appeared in a well-received TV feature, Thursday's Game.