Born June 19, 1954 in Springfield, Missouri to Patsy and Allen Richard Turner, a U.S. Foreign Service officer who grew up in China as the son of a Methodist missionary, (Mary) Kathleen Turner also grew up abroad. After graduating from the American School in London, her father died of a coronary thrombosis and she and her family, her mother, sister and two brothers, moved back to the U.S. There she attended the Missouri State University and the University of Maryland, graduating in 1977 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree
Turner made her TV debut in the daytime soap opera The Doctors in 1979 and her film debut opposite William Hurt in Lawrence Kasdan’s steamy Body Heat in 1981. An overnight sensation, Turner was in high demand for similar femme fatale roles but turned them all down for fear of being typecast. Instead she chose to star opposite Steve Martin in Carl Reiner’s 1983 comedy, The Man with Two Brains and Michael Douglas in Robert Zemeckis’ 1984 adventure film, Romancing the Stone for which she won a Golden Globe. Only then did she return to femme fatale roles in Ken Russell’s 1984 film, Crimes of Passion opposite Anthony Perkins and John Huston’s 1985 film, Prizzi’s Honor opposite Jack Nicolson for which she won a second Golden Globe. Later in 1985, she rejoined Michael Douglas for Lewis Teague’s Romancing the Stone sequel, The Jewel of the Nile and in 1986 played the title role in Francis Ford Coppola’s comedy, Peggy Sue Got Married for which she received her first and only Oscar nomination to date.
Turner was uncredited, but her voice was unmistakable as that of Jessica Rabbit in Zemeckis; 1988 film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. She was back in front of the cameras in Kasdan’s 1988 film, The Accidental Tourist and Danny DeVito’s 1989 film The War of the Roses, took 1990 off to star in a Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for which she received a Tony nomination, and was back on the big screen in Jeff Kaew’s 1991 film, V.I. Warshawski after which her roles diminished due to poor health caused by debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and alcoholism. She did have one major leading role in the 1990s in John Waters’ 1994 film, Serial Mom.
The actress spent the remainder of the decade mostly doing TV voice work with occasional supporting roles in such films as David Anspaugh’s Moonlight and Valentino in 1995 and Sophia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides in 2000. Later in 2000 she starred in a London stage version of The Graduate in which she famously appeared nude in the seduction scene, bringing it to Broadway in 2002. Back on Broadway in a 2005 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, her performance earned her a second Tony nomination.
Mostly on TV in recent years, Turner can currently be seen on screen in a supporting role in Pat Kiely’s comedy, Another Kind of Wedding.
Kathleen Turner shows no signs of slowing down at 64.
BODY HEAT (1981), directed by Lawrence Kasdan
Ironically this sweaty, sexy thriller released in August 1981 was the box-office success that had been expected for the official remake of the 1946 classic, The Postman Always Rings Twice released earlier in the year. That film, which starred Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in the roles originated by John Garfield and Lana Turner 35 years earlier met with respectable reviews but moderate box-office. The similarly themed Body Heat about a woman who gets a man to help her kill her husband was not only one of the year’s biggest hits, it made major stars of both Turner and William Hurt.
PRIZZI’S HONOR (1985), directed by John Huston
The combination of Turner and Jack Nicholson as married hired assassins with contracts on each other was the lure, but it was the performance of Anjelica Huston as Nicholson’s rejected girlfriend who stole the film and won the Oscar. Nicholson, who won both the New York Film Critics award and a Golden Globe for his performance had been nominated for an Oscar but lost to Turner’s Body Heat co-star William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Turner had to make do with a Golden Globe, her second, having won the year before for Romancing the Stone. No Oscar nomination for her.
PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986), directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Turner finally received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a woman who goes back in time to her high school year in this rare comedy from director Coppola. She’s supported by an excellent cast that includes Nicolas Cage, Barry Miller, Kevin J. O’Connor, Catherine Hicks, Barbara Harris, Don Murray, Maureen O’Sullivan and pre-stardom Joan Allen, Jim Carrey and Helen Hunt, but it’s Turner who carries the film with the most charming performance of her career. Turner so owns the part that it’s hard to believe now that she was not the original choice for the role – that was Debra Winger.
SERIAL MOM (1994), directed by John Waters
This is John Waters’ favorite of his films, and one that Turner had quite a bit of fun doing. She is a constant hoot as the perfect mom who turns killer when members of her family are threatened. The film’s signature slow car chase was soon imitated in real life by the O.J. Simpson chase. Sam Waterson’s role as Turner’s husband is mostly to play Abbott to her Costello and Ricki Lane doesn’t have much to do as her daughter, but Matthew Lillard as her son, Justin Whalen as his friend and Mink Stole and Mary Jo Catlett as objects of her wrath are almost as good as Turner. Patty Hearst also sines in a minor role.
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (2000), directed by Sophia Coppola
Coppola had a minor role in Peggy Sue Got Married, which was directed by her father, so she was quite familiar with Turner who she cast in what was more-or-less a straight version of her comedic character in Serial Mom. Neither she nor James Woods as her husband commit any murders but they are chilling as the parents of five teenage girls whose suicides haunt the boys who loved them. Coppola received numerous nominations and awards for her debut as a director, but the only actor in the film to be singled out was Kirsten Dunst who received a nomination at the 2000 YoungStar Awards.
KATHLEEN TURNER AND OSCAR
- Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) – nominated – Best Actress