Ellen Burstyn faced a devil of a director: oh, and also the devil itself.
1. She Was A Triple Crown
Ellen Burstyn survived growing up in a horrible household in Detroit—only to go on to meet boyfriends and husbands who lied, battled the bottle and even, in one terrifying situation, stalked her. If that wasn’t enough, she had to work with one of the most terrifying directors while making one of the most terrifying films of all time. And what was her reward?
Well, she did become a Triple Crown actor. If the title of this list is a mystery, read on to find out more about one of Hollywood’s toughest survivors, Ellen Burstyn.
2. She Sent Her Away
Like many actors, Ellen Burstyn came from a broken family. She was born named Edna Rae Gillooly in Detroit, Michigan on December 7, 1932. Her mom and dad’s marriage didn’t last long—but there was a bizarre twist. Instead of living with one parent or sharing custody, the newly separated couple sent little Ellen across the border to a private Catholic school in Windsor, Canada.
This gave mom free reign to date other men without her pesky daughter getting in the way. Once mom had found husband number two, she brought Ellen back home. The new household, however, was going to be far, far away from ideal.
3. She Was A Quitter
Soon, Ellen Burstyn was back in Detroit and living with mom, her two brothers and the new dad. Burstyn’s memories of her mom and her new father focus on their cruelty—which was both physical and emotional. She recalls her stepfather attacking her so brutally while she was preparing food that she nearly reached for a knife to defend herself. To combat the terror of living in such a cruel household, Burstyn dove deeply into school activities.
She was a cheerleader, a student council member and the president of the drama club—but then, she suddenly dropped out. The reason why was heartbreaking.
4. She Used Her Gifts
Burstyn may have thrown her energy into activities, but her grades had suffered. And now, without a diploma, she needed to find another way to escape her horrible home life. She locked onto modeling and dancing and decided that to launch her new career she needed a new name. She then became “Kerri Flynn,” and her new persona found Detroit to be a little lacking. She got on a bus heading to the bright lights of Dallas and a brand new life.
Oh, and incidentally: she only had 50 cents in her pocket.
5. She Found Out The Truth
Burstyn turned that 50 cents into a few dollars and then quickly outgrew Dallas. Her next stop was New York City, where she spent her time ramping up her career as a dancer and model. She also took some time to start dating. As it turned out, she was completely naive when it came to romance. Because of this, her first encounter with a man went from ecstasy to horror in the blink of an eye.
Shortly after she’d slept with him for the first time, she found out he already had a wife and two kids. Burstyn likely thought this was the worst news imaginable. But it got worse…much worse.
6. It Was A Double Whammy
Burstyn’s first encounter with a man had been a disaster. She’d lost the lottery when she found out her boyfriend had a secret family, and then lost again when she found out she was pregnant with his child. Burstyn was young and earning very little money. She was scared, alone and about to have a child. She had to face the terrible truth of what she had to do.
7. He Called Himself A Doctor
At this time in the US, you couldn’t terminate a pregnancy legally, so Burstyn had to make a very dangerous decision. She was forced to trust some very unsavory people to do it. When she got to the office, she found out some horrible news. She was already five months pregnant. Shockingly, the man who called himself a “doctor” agreed to perform the procedure anyway.
The “doctor” didn’t really know what he was doing, and much later Burstyn would find out the horrible truth.
Because of his incompetence, she would never be able to have children of her own. It was a harrowing beginning to Burstyn’s romantic life, but somehow, she moved on.
8. She Wanted To Say Goodbye
After her horrible experience with her married man, Ellen Burstyn—in a dramatic search for stability—started a relationship with an older man. This was choreographer Boots McKenna, who was more than 30 years older than Burstyn. They two soon became engaged but just before tying the knot with him, Burstyn made a final trip to Detroit.
She went to say goodbye forever to her hometown. While she was saying her farewells, she looked up an old friend named William Alexander. But they didn’t stop at goodbye…
9. She Couldn’t Say Goodbye
Burstyn wasn’t having a problem saying goodbye to Detroit. It was saying goodbye to the very-much-married Alexander that was the problem. He was set to drive her to the airport when both of them came to a stunning realization. In spite of their partners, they just wanted each other. Alexander surprised Burstyn with a kiss and in it the truth was there for them both to see. Burstyn canceled her marriage and Alexander filed for divorce. A few months later, the love birds were walking down an aisle of their own.
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10. Away She Went
Burstyn gave up her career to be a wife, which seemed satisfying at first—until her thoughts of show biz surfaced. Burstyn accepted an offer to be a dancer on The Jackie Gleason Show in New York City. Burstyn and her fellow dancers received the name “away we go” girls because of Gleason’s catch phrase, you guessed it: ”away we go”. While Burstyn was just one of many dancers, she was learning from Gleason.
She decided then and there that she didn’t want to be one in a line of dancers. She wanted to be the star.
11. There Was A Problem
Once Ellen Burstyn decided to be an actor, she didn’t waste any time. She thought she’d start at the top and began auditioning for Broadway shows. It didn’t take long before she got what she wanted: a lead role on Broadway. However, Joe Hyman, the producer of Fair Game, had a problem with Burstyn. He didn’t like her name.
At this point, Burstyn was still using Kerri Flynn, and so she saw an obvious solution. Go back to her real name: Edna Rae Gillooly. She finally wanted to be true to herself. Hyman, however, didn’t see it that way.
12. She Got An Ultimatum
Hyman was not about to put the name Edna Rae Gillooly on any playbill for his show, so he gave her an ultimatum. He told her to find a new name, and fast. While playing around with a friend, she changed “Edna” to the softer “Ellen” and then took her second name and added “Mc”. Ellen McRae sounded good to her.
Burstyn was still a few changes away from her final name, but for now Ellen McRae would have to do. She now had a name with star quality. Could she fulfill its potential?
13. She Needed It Quick
Ellen Burstyn had done the almost impossible. She’d miraculously gone from “away we go” girl on a TV comedy to the lead in a Broadway show. Fair Game was a success for her career—but it came with a devastating twist. It spelled the end of her marriage. After all, could a Broadway star really go back to being a housewife in Detroit?
As soon as she could, Burstyn flew to Mexico where—back then anyway—you could get a quick and “no questions asked” divorce. She was free as a bird and ready to dive head first into her career.
14. She Scored
The success of Fair Game led to tons of TV work for Ellen Burstyn. It also led to her next husband. This was Paul Roberts, who’d directed Fair Game. When the two announced their engagement, the media had a field day. Burstyn, after all, was an unknown actress and had somehow scored a lead role on Broadway. Now, she was clearly bedding the show’s director.
Of course, some speculated about which had happened first. But it didn’t matter what the media said. Burstyn and Roberts became husband and wife in 1958. Was it happily ever after? Not a chance.
15. She Got The Bad News
Soon after she tied the knot with Roberts, Burstyn discovered his dark side. He had a problem with the bottle. Burstyn rationalized it this way: everyone she knew drank, her husband just drank more. It also helped that Roberts was a barrel of laughs when he was tipsy. Life could have gone on this way, until Burstyn got some bad news from her doctor. Thanks to her previous experience with pregnancy, she was unable to conceive a child.
The devastating news drove Burstyn to join Roberts in his drinking. After months of over doing it, Burstyn woke up one day and saw the writing on the wall. She had to get her act together. Her life depended on it.
16. She Was Very Low
Before her life could fall apart, Ellen Burstyn took it in her own hands. First things first. She adopted a baby boy to appease her maternal needs. Then, Burstyn started acting classes to reignite her career. Burstyn was taking charge of her life, but Roberts was still in love with the bottle.
When Burstyn met Neil Nephew—a young attractive man in acting school—she gave her husband one last chance. She begged him to show her that he loved her. When he couldn’t do it, she decided to give Nephew a chance.
17. She Had It All
It seemed as though Ellen Burstyn finally had everything she wanted. She was a mother to adopted son Jefferson and to new wife to Neil Nephew. There was, however, still her career to think about. What she decided she needed was—believe it or not—yet another name change. Her new husband’s name was Neil Nephew, but taking his name didn’t interest her.
As it turned out, Nephew was also a habitual name changer. When Nephew decided to take his grandfather’s surname, she jumped on board. She was now—and finally—Ellen Burstyn. While it seemed like Burstyn had it all, sadly, her happiness was going to be short-lived.
18. He Was Not Well
As it turned out, Burstyn’s new husband was not at all well. In fact, he suffered from schizophrenia. Sadly, his mental condition led to episodes of brutality. The marriage couldn’t continue, and despite Neil's efforts to reconcile, the couple divorced.
Burstyn was not doing well in the romance department. It was time for her to take all this pent up anxiety and put it into something else: one career-changing audition.
19. She Was Off The Charts
At this time, soon-to-be famous director Peter Bogdanovich was scouting around for actors for his movie The Last Picture Show. Burstyn’s audition must have been off the charts, as Bogdanovich immediately wanted her. He’d suggested the role of Ruth Popper, but he then gave Burstyn an unheard-of offer: he told her to go home, think about it, and pick whichever one she wanted.
Burstyn did go home and think. Sadly, she made the wrong choice.
20. She Missed Out
As it turned out, The Last Picture Show was a huge hit and did very well at the Oscars that year. Burstyn ended up in competition against Cloris Leachman—one of her co-stars—for the Best Supporting Actress award. Leachman had taken the role of Ruth Popper, while Burstyn had picked the character of Lois Farrow for herself. This backfired spectacularly.
To Burstyn’s shock, Leachman took the Oscar home. Burstyn had to watch Leachman win an award that could have been hers. There was no time to cry over spilt milk. Burstyn was already jostling for her next role.
21. She Had To Work For It
Even though Ellen Burstyn had an Oscar nod to her credit, she still had to hustle to get her next movie. You see, they were making a film based on a best-selling book about a demon possession, and Burstyn really wanted the part. The weird thing was that every actress in town was saying no to the role. Shirley MacLaine and Geraldine Page both said “no”, as did Jane Fonda—even though she was the author’s muse for character in the first place.
Most actresses didn’t want it because the part was for the mother of a child possessed by the devil. They found this creepy. For some reason, it didn’t bother Burstyn at all. So she took the bull by the horns. She called the director up and told him she “had to play this role.”
22. It Was Disgusting
Ellen Burstyn got the role of Regan’s mother on The Exorcist—but this was unlike any project she’d done before. The set was intense. In one instance, director William Friedkin thought that the actors weren’t showing their best disgusted faces at the demon’s “smell,” so he did something outrageous. He packed the set with disgusting things like rotten eggs and rotten meat.
As the crew started losing their respective lunches, Burstyn angrily marched up to Friedkin. She had just one question: where do you want me to vomit? It looked like the demon possessing the little girl wasn’t the only devil on this set. There was also this “no holds barred” director. And he was just getting started.
23. She Looked Awful
When Friedkin wasn’t sickening his cast and crew with rotting meat, he was yelling at them to get the performance he wanted. Burstyn, however, was an exception. Friedkin quickly noticed that when he yelled at Burstyn, she was quickly reduced to tears. It’s not that he cared about Burstyn’s feelings. No, that wasn’t it at all. It was that she looked awful on camera when her skin got all blotchy and her eyes turned red.
Clearly, Burstyn was suffering emotionally on this film. Then, her problems turned physical.
24. It Yanked Her
In one scene, Burstyn’s possessed daughter Regan throws her mother across the room. The crew assembled a harness that would make it look like Regan pushed her with superhuman strength. After the first take, Burstyn couldn’t believe how strong the harness yanked her to the floor. She complained to Friedkin, who told her that he was sorry, but the fall had to look real.
That was when Friedkin called for take two.
25. She Made Him Promise
Before take two of this dangerous scene, Ellen Burstyn got William Friedkin to promise that the harness operator would go a little easier when he yanked Burstyn to the floor. Friedkin agreed—but Burstyn never should have trusted him. The second take felt just as terrifyingly powerful as the first one. Burstyn was soon screaming on the floor in pain.
Friedkin loved Burstyn’s true to life acting and used it in the film. There was, however, a startling reason why Burstyn’s acting was so good in this scene.
26. It Was The Real Thing
When the harness yanked Ellen Burstyn away from the possessed child and onto the floor, it was way too powerful. In fact, when she cried out in pain, it was a totally real agonizing wail. And then later, after she’d seen a doctor, the horrible truth came out. Burstyn had actually fractured her coccyx and had permanently injured her spine.
That’s when she realized that Friedkin had not followed through on his promise. How could she continue to work with a man she didn't trust?
27. She Lay Down In Pain
Even though Burstyn had an injured spine, The Exorcist wasn’t through with her. Friedkin didn’t seem to care that Burstyn was on the injured list. In one scene where a bed bounced all over the room, Burstyn found that the sudden movement was hurting her already-injured back. Friedkin’s reaction was horrifying. He said that he didn’t care and did take after take until he thought he’d got it right. Between takes, Burstyn lay on her side in a desperate attempt to feel relief from the pain.
At least when The Exorcist was finally a wrap, Burstyn would be free from its terrifying grip—or would she?
28. She Counted Them Up
It was hard for Burstyn to forget that The Exorcist was just a movie. After she’d finished making the terrifying film, Burstyn made a terrifying realization. Quite a number of people connected to the movie had mysteriously passed during and since filming. This grisly list included two actors, two relatives of actors, a refrigeration guy, and even a baby belonging to a cameraman.
The Exorcist damaged Burstyn both physically and mentally—and it seemed to carry a curse. But for some reason, she just couldn’t stay away from it.
29. She Followed Her
When The Exorcist hit theaters, the audience response was shocking. There were reports of vomiting, a heart attack and even a miscarriage while watching the film. Burstyn was curious and went to a cinema to see people’s reactions with her own two eyes. When Burstyn saw a shaken woman walking up the aisle, she became concerned and followed her. To Burstyn’s horror, the woman passed out right in front of her.
Burstyn started to help the poor woman and then had a chilling realization: If the woman came to and saw that her savior was the possessed child’s mother from the movie, she might have a heart attack. Burstyn quickly stepped away and called for help. Burstyn had seen what her film could do to people. Now she had to keep it away from her loved ones.
30. He Was Too Young
When The Exorcist came out, Burstyn’s nine-year-old son was understandably desperate to see the horror movie. But Burstyn had to put her foot down. She wisely told him he was way too young to see such a terrifying film. Years later, when turned 14, he once again demanded to see his mother’s horror movie. Burstyn was running out of ways to say no, so she reluctantly set up a birthday screening for her son and his friends.
A few years after that, her son revealed the truth about that day. He admitted that even at 14, he was too young to watch it. It was time to put The Exorcist behind her—but finding a worthy follow-up film was going to be next to impossible.
31. She Didn’t Like Them
The good thing about being in a popular film like The Exorcist was that now she had her choice of what film to do next. The bad thing was that all the scripts sucked. Burstyn’s complaint was that the films all saw women as either victims, the hero's long-suffering wife or just some alluring object to keep men glued to the screen. Burstyn wanted a movie about a real woman with real-life problems.
Was that too much to ask?
32. She Found The One
One script that finally ignited Burstyn’s passion was Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. There was no demonic possession here. No, this was a simple film about a widowed mother trying to make ends meet for her and her son. This was going to be a picture that completely relied on Burstyn’s acting ability. The producers were so sure of Burstyn’s skill that they did something incredible.
They actually asked her to direct. Burstyn shyly declined the directing job, and instead set her sights on making the film into a powerful feature for women. So, if Burstyn wasn’t going to direct, who was?
33. He Knew Nothing
Ellen Burstyn soon got wind of a up-and-coming director who seemed to be perfect for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. His name just happened to be Martin Scorsese, who at this time only had a couple of movies under his belt. After watching Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Burstyn had only one question for him: did he know anything about women?
Scorsese’s answer was just what she needed to hear. He said he knew “nothing, but wanted to learn”. The obvious choice would have been a female director. Burstyn, however, wasn’t into obvious choices. She went with Scorsese.
34. He Was A Demon
Burstyn’s instinct was right, and she later said working with the Mean Streets director was one of the “best experiences” she’d ever had. Her experience with co-star Harvey Keitel, however, wasn’t so nice. She said that after filming an emotional scene with insanely intense Keitel, she had to go away and cry for an entire hour. Even Scorsese later owned up and said that Keitel’s warm up for doing the scene was positively “demonic”.
To everyone’s surprise, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore was a huge hit, and Burstyn was up for an Oscar again.
35. She Didn’t Want To Lose
Burstyn had already lost one Oscar, and she certainly wasn’t about to lose again. She figured her main competitor for the award would be Scenes from a Marriage star Liv Ullmann. When the Academy used a technicality to make Scenes from a Marriage ineligible for any awards, Burstyn must have breathed a sigh of relief. No, not our Ellen. She wanted to earn her Oscar.
So, she wrote a letter of complaint to get Ullmann nominated again. Burstyn’s letter fell on deaf ears, and the award basically fell right in her lap. But there was just one problem.
36. She Got Some Cold Comfort
When Oscar night rolled around, Ellen Burstyn was nowhere to be found—because she was busy performing on Broadway. After she won the award, an odd couple actually dropped the statue off backstage. This was Odd Couple actors Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Burstyn had one question for her famous delivery boys. She asked them if winning an Oscar actually meant anything. Matthau had an unforgettable reply.
He said that when she eventually passed, she could be sure that the obituaries would mention the Oscar. This was cold comfort indeed.
37. She Lost Millions
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was an award-winning picture, and Burstyn was instrumental in putting it together. She hired the director, was the leading star, and had full artistic control. But, for some reason, when they offered her an executive producer credit, Burstyn shyly declined. Well, this ended up being a huge mistake—at least financially.
When Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore became the TV sitcom Alice, Warner Bros made millions—some of which would have been hers. To make matters worse, Burstyn also declined to star in the hugely popular series, because she didn’t “do” TV. This statement would later come to haunt her big time.
38. She Tried To Ignore Him
Burstyn navigated professional successes and failures like a pro—but her personal life wasn’t so easy to handle Though she’d parted ways with her schizophrenic ex-husband, since she’d had gotten famous, Neil had begun to stalk her in quite frightening ways. Burstyn refused his advances and tried to just plain ignore him. That turned out to be the wrong choice, and Neil took his pursuit of Burstyn to a much more disturbing level.
39. He Broke In
Burstyn’s ex-husband Neil had an obsession with her. It became so extreme that he did something rash. He broke into Burstyn’s home and did the worst: he forced himself on her. A devastated Burstyn wanted to bring her ex-husband to justice, but she met with unbelievably horrific laws. You see, at this time, a husband—even an ex-husband—could do anything he wanted to his wife.
Neil eventually took his own life in 1978, and Burstyn vowed never to marry again. She kept this promise to herself. There was another promise, however, that Burstyn didn’t keep.
40. She Came In Third
Ellen Burstyn had famously stated that she didn’t do television. In 1986, however, she broke her promise. This was the family focused sitcom The Ellen Burstyn Show. In it, Burstyn plays a college professor living with a meddling mother, her divorced daughter, and her grandson. The show came to an embarrassing halt after airing just eight episodes. There was one distinction for Burstyn’s failed sitcom. It was the third lowest ranked show on TV that year. Suddenly Alice—which ran for an incredible nine seasons—sounded like the better choice.
Burstyn’s TV career had crashed and burned. Well, she still had movies. Or did she?
41. Things Went Downhill
After her failure to make a successful sitcom, Ellen Burstyn returned to the big screen—but she struggled. While her acting remained top quality, it was simply that her films were not making any money. The Spitfire Grill, Deceiver, and even Playing By Heart with crowd-pleaser Angelina Jolie all did poorly at the box office. The rotten icing on the cake was 2000’s The Yards. This star-studded action drama with Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, and even Faye Dunaway tanked at the box office.
It actually lost the studio $23 million. You know one thing that studio execs hate? Losing money. Burstyn was floundering and she needed a hit film.
42. It Hit Her In The Face
Even though The Yards had been a disaster, a new director named Darren Aronofsky wanted Burstyn for a role where she would be playing an older woman suffering from addiction. Burstyn read the script, but felt it was too depressing. Mind you, she had no idea what kind of a director Aronofsky was.
To fix this, Burstyn went out and rented his only other film: 1998’s Pi. You could say that Aronofsky’s Pi hit Burstyn right in the face. She was sold immediately and signed on for Requiem for a Dream.
43. She Lost It
Burstyn could tell that Requiem for a Dream was going to be a rollercoaster of a film shoot. First of all, Burstyn’s character was supposed to go through a huge weight loss. At the beginning, she wore a fat suit that added 18 kg (40 lbs.) to her weight. Her next one added only half that. Burstyn, however, did not like relying solely on wardrobe. When there was a two week break in filming, Burstyn went on an extreme diet. In the two weeks she lost 4.5 kg (10 lbs.).
Burstyn’s commitment level was through the roof. It had to be. Her career depended on this movie being a hit.
44. She Brought Her A-Game
Because she’d been in a string of box office flops, Burstyn knew she needed to bring her A-game to Requiem for a Dream. Well, she didn’t hold back. During one of her monologues, the cinematographer seemed to lose control of his camera and left Burstyn off center. They soon found out the shocking reason why. The poor guy behind the camera was crying so hard from Burstyn’s performance that he couldn’t see through the fogged-up lens.
The writer of the book—Hubert Selby Jr—also spontaneously burst into tears while watching Burstyn act. Burstyn had delivered her best work, and she wanted to get the top reward for it.
45. She Wanted The Best
When Oscar time came around, there were great expectations for Requiem for a Dream to take home a few trophies. Producers suggested that Burstyn put her sights on the Best Supporting Actress trophy. But Burstyn thought differently. She figured she had the most screen time—even though it was more of an ensemble cast—and so she wanted the Best Actress trophy.
It was a rare arrogant moment for the usually humble Burstyn. Sadly, it was the wrong moment. The award went to Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich. No Oscar? No problem. How about an Emmy?
46. She Was Brief
In 2006, Burstyn received an Emmy nomination for Mrs Harris, but there was a very strange twist. Burstyn was only in the HBO mini-series for a paltry 14 seconds. Many pundits cried foul, and Burstyn herself offered her two cents. She cheekily said that her next goal was to receive a nomination for 7 seconds on a show. To make things even more dramatic, Burstyn was again up against Cloris Leachman, who had beat her on Oscar night back in 1971.
The controversy quietly ended, however, when neither Burstyn nor Leachman won. Clearly, TV was something Burstyn now “did”. Could she try another sitcom?
47. He Needed Therapy
After another failed movie—The Wicker Man, with Nicolas Cage—Burstyn hooked up with funnyman Louis CK. On the show Louie, Burstyn played the comic’s neighbor and her performance received critical acclaim. A few years later, Louis CK got in hot water with the #metoo movement and, of course, everyone wanted to know what Burstyn’s opinion was.
What she said about Louis CK was this: She “loved him” but wished “he had gone to therapy”. Burstyn, however, wasn’t through with canceled performers.
48. She Couldn’t Place Him
In 2016, Burstyn appeared opposite soon-to-be-canceled actor Kevin Spacey on Netflix’s House of Cards. When Burstyn got on set, she had no idea that she had a history with Spacey. The star of the show had to remind Burstyn that they had worked before on a TV movie. The title of the movie was—appropriately enough—When You Remember Me.
While Burstyn earned no points with the star of House of Cards, she did get yet another Emmy nomination out of the deal.
49. She Went There Again
In 2023, there was a surprising resurrection. This was a much-anticipated continuation of The Exorcist franchise of movies. Burstyn had said no to the previous sequels but decided that, at the age of 90, she was ready to face the devil once more. Well, as it turned out, she picked the wrong sequel. The Exorcist: Believer didn’t do well with critics or audiences. In fact, it was a colossal disappointment.
Oh well, Burstyn had had her share of accolades. In fact, I think it’s time to take a tally.
50. She Was So Close
In the end, Ellen Burstyn received six Academy Award nominations and won once. Her Golden Globe count is seven nods and one win. For her TV work, there were nine Emmy nominations and two wins. Her Tony award in 1975 for Same Time, Next year made Burstyn into a Triple Crown actor: Oscar, Emmy and Tony. Now, what about that elusive Grammy? It’s all she needs to be an EGOT winner—and she’s actually come quite close!
In 1997, Burstyn received a Grammy nomination for Best Spoken Word Album, which she lost to Hilary Clinton. Well, I guess Clinton had to win something.