THEATER insiders had been referring to actress Calista Flockhart as "the girl with the name" for years before that magnificent moniker started rolling off the tongues of couch potatoes and critics across the nation following the breakout success of her Fox television series, Ally McBeal. The show conferred upon Flockhart seemingly overnight fame, but the actress had labored in onstage semi-obscurity for more than a decade before her sitcom ship came in. So, what's the story behind that fab name? The charmingly modest actress, who is named after her Greek great-grandmother, has reluctantly admitted to interviewers that Calista means "most beautiful."
The daughter of a Kraft Foods executive father and a schoolteacher mother, Flockhart was born in Illinois and grew up in backwoods burgs in Iowa, Minnesota, and New York state. Her family eventually settled in Medford, New Jersey, and following her high school graduation, she enrolled at nearby Rutgers University. There, she made the fateful decision to enroll in the fine arts program, only because she didn't want to have to list her major as undeclared. While at Rutgers, Flockhart studied acting under drama coach William Esper and gained her first performing experience through appearances in university and community theater productions. Following her 1987 graduation, she moved to New York to devote her energies to acting full-time.
Over the course of the next seven years, Flockhart appeared in everything from a Williamstown Theater Festival presentation of Death Takes a Holiday to an off-Broadway production of Wrong Turn at Lungfish helmed by Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall. She reaped praise for her performances in off-Broadway roles in such productions as Sophistry and All for One. To fill in the gaps between stage roles, she taught aerobics classes and shouldered bit parts in daytime dramas. Flockhart's soap duty led to her first substantial television appearance, a key supporting role in the biopic Darrow (1991), which starred Kevin Spacey in the role of famed attorney Clarence Darrow. The next year, she won her first starring assignment, that of the title character in "The Secret Life of Mary-Margaret: Portrait of a Bulimic," an episode of the acclaimed HBO series Lifestories: Families in Crisis.
Eventually, Flockhart was able to afford the services of both an agent and a manager, and the quality of the acting jobs she was offered subsequently improved. Her lead performance in a Circle Repertory Company production of Beside Herself was praised by critics, and she also won plaudits for her work in regional theater, most notably for her performance as Irina in a production of Chekhov's Three Sisters staged by Chicago's Goodman Theater. Television jobs proved harder to come by, however, and Flockhart experienced what was perhaps her darkest hour, in 1993, when she wound up doing eight weeks of work in an off-off-Broadway show for the measly sum of four hundred dollars. During those two lean months, the struggling actress was reduced to living off a case of ravioli that her older brother sent her.
The following year, Flockhart's career received a major jump-start when she made her Broadway bow in a revival of the Tennessee Williams classic The Glass Menagerie. Her Laura was a critical triumph, winning her both a Theater World Award and a Clarence Derwent Award. Flockhart's debut feature film role, a bit part in director Robert Redford's Quiz Show, came along later that same year, and she also won a major supporting role in the Showtime movie Drunks. Soon thereafter, director Mike Nichols caught Flockhart's critically lauded turn in The Loop, and cast her as the bride-to-be daughter of arch-conservatives Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest in his 1996 blockbuster comedy The Birdcage.
Flockhart returned to New York, where she again appeared in a production of Three Sisters—this time on Broadway and in the villainous role of scheming, cold-hearted Natasha. The star-studded cast contained a number of more established actors, including Amy Irving, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Lili Taylor, and Eric Stolz, but Flockhart handily stole the show. Just as Flockhart's Broadway career was at last beginning to achieve take-off, she heard about Ally McBeal, a television pilot that prominent writer-producer David E. Kelley was developing for Fox. At the same time, Kelley and his co-producers had heard from several New York casting directors about a talented Broadway actress whose personality seemed a perfect match for the title character. The only catch, so they were told, was that she refused to do TV. Several hundred actresses had been turned down for the part by the time Flockhart's friends succeeded in dragging her to an audition with Kelley, who offered her the title role after their first meeting; she promptly relocated from New York to Los Angeles to begin filming. Critics were raving about Ally McBeal even before the first episode aired, and they haven't let up since (Flockhart has already been awarded a Best Actress Golden Globe for her work on the series). Audience response turned out to be equally fervent.
While pleased with the favorable reception that has greeted her show, the winsome actress maintains a pragmatic outlook about her newfound success: "I haven't got anything to lose, in a way. If it doesn't work out and I go back to New York, I have a lot more money than I did when I started." Shortly following the premiere of Ally McBeal, Flockhart's movie career took a promising turn, when she appeared in a major supporting role alongside Kevin Bacon and Brad Renfro in the Joe Ezsterhas-scripted Telling Lies in America. Now that Flockhart is a hot commodity, fans can also expect to finally get a look at her starring role in the indie flick Pictures of Baby Jane Doe, which has been shelved since 1996.