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Born the middle child of five, Rosie O'Donnell was raised on Long Island. Her mother's death from cancer, when Rosie was ten years old, was the defining event of her life. Growing up in a motherless household made her long for a Mary Poppins to right all wrongs. "There were five small children and an emotionally distant father," she has said. "There was no Julie Andrews coming in. We sort of took care of ourselves and raised each other." She found solace in television–especially talk shows–and would race home from school every day to catch Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas. Rosie and her siblings had neither guidelines nor an authority figure to enforce them, and the kids pretty much ran wild; nevertheless, Rosie always got good grades and was even the senior class president and the prom queen.
O'Donnell didn't always want to be a comedienne–she dreamed from a young age of being an actress. Her idols were Barbra Streisand, Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, and Bette Midler, and her idea of nirvana was to be Laverne on Happy Days. But she also harbored a deep appreciation for Gilda Radner, and after doing a killer impression of Radner's Rosanne Rosannadana sketch in a high school follies production, O'Donnell was encouraged to try her hand at stand-up at a local comedy club. With the "impenetrable self-confidence" of a sixteen-year-old, O'Donnell caught Jerry Seinfeld's act on Merv Griffin's show and took the stage the next night, knocking the crowd dead with his pirated act. She was subsequently informed that other comedians' material wasn't public domain and that she would have to write her own. O'Donnell decided instead to work as an emcee, introducing other comedians with recycled Catskill riffs, while she listened to the various acts and learned.
By the age of twenty, O'Donnell had polished her act enough to take it on the road. She performed for peanuts and crashed in filthy communal condos along with an ever- changing cast of other comedians–most of them male–along the East Coast. During those early years on the club circuit, O'Donnell was alarmed by the host of vices–one- night stands, drugs, drinking–that her fellow performers indulged in nightly. Fearful of the sounds of nocturnal activity emanating from other rooms, she would barricade herself in her room at night with a dresser. At the time (the eighties), a female comedian was something of an anomaly (O'Donnell estimates she was one of about eight women doing stand-up at the time); various forms of sexism–including lower wages for female comics–were pretty much the norm. Nevertheless, O'Donnell persevered, and by the end of the decade she had succeeded in building a career as a stand-up comedienne. She won the Star Search competition five times.
After landing a short-term assignment as Nell Carter's neighbor on the sitcom Gimme a Break, in 1986, O'Donnell was asked to produce and host Stand Up Spotlight on VH-1, a gig which led, in turn, to her helming her own short-lived Fox series called Stand by Your Man, in 1992. That same year, Penny "Laverne" Marshall cast her as Madonna's obnoxiously dear sidekick, Doris Murphy, in 1992's A League of Their Own, a film that gained O'Donnell more mainstream notice than all of her previous efforts combined. She has since excelled as the wise-cracking foil to the female lead (as Meg Ryan's sentimental confidante in Sleepless in Seattle; as Rizzo in the 1994 Broadway revival of Grease; as Betty Rubble to Elizabeth Perkins' Wilma in The Flintstones; as Mira Sorvino's smart-mouthed hairdresser in Beautiful Girls). More often than not, she steals the scene from her more high- profile, but not necessarily more talented, co-stars.
O'Donnell opted to switch career tracks to the television industry in order to be a full- time mother to her son, Parker, whom she adopted as a newborn in 1995 (she has since adopted another child, a daughter named Chelsea Belle). Holding to the sacrosanct comedy maxim that she won't tell a joke if she wouldn't say it to the butt's face, her talk-variety show, The Rosie O'Donnell Show, became a huge hit. Hailed by Newsweek as "The Queen of Nice," O'Donnell as a host is irreverent, gracious, frank, perky, and brazenly hilarious without being trashy, she's . . . well . . . nice–like Dinah Shore, only with chutzpah. One of the perks of her supremacy in the daytime-TV arena–apart from her four-year, $4- million contract–has been a custom-built nursery for her kids, stuffed to the bursting point with toys and adjoined to her office in NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters. Eschewing all the fuss and bother that goes with celebrity life in L.A., O'Donnell prefers the studied indifference of her fellow New Yawkers, and purchased Helen Hayes' former New York estate, where she raises her children without the help of a battalion of nannies that other celebrity moms engage. Somewhere in this resistance to the gaga-ism of showbiz lies the charm of Rosie O'Donnell–while she may be every inch and pound an insider (she counts among her dearest friends Madonna and Melanie Griffith, after all), she remains an everywoman for the tens of millions of daytime TV diehards looking for someone they can relate to. It's comforting that someone of her celebrity wattage actually likes soap operas, shamelessly refers to Tom Cruise as "my boyfriend" (after a many-months-long campaign, Rosie received an early Christmas present on December 10, 1996, when Cruise finally consented to appear on her show), appears in ads for K-Mart, and thinks a hot night of entertainment is playing a rousing game of Scrabble.
O'Donnell played the faithful nanny Golly in the 1996 film version of Harriet the Spy, and portrayed a sports-loving nun-teacher in the 1998 kids' movie Wide Awake–now she is the Julie Andrews-esque figure to a new generation of children. In keeping with that theme is her idea for a children's musical called Double Wish; in it, O'Donnell will play a magical nanny who grants children's wishes. Beyond her daily duty as a TV gab-master, O'Donnell will do a little telling of her own in a $3-million deal with Warner to publish her memoirs.
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