She was born Melissa Chessington Leo, on Sept. 14, 1960, in New York City, NY; the daughter of Peggy Leo, a teacher, and Arnold Leo, an editor and later a fisherman. Her parents split when she was nine, with Peggy taking custody of Leo and moving to Putney, VT, before a jaunt to London, where her mother temporarily supervised U.S. students in study-abroad programs. There, Leo created an affinity for theater. When her mother returned home, she allowed her 16-year-old daughter to remain in the U.K. to pursue her studies.
Leo returned to the U.S. two years later, earned her GED and enrolled at the State University of New York at Purchase. She left her junior year in look of acting work, eventually securing a role on the ABC soap â€śAll My Childrenâ€ť (1970- ), for which she won a Daytime Emmy nomination in 1985. She graduated to a diet regime of TV movies and guest shots, and along the way, entered into a volatile relationship with character actor John Heard, with whom she had a son in 1987.
On an upward swing, Leo scored the female lead opposite A-listing stars William Hurt and Timothy Hutton in the under-performing feature â€śA Time of Destinyâ€ť (1988), before spending a season on ABCâ€™s ensemble Western, â€śThe Young Ridersâ€ť (1989-1992). Leo next fell into a slate of indie films â€“ notably two with indie auteur Henry Jaglom â€“ including â€śVenice/Veniceâ€ť (1992) and â€śLast Summer in the Hamptonsâ€ť (1995), as well as a prominent role in the much ballyhooed television sequel to â€śGone with the Windâ€ť (1939), â€śScarlettâ€ť (CBS, 1994). But it was in 1993, that she secured regular and trailblazing work by donning frumpy clothes and reading a male characterâ€™s part to duly impress the producers of the clean NBC drama, â€śHomicide: Life on the Street.â€ť
The groundbreaking show debuted with Leo amidst a nonpareil ensemble, including Andre Braugher, Ned Beatty, Richard Belzer and Clark Johnson, which examined distinctive, memorable characters processing the tragic waste of urban America. Leo played the no-nonsense Kay Howard â€“ initially a detective before being promoted to shift sergeant â€“ in a way few women were seen on television. Without makeup, her red mane seemingly ever-rumpled, Leo was a standout. The harsh realism garnered the show two Emmys and a Peabody award for best television drama in its 1st season. But with ratings not mirroring the critical groundswell, producers eventually swapped out veteran players for younger, prettier talent and Howard was written out for the 1997-98 season. Reportedly compounding circumstances behind her departure was escalating acrimony with Heard, who had missing a lawsuit above custody of their son and, beginning in 1996, became increasingly menacing. He at one point physically assaulted Leoâ€™s boyfriend and was arrested for stalking the actress. She returned for a 2000 reunion, â€śHomicide: The Movie,â€ť but after a few idle years â€“ made far more so, she later said, by casting agents unable to see her as anything other than Kay Howard â€“ she began a prolific indie film regimen.
In 2003, she gave a powerful performance as the unflappable wife of an addict in â€ś21 Gramsâ€ť â€“ earning her a nomination as Best Supporting Actress from the L.A. Film Critics Association. She raised critical eyebrows again in the Tommy Lee Jones-helmed â€śThe Three Burials of Melquiades Estradaâ€ť (2005) and worked for Jaglom again on â€śHollywood Dreamsâ€ť (2006) â€“ one of five films that year, followed by seven in 2007, including the indie favorite, â€śBlack Irishâ€ť (2007).
In 2008, however, she graduated from mostly supporting roles to major indie limelight as the critically lauded lead in â€śFrozen Riverâ€ť (2008). Directed by first-time filmmaker Courtney Hunt, the film showcased Leo as a near-destitute single mother in upstate New York who teams up with a Mohawk woman to smuggle illegal aliens across the frozen St. Lawrence River. The stark, heart-rending film won the prestigious top prize at January 2008â€™s Sundance Film Festival. Leo won the Gotham Award for Best Breakthrough Performance and netted Golden Satellite, Independent Spirit and SAG award nominations for Best Actress. Most significantly, Leo earned her first ever nod at the Academy Awards. The New York Times called Leoâ€™s performance a â€śmagnificent portrayal of a woman of indomitable grit and not an iota of self-pityâ€¦â€ť A few months later, Leoâ€™s turn as a mother coping with the abduction of her drug-addict son by a third-world vice-lord in â€śLullabyâ€ť (2008) won her honors at Method Fest.
|Date of Birth||14 September 1960|
|Place of Birth||New York City, New York, USA|