Jane Kaczmarek already had a long and fruitful acting career comprised of roles on stage and screen, but it was her role as harried mother Lois on the hit Fox sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle” that finally placed her firmly in the spotlight two decades after her initial foray into television. An attractive and versatile dark-haired player who routinely turned in noteworthy performances, Kaczmarek had about her an air of determined self-possession that she molded around her characters, so that her regal socialites rang as true as her underprivileged scrappers. One result of this was exceptionally realistic portrayals; another was that she was frequently cast as older and more accomplished or embittered women. Kaczmarek grew up in Wisconsin and followed her acting dreams despite her traditional upbringing and initial, more practical plans to be a schoolteacher. She studied at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where she performed in school productions and became acquainted with fellow acting hopeful Tony Shalhoub, who encouraged the young woman to follow his lead to Yale’s School of Drama. There she further honed her skills, and racked up Yale Repertory credits.
In 1982 Kaczmarek made the entry to television with a role in “For Lovers Only”, a failed pilot about a honeymoon resort aired as an ABC TV-movie. The following year, she had a recurring role as a nurse on the edgy NBC drama “St. Elsewhere”, and guested in episodes of the fluffy romantic caper series “Remington Steele” (also NBC) and “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” (CBS). That same year, she appeared on the big screen with a role as the long-suffering wife of Fred Ward’s haunted Vietnam vet in the gripping “Uncommon Valor”. 1984 saw her deliver a well-deserved slap to her unfaithful movie husband (Robert De Niro) in the misfire “Falling in Love”. While that film was predicted a hit and should have marked Kaczmarek’s breakthrough, little lasting buzz followed. A starring role in the cute critical failure “The Heavenly Kid” (1985) did even less to launch her career.
Although she had made the move to film, the actress didn’t shy away from TV work, the medium actually ended up hosting some of her finest performances. In 1984 alone she impressed with a supporting turn in the groundbreaking sexual abuse drama “Something About Amelia” (ABC) and a co-starring role in a moving syndicated adaptation of O Henry’s “The Last Leaf”. The following year she made her regular series debut on the well-done CBS drama “Hometown” (CBS, 1985). When the show failed to grab an audience and was subsequently cancelled, Kaczmarek wasn’t down for long. She reemerged with numerous TV-movie roles, including work in ABC’s “The Right of the People” and CBS’ “The Christmas Gift”, 1987 saw her with a featured part in the glitzy, marathon-length miniseries “I’ll Take Manhattan”.
Kaczmarek was featured with roles in two films in 1988, the switcheroo comedy “Vice Versa” and the thriller “D.O.A.”, and returned triumphantly (although briefly) as attorney Linda Bauer on the fast-paced ABC courtroom drama “Equal Justice” (1990-91). In 1993, she added the CBS sitcom “Big Wave Dave’s” to the list of short-lived series she was a regular on, and took guest roles on the celebrated NBC legal dramas “L.A. Law” and “Law & Order” in 1994.
Kaczmarek spent some time away from the screen to concentrate on stage work, and wowed theatergoers with award-winning performances in the riveting Holocaust drama “Kindertransport” (1994, 1996) and the absurdist comedy “Raised in Captivity” (1995). She portrayed a mother who sends her child to England to be saved from the Nazi’s in the former and a self-loathing psychologist in the latter, and brought impressive depth to each performance. More people would remember her though as the tough but friendly traffic cop who flirts with speeding “Frasier” but finds his retired police officer father Martin foxier on a 1996 episode of the NBC comedy. That same year she turned in a strong supporting performance in the legal thriller “The Chamber”. Kaczmarek revisited her wronged-wife roots in the independent “Wildly Available” (1997), and played the real world mom of TV-transported David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) in the charming fantasy “Pleasantville” (1998). In 1999, she took a recurring role on The WB’s drama “Felicity”, playing the confronted and conflicted birth mother of the title character’s fellow college student confidante Julie (Amy Jo Johnson).
2000 saw Kaczmarek hit midseason gold, starring as the harried, edgy mother of four on the surprise hit sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle”. Touted as “The Simpsons” with real people, the sitcom family bucked all of the television norms: Father (Bryan Cranston) didn’t know best, Mom wasn’t always sweet (or even dressed) and the kids actually got into some real messes. Kaczmarek’s take on the drill sergeant-like Lois was a particular highlight of the show, and no doubt rang true to its audience. Her character was both hard and demanding yet concerned and forgiving, without a hint of the syrupy cliches that TV moms often projected. The uncompromising character was a good fit for the actress, and the overwhelmingly positive response (including Emmy nominations) the show received allowed one to safely predict she and “Malcolm” staying on the air for seasons to come.