Success Story

COM Alumna and Award-Winning Actress Kathleen Quinlan Talks About Her Beginnings at COM

Academy Award nominee Kathleen Quinlan’s long, successful career spanning more than 50 films, even more television appearances and numerous professional accolades, started with many small, poignant roles in high school and on the College of Marin stage.

In 1972, she was right out of high school and had a very small part as the Rose Seller in the College of Marin musical Oliver when she broke into a captivating song that Ron Krempetz, a drama and set design instructor, still remembers.

“It was this very sweet, young, beautiful voice,” Krempetz recalls. “It made an impression on me. As a teacher, I realize that she was playing a very minor role, but she took that minor role and a lot of other minor roles and made a career in film. You never know where it’s going to take you.”

Quinlan, who was an accomplished gymnast at Tamalpais High School and a budding actor when she arrived at College of Marin in the early ’70s, recalls a crossroads, a time that she weighed her love for sport against her passion for acting. “Quinnie” as she was known, excelled at both. She considered pursuing a degree in recreation.

Under the caring tutelage of then Coach Bob Justice, she was the first woman to compete on the diving team.

“She was always willing to learn and she loved doing flips,” says Justice who coached for 34 years at College of Marin.

Meanwhile, on the college stage, she flourished alongside a band of creative actors and theater stars who would also go on to gain great professional recognition such as Robin Williams, Joel Blum, and Dakin Matthews.

“She was a very hard worker,” says James Dunn, who founded the Drama Department nearly 50 years ago and still teaches today. Dunn and Harvey Susser, another admired instructor at the time, focused on acting fundamentals.

“We had an incredible group of people there in the ’70s that were just outstanding,” Dunn says. “Kathy was just one of our kids.” The curriculum focused on self-discipline necessary to become an actor. “It’s a very hard life. It requires a great deal of sacrifice. We teach students how to be on time, how to give of one’s self, to give to each other, how to be part of a team.”

The stage was a place where a shy student, like Quinlan could explore her fascination with the depth of human emotions. She had a great sense of humor and an impressive ability to cry on stage, Dunn says.

“She was always excited about what she was doing,” Dunn says. “There was a natural talent there, but she was just beginning when she was with us. Her personality just captivated you.”

The Drama Department was a great refuge for Quinlan who loved college although she struggled with academics, not knowing she was dyslexic until much later in life.

“The whole place was, at the time, a creative hotbed and, well, mellow,” she says. “I lived there pretty much.”

In 1972, the year Quinlan graduated from high school, she landed a small role in One Is a Lonely Number. The next year, at College of Marin, she was a daughter in a production of Fiddler on the Roof when film director, producer and screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola and his family were in the audience. George Lucas, film producer, screenwriter and director, also saw her in the play and went on to cast her as Peg, a one-line role in the film American Graffiti. She was 19. Her financial realities and the possibility of acting work in Los Angeles lured her from college the following year.

“It soon became more apparent that I would have to find a way to support myself,” Quinlan says. “My parents were not well off and I didn’t know anything about student loans—thank God.”

What has ensued is a monumentally successful acting career. She earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture-Drama for her performance in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden in 1977 and many honors for her performance as Marilyn Lovell, the wife of Tom Hanks’ character, in Apollo 13, including a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress–Motion Picture nomination, and a Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actress nomination. She earned the Newcomer of the Year Award in New York for Taken in Marriage at the Joseph Papp New York Shakespeare Festival as well.

Her film credits also include Lifeguard, Breakdown, A Civil Action, The Doors, The Hills Have Eyes, Breach, and Event Horizon.

On television, she earned roles in shows such as Prison Break, Cinema Verite, House, Glee, Chicago Fire, and her own series Family Law.

Quinlan once told a local Marin Independent Journal reporter that her career “started fortuitously and innocently, but then it developed into something quite different years later.” She understood, she said, that she could reach people though her acting roles, “that maybe I could inspire someone, make them feel something or think about something. I grew quite attached to the profession.”

Quinlan lives with her designer/artist husband Bruce Abbott in Southern California. She has two grown sons and says she lives her life to the fullest. She has been able to continue her college career through online courses and continues to enjoy a variety of interesting acting projects. She has recently been working on Blue, a web series, and the movie Horns with Daniel Radcliffe that is due to be released in 2014.

“The College of Marin Drama Department and the department at Tamalpais High School taught me to take my work seriously and stay disciplined about it,” she says. “It still carries me to this day.