Jane Alexander is an award-winning American actress, author, and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts. Although perhaps best known for playing the female lead in The Great White Hope on both stage and screen, Alexander has played a wide array of roles in both theater and film, and has committed herself to a variety of charitable causes.
Alexander was born Jane Quigley in Boston, Massachusetts, daughter of Ruth Elizabeth (née Pearson), a nurse, and Thomas B. Quigley, an orthopedic surgeon. She graduated from Beaver Country Day School, an all girls school in Chestnut Hill outside of Boston, where she discovered her love of acting.
Encouraged by her father to go to college rather than immediately embark on an acting career, Alexander attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where she concentrated in theater but also studied mathematics with an eye toward computer programming, in the event she failed as an actress. Alexander spent her junior year studying at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where she participated in the Edinburgh University Dramatic Society. The experience, together with apparently good reviews of her performances, solidified her determination to continue acting.
Alexander's major break in acting came in 1967 when she played Eleanor Backman in the original production of Howard Sackler's The Great White Hope at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. Like her co-star, James Earl Jones, she went on to play the part both on Broadway (1968), winning a Tony Award for her performance, and in the film version (1970), which earned her an Oscar nomination. Alexander's additional screen credits include All the President's Men (1976), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), and Testament (1983), all of which earned her Oscar nods, Brubaker (1980), The Cider House Rules (1999), and Fur (2006).
Alexander portrayed Eleanor Roosevelt in two television productions, Eleanor and Franklin and Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years, and she played FDR's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt in HBO's Warm Springs with Kenneth Branagh and Cynthia Nixon, a role which garnered her an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Alexander co-starred with Rachel Roberts in Steven Gether's teleplay and production of A Circle of Children (1977), about parents coping with their emotionally disturbed children (with an emphasis on autism), which won Gether an Emmy.
Alexander's other television movies include Arthur Miller's Playing for Time, co-starring Vanessa Redgrave, for which Alexander won another Emmy Award; Malice in Wonderland (as famed gossip-monger Hedda Hopper); Blood & Orchids; and In Love and War (1987) co-starring James Woods, which tells the story of James and Sybil Stockdale during Stockdale's eight years as a US Navy Commander and prisoner of war in Vietnam. Alexander also played the protagonist, Dr. May Foster, in the HBO drama series Tell Me You Love Me. Her character, a psychotherapist, serves as the connecting link between three couples coping with relational and sexual difficulties. The show's frank portrayal of "senior" sexuality and explicit sex scenes generated controversy.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Alexander chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the organization that had provided partial funding for The Great White Hope at Arena Stage. Alexander moved to Washington, DC and served as chairman of the NEA until 1997. Her book, Command Performance: an Actress in the Theater of Politics (2000), describes the challenges she faced heading the NEA at a time when the 104th U.S. Congress, headed by Newt Gingrich, unsuccessfully strove to shut it down.
In 2004, Alexander, together with her husband, Edwin Sherin, joined the theater faculty at Florida State University. She serves on various boards, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, Project Greenhope, the National Stroke Association, and Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament, and she has received the Israel Cultural Award and the Helen Caldicott Leadership Award. Alexander is also a fellow of the International Leadership Forum.
Alexander met her first husband, Robert Alexander, in the early 1960s in New York City, where both were pursuing acting careers. They had one son, Jace, born in 1964, and the couple divorced a few years later. Alexander had been acting regularly in various regional theaters when she met producer/director Edwin Sherin in Washington, DC, where he was serving as the artistic director at Arena Stage. Alexander starred in the original theatrical production of The Great White Hope under Sherin's direction at Arena Stage prior to the play's Broadway debut. The two became good friends and, once divorced from their respective spouses, became romantically involved, marrying in 1975. Between the two they have four children, Alexander's son, Jace, a television director, and Sherin's three sons, Tony, Geoffrey, and Jon, also from a previous marriage.