Mary Steenburgen: Actress, and now songstress

(CBS News) Mary Steenburgen is an actress with a natural charm that lights up the screen, not to mention a newly-emerging ability that even she can't fully explain. With Lee Cowan we'll drop in for a visit:


It's tempting to think of Academy Award-winner Mary Steenburgen as Hollywood's Girl Next Door, whether she's batting her eyes back to the future -- or mothering a good-natured elf.

But the reality is, Mary Steenburgen actually relishes being bad.

"I love to play horrible, evil, mean people," she said.

"I can't see you being horrible or mean," Cowan said.

"I have, trust me, I have horrible in me. Trust me!"

She can be nasty (as in "30 Rock"), and sexy (as in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape").

But even in "Melvin and Howard," the role that won her an Oscar, Mary Steenburgen somehow made stripping seem sweet.

"I wish sometimes people wouldn't underestimate me," she said. "But it's a fleeting wish. It's not where I live."

At 60 years old, it's all served her pretty well. Her latest film, "Last Vegas" (a CBS Films production), brings HER Oscar together with four other Oscar-winners -- a cast most actresses only dream about: Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline.

"There's something very delicious -- a very kind of wise and beautiful dance that's done when you work with people at this point in your life that are that accomplished," she said.

Mary Steenburgen performs one of her own songs, in the film, "Last Vegas."
CBS Films

A Southern girl at heart, Steenburgen was born in Newport, Ark. Her mother was a secretary; her father, a freight train conductor who was doting, but ill. He suffered several heart attacks, leaving Steenburgen fearing she might lose him at any moment.

"I actually believed if I behaved myself and if I made straight As and if I was good enough, I could save my dad's life," she said. "And every single time he had a heart attack, I knew what I had done that caused it."

It was, she admitted, "a lot of pressure."

Her only retreat: books. Obsessively so. "I lived in them. Why wouldn't I live in them? I could scream, I could yell," she said.

It opened a world that led her to New York, where, eventually, it was none other than Jack Nicholson who noticed her Southern charm and cast her in "Goin' South."

Henry (Nicholson): "In my time, I have put a gal or two in tune with nature."
Julia (Steenburgen): "I'm sure nature is very grateful."

She's been turning heads ever since, most notably the head of her husband, Ted Danson.

"It's just so rare that you meet somebody that you're endlessly fascinated by," she said. "And I am endlessly fascinated by him."

When they first met, Danson was showing off a new set of hair extensions he had done for a role.

"My first thought about him is, 'This is the most ridiculous creature I've ever met in my entire life,'" she said.

To which Danson added, "She was mine from that moment on!"

It wasn't only the hair she had overcome; it was his on-screen persona as the bartending ladies' man from "Cheers."

"I actually believed that he was sort of superficial and slick," Steenburgen said. "But as I said to somebody, slick guys don't say 'Gosh-a-rooney' after making love," she laughed.

"They will now," said Danson, " 'cause that's pretty, pretty cool!"

"Gosh-a-rooney" eventually led to "I do." They were married at their house in Martha's Vineyard in 1995. Overlooking the ocean sits the rock that served as the altar.

"Our bedroom is right over there," she told Cowan, "so if there is an argument, one of us inevitably goes, 'You stood right out there and you promised!' "

Being far from the bright lights of Hollywood is where Steenburgen feels the most comfortable. All the red carpets and award ceremonies so many stars crave have for years been her quiet nightmare.

"I love being in a room of 8-10 people," she said. "Once it starts to get much bigger than that, I've always gotten very frightened. I've never managed to -- just telling you about it, I have sweaty palms. First time I've ever talked about it, actually."

Even the night she won her Oscar she went home instead of dancing the night away.

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