Mary Louise Streep was born on June 22, 1949, in Summit, New Jersey. Popular and easygoing, she was a star cheerleader and the homecoming queen at Bernardsville High School before enrolling at Vassar College in 1967. It was there that she was bit by the acting bug after taking her first of many drama classes. Professor Clinton Atkinson still recalls being blown away by her early performances. "Her acting was hair-raising, absolutely mind-boggling," he says. "I don't think anyone ever taught Meryl acting, she really taught herself."
Following her graduation from Vassar in 1971, Meryl enrolled at the prestigious Yale School of Drama. Once again, she took little time to set herself apart from her classmates. According to fellow student Christopher Durang, "Meryl was Yale's leading lady. The school recognized her remarkable talent and worked her unmercifully." Fortunately, the work paid off, transforming Meryl into a seasoned performer by the time she received her Masters in fine arts in 1975.
Equipped with her degree, Meryl instantly established herself in the industry by landing coveted roles on stage in Arthur Miller's A Memory of Two Mondays and Tennessee Williams' 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, for which she received the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Theater World Award and a Tony nomination.
Having become one of New York's hottest young actresses, Meryl expanded into television with roles in Secret Service (1977), The Deadliest Season (1977) and Holocaust (1978), a riveting mini-series for which she won her very first Emmy. Meryl also received her first of 13 Oscar nominations later that year when she starred in The Deer Hunter with Robert De Niro, a brutal look at the lasting effects of the Vietnam War.
In addition to being a big year professionally, 1978 was a big year on the personal front for Meryl, as she married prominent sculptor Don Gummer on September 15, 1978. The happy couple had their first child, Henry, a year later.
Meryl truly cemented her reputation as America's most promising young actress in 1979 when she starred in The Seduction of Joe Tynan and Woody Allen's Manhattan. As impressive as those two performances may have been, they were ultimately overshadowed by her tour-de-force role in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), for which she won Best Supporting Actress Awards from the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the National Society of Film Critics.
Tired of playing contemporary roles, Meryl asked her agent to find her something challenging. "I said to [him], 'I've got to do something outside of Manhattan, outside of 1981, outside of my experience," she recalls. "Put me on the moon, I want to be someplace else. I want to be held in the boundaries of a different time and place." Meryl got her wish with 1981's The French Lieutenant's Woman, a lavish period piece set in 19th-century England. In addition to satisfying Meryl's needs, the film also satisfied critics, who awarded her Best Actress statuettes from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the Golden Globes and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Not content to rest on her laurels, Meryl turned in another dazzling performance in Sophie's Choice (1982). Her role as a Nazi concentration camp survivor ultimately netted her a second Oscar, as well as a slew of Best Actress honors from the National Society of Film Critics, the Golden Globes, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Now free to pick and choose her projects, Meryl appeared in a string of critically acclaimed films over the next decade, including Silkwood (1984) starring Cher, Out of Africa (1985), A Cry in the Dark (1988), and Postcards from the Edge (1990). The decade was also punctuated with the births of three more children, as Meryl and Don gladly welcomed Mary Willa Gummer, Grace Jane Gummer and Louisa Jacobson Gummer into the world.
Despite the incredible success she enjoyed during the previous two decades, Meryl's career began to decline during the early '90s due to a lack of quality roles. Luckily, she bounced back in a big way in 1995 with The Bridges of Madison County, a powerful romance starring Clint Eastwood. The intimate role put Meryl back in the spotlight once again with Best Actress nominations from the Academy Awards, the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes.
Additional Academy Award nominations came in 1999 for One True Thing starring Renee Zellweger and in 2000 for Music of the Heart. Indeed, the new millennium has been kind to Meryl, who has starred in blockbuster hits such as The Hours (2002) alongside Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman, The Manchurian Candidate (2004) with Denzel Washington and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) with Jim Carrey.
That output, coupled with her previous accomplishments, led to the American Film Institute honoring her in 2004 with its 32nd Life Achievement Award. Trustee chair Howard Stringer summed up her career accomplishments nicely during the event's gala ceremony when he said, "Her talent, range and determination to master her craft bring out performances that sometimes border on the ethereal. In that sense, she is truly peerless."