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Melissa Leo - Biography

American actress Melissa is best known for her starring roles in The Fighter and Prisoners

Melissa Leo in white suit
Phoebe Tatham
Content Writer
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"I have been an actor for almost 30 years," says Academy Award winner Melissa Leo. "I don't do it to make an enormous living or to be a celebrity. I do it because I love acting." Her CV, packed with varied, critically-acclaimed roles which forgo the temptation to get by on her looks, confirms that statement.

Her career

In 2009, big screen drama Frozen River propelled her from low-budget flicks onto the Hollywood radar when she was nominated for a best actress Oscar for her performance as Ray, a tough, blue-collar mother who smuggles illegal immigrants over the Canadian border. 

Melissa was born in New York on September 14, 1960, the daughter of teacher Peggy, and fisherman father Arnold Leo. As most of her early life was lived out of the spotlight little is known about it - something which no doubt her Oscar win will change. For many years over the Eighties she was in a relationship with Prison Break actor John Heard, and the couple had a son together, John Matthew Heard, in 1987. 

Her acting career began on a high note in 1984 when she beat Julia Roberts to the lead role in US soap opera All My Children. She's appeared in a variety off small screen shows over the years, including Veronica Mars in 2004, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in the same year and Law & Order in 2008. 

She's probably best known to viewers, however, as down-trodden Detective Sergeant Kay Howard from her four year-stint on Nineties cop series Homicide: Life On The Street. Since 1984 Melissa's been a firm fixture on the indie movie scene, making her debut in romantic drama Always

Her choice of low budget films and small roles meant she was largely off radar, however, until her performance as Benecio del Toro's on-screen wife in 21 Grams brought her widespread attention. Melissa found herself well and truly in the spotlight in 2011, however, when she beat off stiff competition from Helena Bonham-Carter to pick up a best supporting actress gong at the Oscars, for her role in The Fighter

"You pinch me?" she asked Kirk Douglas, who presented her with the award - clearly stunned by the fact she had emerged victorious. "Oh wow. really, truly wow," she said. "I know there's a lot of real lovely people who've said a lot of nice things to me for several months, but I'm just shaking in my boots right now."

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