Known for her creative and offbeat comedic style, Tracey Ullman first wowed American TV audiences with The Tracey Ullman Show, which debuted in 1987. She had another wave of success with the HBO series Tracey Takes On in the 1990s. In 2008, Ullman launched State of the Union, her next comedy sketch show. Her recent projects include the 2014 musical film Into the Woods.
Early Life and Career
Born on December 30, 1959, in Slough, England, actress and comedian Tracey Ullman won several Emmy Awards for such sketch shows as The Tracey Ullman Show and Tracey Takes On in the 1980s and 1990s. She first started performing as a child, using a windowsill as her first stage.
Ullman lost her father when she was only six years old when he died of a massive heart attack. After that terrible loss, she moved around a lot as her mother worked to support Tracey and her sister. Ullman won a scholarship to a performing arts school when she was twelve. At 16, she left school to pursue a career as a dancer in Berlin. Ullman told the Advocate that “Berlin was amazing, decadent, and fun.” Eventually making her way back to England, she enjoyed some success in performing in musicals in London’s West End. Ullman then went on to British TV projects, such as the 1981 comedy skit show Three of a Kind.
In 1983, Ullman released a '60s rock-influenced album You Broke My Heart in 17 Places. The record did well in England, and the song, “They Don’t Know,” even became a crossover hit in the United States in 1984. Soon American audiences got a chance to see more of Ullman. She appeared in the 1985 drama Plenty with Meryl Streep. Around this time, Ullman worked with producer James L. Brooks on developing her new comedy series The Tracey Ullman Show, which debuted in 1987. The program featured Ullman tackling a broad range of quirky characters, including a South African golf pro and a California divorcee real estate agent. Julie Kavner and Dan Castellaneta were two of her supporting players on the show, and the series also included short animated segments by Matt Groening. These segments were the beginning of one of TV’s longest-running series The Simpsons.
Over four seasons, The Tracey Ullman Show netted several Emmy Award wins, including outstanding variety music or comedy series in 1989. Some critics found the show’s episodes to be uneven in terms of quality, but many noted Ullman’s gift for social satire. She focused on films for a time after the show ended in 1990. She had roles in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), Household Saints (1993) and Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway (1994). Back on the small screen, Ullman earned accolades for the 1993 HBO special Tracey Takes On New York. This special inspired Ullman’s next television show, Tracey Takes On. Debuting in 1996, each episode of the show focused on a different topic, ranging from romance to royalty.
In 2008, Ullman returned to television with State of the Union. She had recently become a naturalized U.S. citizen, and she used her new series to look at her new home country with themed episodes on contemporary issues, such as immigration. Ullman also gave her own comic take on such famous figures as politician Nancy Pelosi, actress Helen Mirren and soccer star David Beckham on the show.
Ullman returned to her theatrical roots with a part in the 2014 film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods. In 2015, the BBC announced that she would be doing a new comedy show for them, marking her return to British television. The Tracey Ullman Show debuted in 2016 and featured Ullman’s impersonations of actress Judi Dench and German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Tracey Ullman married producer Allan McKeown in 1983. They have two children, daughter Mabel and son John. McKeown died of prostate cancer in 2013 — just days before the couple's 30th anniversary. Ullman's mother died in a house fire in 2015.
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