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Gena Rowlands Young: A Look Back At the Powerhouse Actress’ Incredible Early Career

Gena Rowlands has had a massively successful career in film, stage, and television spanning over six decades. At 94, she’s the very definition of a living legend, and she’s sadly been back in the news since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis was recently revealed.

Best known for her work with her late husband, the pioneering independent film director and actor John Cassavetes, the blonde beauty was a star from the start.

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Gena Rowlands in 1958Archive Photos/Getty

Born as Virginia Cathryn Rowlands in Madison, Wisconsin in 1930, Gena Rowlands got her start on Broadway and TV in the ’50s.

Rowlands was attending the University of Wisconsin when she left to pursue her dream of being an actress — a dream that was supported by her family. As she recalled, “I went home and I told my mom that I wanted to quit and be an actress and she said, ‘Huh, that sounds fascinating. It’s wonderful!’ And I told my father and he literally said, ‘I don’t care if you want to be an elephant trainer if it makes you happy.’”

Gena Rowlands in 1964
Gena Rowlands in 1964Leo Fuchs/Getty

For a few years at the beginning of her career, Rowlands made multiple guest appearances on TV shows, including The Way of the World (1955), Studio One (1955), Goodyear Playhouse (1955) and Riverboat (1959).

Rowlands met her future husband while attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She shared that Cassavetes attended one of her final plays. “He came backstage afterwards and introduced himself and we talked a bit,” she recalled. “Then went for a little coffee at the Russian Tea Room next door. It just… started.” They married in 1954, and remained together until his death in 1989.

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Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes in the ’50sBettmann/Getty

Rowlands’ marriage to Cassavetes kickstarted an impressive film career. She made an uncredited appearance in his directorial debut, Shadows, in 1958, and they’d go on to work together many more times.

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Gena Rowlands in 1958Archive Photos/Getty

Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes’ brilliant collaboration

The married couple continued to create films together and had an enjoyable time doing it. “John would write them, I would act in them and all of the actor friends we enjoyed working with would be in them,” Rowlands explained in an interview. “It was really, quite easy. We just wanted to write and act what people actually say and do; people who are living. John and I were really on the same wavelength.”

woman and man smiling; gena rowlands young
Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes in the ’70sMax B. Miller/Getty

In 1963, Rowlands had a starring role alongside Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland in one of Cassavetes’ films, A Child Is Waiting. She then starred in Cassavetes classics like Faces (1968), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Opening Night (1977), Gloria (1980) and Love Streams (1984).

Gena Rowlands in 'Gloria' 1980
Gena Rowlands in Gloria (1980)Bettmann/Getty

Rowlands gave an unforgettable, Oscar-nominated performance as a housewife experiencing a breakdown in A Woman Under the Influence. “That was my favorite movie. I loved doing that movie,” she said. “I loved it because I loved working with Peter Falk, I loved the mix of comedy in it, that was sort of real comedy.”

Sadly, Cassavetes died in 1989 at age 59. The couple had three children together, Nick, Zoe and Alexandra — all of whom are now filmmakers themselves.

Gena Rowlands in 'A Woman Under the Influence' 1974
Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974)Bettmann/Getty

Rowlands’ talent is rewarded

Throughout her incredible career, Rowlands has received many accolades. She earned her first Academy Award nomination for A Woman Under the Influence and her second for the 1980 Cassavetes film Gloria.

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Gena Rowlands in 1980Images Press/Getty

Rowlands has also won three Primetime Emmy awards over the years, as well two Golden Globe awards. One of the Emmy awards, as well one of her Golden Globe wins, were for her role in the 1987 TV movie The Betty Ford Story. In 2016, the actress received a well-deserved Honorary Oscar.

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Gena Rowlands in 1968P. Shirley/Getty

Gena Rowlands’ later career

Over the years, Rowlands continued to star in films such as Another Woman (1988), The Neon Bible (1995), Something to Talk About (1995), Unhook the Stars (1996), Hope Floats (1998) and The Skeleton Key (2005)

In 2004, Rowlands was introduced to a new generation when she starred in the beloved romantic drama The Notebook, alongside James Garner. The film was directed by her son, Nick Cassavetes.

Gena Rowlands in 1960
Gena Rowlands in 1960SilverScreen Collection/Getty

Rowlands married Robert Forrest, a retired businessman, in 2012, and last acted in 2017. While we’re saddened to hear of her recent diagnosis, the intensity and vulnerability of her work will forever captivate us. As she said in her Honorary Oscar acceptance speech, “You know what is wonderful about being an actress? You live many lives.”

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