Lois Smith was born in Topeka, Kansas, then moved to Seattle with her family at age 11 and attended school there, including two-plus years at the University of Washington School of Drama.
Lois's first role in professional theater was as Melvyn Douglas's teenage daughter in Time Out for Ginger, on Broadway, followed by The Young and the Beautiful, Blues for Mr. Charlie and the original production of Orpheus Descending. She began working with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company in 1988 in The Grapes of Wrath, directed by ensemble member Frank Galati and became a member of the Steppenwolf Ensemble in 1993. The Grapes of Wrath traveled to London and to Broadway; Steppenwolf's Buried Child, directed by Gary Sinise, also moved to Broadway, and Smith received Tony Award nominations for her work in both of these plays. She also appeared in The Mesmerist, Mother Courage, The Royal Family and The Tempest at Steppenwolf.
She has appeared in many other plays, on and Off Broadway, and in regional theaters. Old favorites include three Chekhov plays: Uncle Vanya at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, directed by Harold Clurman; The Seagull at Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, directed by Lucian Pintilie; and The Cherry Orchard at Baltimore Center Stage, directed by Irene Lewis. Also, The Front Page at Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Harris Yulin; Escape from Happiness by George Walker, directed by Irene Lewis at Baltimore Center Stage; The Stick Wife by Darrah Cloud at Hartford Stage, directed by Roberta Levitow; and Defying Gravity by Jane Anderson, Off Broadway, directed by Michael Wilson. She is a longtime member of The Actors Studio, and of Ensemble Studio Theater, where she has played in many one-act play marathons, especially plays by Romulus Linney, and The Man Who Climbed the Pecan Trees by Horton Foote. In 2005/06, Smith played Carrie Watts in Horton Foote’s The Trip to the Bountiful, directed by Harris Yulin, at New York City’s Signature Theatre, for which she received five awards: an Obie, Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and the Kingsley-Evans Award. She also received a Jeff Award in Chicago when the production played at the Goodman Theater.
More recently, Smith was seen in NYC in Playwrights Horizons productions of After the Revolution by Amy Herzog, Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison (also at the Taper in LA), and I Was Most Alive With You by Craig Lucas.
At NYC’s Signature Theater, in addition to The Trip to Bountiful, she played in Tony Kushner’s The Illusion, Sam Shepard’s Heartless, Horton Foote’s The Old Friends, Annie Baker’s John, and New Group’s production of Lily Thorne’s Peace for Mary Francis. She received a New York Critics citation for her work in Marjorie Prime and John in 2015.
At NYC’s Signature Theater, in addition to THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, she payed in Tony Kushner’s THE ILLUSION, Sam Shepard’s HEARTLESS, Horton Foote’s THE OLD FRIENDS, Annie Baker’s JOHN, and New Group’s production of Lily Thorne’s PEACE FOR MARY FRANCIS. She received a New York Critics citation for her work in MARJORIE PRIME and JOHN in 2015.
She appeared on Broadway in THE INHERITANCE by Matthew Lopez in 2019-2020.
When Smith began working in New York, there were many television drama anthology programs: Studio One, U.S. Steel Hour, Robert Montgomery Presents, Kraft Theatre, etc. She did many television plays; the earliest ones were live. They included Miss Julie and The Master Builder on Public Television's Play of the Week. Since then she has appeared in many television films and miniseries, and guest-starred in series, both comedy (Frasier, Just Shoot Me ) and drama (Law & Order, Cold Case, ER, Grey’s Anatomy , etc.) On HBO, she has appeared in True Blood, Truman, The Laramie Project, Iron Jawed Angels, The Americans and Ray Donovan.
Her first film role was the barmaid in East Of Eden with James Dean. She won a National Society of Film Critics Award for Five Easy Pieces . Other films include The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Diminished Capacity, Roadie, Please Give (Independent Spirit Robert Altman Award to Cast), Hollywoodland, Next Stop Greenwich Village, Four Friends, Black Widow, Falling Down, Fried Green Tomatoes, Twister, Larger Than Life, How to Make an American Quilt, Dead Man Walking and Minority Report. More recently, Marjorie Prime, Ladybird, The French Dispatch and Uncle Frank.