Anne Heche began acting in her teens, but despite her successes in television and film, and on stage, her career was overshadowed by a life steeped in tragedy and controversy. Heche, who has died aged 53 after a car crash, came to tabloid prominence in the late 1990s as the girlfriend of Ellen DeGeneres, who was then the star of a hit TV comedy series.
Heche later blamed the publicity around their relationship for hampering her career, saying Hollywood was not ready for a lesbian star in straight love-interest roles. That was exactly what her first starring role was; in Six Days, Seven Nights (1998), marooned on a desert island with Harrison Ford. After a string of roles the previous year, including in Volcano and I Know What You Did Last Summer, and critical success in films such as Donnie Brasco and Wag the Dog, Heche had been cast in the film not long before her relationship with DeGeneres was made public.
They split up in 2000, and a year later, after marrying Coleman Laffoon, a cameraman who worked on DeGeneres’ standup tour, Heche published a memoir, Call Me Crazy, in which she detailed being abused by her father from infancy through to the age of 12. She said the abuse had left her “insane for 31 years”.
Anne was born in Aurora, Ohio, the youngest of five children born to Donald Heche, a choir director in fundamentalist churches, and his wife, Nancy (nee Prickett), whom Anne described as “eerily compliant”. The first-born child, Cynthia, died in infancy. The family moved 11 times during Anne’s childhood, often living on the charity of church members. Aged 12, Anne began working in a supper theatre in Ocean City, New Jersey; she was for a while the family’s main breadwinner.
When she was 13, her father died of Aids; Heche believed his hidden homosexuality was part of his life as a sexual predator. Three months after Donald’s death, Heche’s brother, Nathan, died when he crashed his car into a tree. Though his death was ruled an accident, Heche thought that Nathan had taken his own life, unable to bear his father’s legacy.
Nancy Heche moved the family to Chicago, where she became a Christian therapist and motivational speaker, advocating “overcoming” the sin of homosexuality. Anne studied at the progressive Francis Parker school in Chicago, and at 16 was spotted by an agent in a school play. After an audition, she was offered a part in the long-running daytime soap opera As the World Turns; but she turned it down as her mother insisted that she finish school first.
Shortly before her graduation Heche was offered a dual role in the soap Another World. Her mother again said no, but Heche, by now 18, left for New York, later writing: “I did my time with my mom in a one-bedroom, skanky apartment and I was done.”
For the remainder of her adult life she would be estranged from her mother and her elder sister Susan, who died in 2006 of brain cancer. Heche reconciled with her remaining sister, Abigail.
Heche’s playing of Vicky Hudson and Marley Love in Another World won her a daytime Emmy award in 1991; she moved on to guest roles in TV shows and TV movies. Her first feature film was The Adventures of Huck Finn (1993) and in 1995 she played Joan Chen’s lover in the straight-to-video Wild Side, whose writer-director David Cammell took his own life shortly after he saw the release version edited by the producers. Heche got good reviews for a co-starring part in the indy film Walking and Talking (1996), with Catherine Keener, and, in 1997, playing Johnny Depp’s wife in Donnie Brasco.
In the same year as Six Days, Seven Nights, she starred with Vince Vaughn in Return to Paradise and took the Janet Leigh role of Marion Crane in Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho, with Vaughn as Norman Bates, who kills her in the shower. Heche was a prospective saint alongside Ed Harris in Agnieszka Holland’s The Third Miracle (1999).
Feeling stymied after her split from DeGeneres, Heche appeared on the hit TV show Ally McBeal in 2001, then left Hollywood for Broadway. In 2002 she starred in David Auburn’s Pulitzer-winning play Proof, as the daughter of a mathematical genius who fears she has inherited both her father’s talent and his mental instability. But despite her fine notices, when the play was filmed in 2005 the lead went to Gwyneth Paltrow.
In 2004 she was nominated for a Tony award opposite Alec Baldwin in a revival of Twentieth Century, nominated for an Emmy for the TV movie Gracie’s Choice, and won a Saturn award as best actress in the sci-fi TV movie The Dead Will Tell.
She remained busy, playing leads in TV movies and parts in theatrical films that garnered good notices, notably as one of two sisters, both ex-wives of a cop (Woody Harrelson) in the otherwise disappointing Rampart (2011), written by James Ellroy, a foil to Colin Firth and Emily Blunt in Arthur Newman (2012), starring alongside Sandra Oh in the underrated Catfight (2016), which follows an on-going rivalry between two college classmates, and excellent in My Friend Dahmer (2017), as the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s mother.
In the meantime she starred in a string of TV series. In Men in Trees (2006-08) she was a New York City relationship coach who winds up in Elmo, Alaska. A mix of familiar tropes, it was notable because Heche began a relationship with her co-star James Tupper; their son, Atlas, was born in 2009, the same year her divorce from Laffoon was finalised. She and Tupper separated in 2018.
In Hung (2009-11), Heche played the ex-wife of a downtrodden basketball coach who becomes a gigolo. Save Me (2013) lasted seven episodes; she was a woman whose near-death experience turns her into a pipeline from God. In 2016 she starred in Aftermath, as part of a family fighting for post-apocalyptic survival, and in 2017 was deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in The Brave, in which she and her control team manipulate agents in the field.
Her most recent film, Wildfire, is due for release later this year, based on the hit song by Michael Martin Murphey, as the mother of the girl who, in the song, is lost searching in the snow for her pony. She also starred in the TV movie Girl in Room 13, due to premiere next month.
After a crash in Los Angeles on 5 August, in which her car caught fire, Heche was hospitalised and spent nearly a week in a coma before being declared legally dead under California law on 12 August. Life support was withdrawn two days later.
Heche is survived by her sons, Homer, from her marriage to Laffoon, and Atlas.
• Anne Celeste Heche, actor, born 25 May 1969; died 14 August 2022