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The Transformation Of Jane Kaczmarek From Malcolm In The Middle To Now

Over the course of its highly-rated seven-season run, creator Linwood Boomer's beloved sitcom about an endearing and strangely realistic lower-middle-class family, "Malcolm in the Middle," took home a whopping 46 awards, and was nominated for another 72. The decision to cast the always charismatic Bryan Cranston in the role of the family's quirky patriarch notwithstanding, it's safe to say that an enormous share of the series' charm and enduring appeal comes from the performance of the Wilkerson family matriarch — Lois — played by none other than Jane Kaczmarek. 

Prior to starring in "Malcolm in the Middle," Kaczmarek was already an accomplished theater and television actress, who'd landed recurring roles in everything from "The Paper Chase" to "Cybill" to "Party of Five" and "Felicity." And yet, despite her ability to slip into a range of roles, it was the real-life family experience she brought to the high-strung and often comedically overbearing Lois that made her character genuinely relatable to so many viewers. 

Here's what she's been up to since her hit show took its final bow.

As Lois Wilkerson, Kaczmarek was hilariously relatable

In a recent retrospective interview, Kaczmarek said, "I don't think I ever did anything as Lois that I couldn't see doing in real life." Without question, a large part of what made "Malcolm in the Middle" a success was that — like (the original) "Rosanne" before it — viewers saw themselves and their family in The Wilkersons. And if the material and the storylines felt real, it's because, to a degree, they were. As creator Linwood Boomer explained, "(The show) was easy to write because I knew the material ... a lot of those pieces in the pilot were pieces of my life. I'd spent a lot of time telling them as anecdotes — they were polished." 

On the other hand, he admitted that it was difficult at times to ensure the often unfunny business of his growing up still came off as funny. It was, after all, a sitcom. Boomer's solution to this was simple, and another element of the show that made it different from every other family sitcom on TV at the time: as Malcolm, Muniz frequently broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to the audience. "Having Malcolm talk to the camera freed me up emotionally and gave him a friend he could complain to who would be sympathetic," explained Boomer (The Independent).

The revolutionary show was a massive hit with both parents and their children, and while a few of its stars went on to land equally memorable and lauded — if wildly different — television roles (like Cranston on "Breaking Brad"), Kaczmarek charted a different course following the show's finale.

Jane Kaczmarek got all judgy for a while

Immediately following her success on "Malcolm in the Middle," Jane Kaczmarek starred opposite Ted Danson on ABC's short-lived comedy "Help Me Help You." The series revolved around the hilariously narcissistic therapist Dr. Bill Hoffman (Danson) and his eclectic menagerie of patients in group therapy. Kaczmarek played Hoffman's estranged wife Anne Hoffman in six episodes before the series was canceled, but quickly moved on to the role of ambitious judge Trudy Kessler on TNT's "Raising the Bar." 

Co-created by Steven Bochco (of "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" fame, the former of which Kaczmarek starred in for six episodes), "Raising the Bar" pitted a determined, idealistic public defender (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) against — essentially — the justice system in general. The series was more successful than "Help Me Help You," and ran for two full seasons before coming to rest in 2009. 

Although the role was a departure from comedy for Kaczmarek, she was still rocking the perfect side bangs and elongated "Rachel" that would characterize her look for the better portion of the early 2000s. During her time on the bench in "Raising the Bar," the actor was starring as yet another judge, albeit in a different form and genre entirely. From 2001 to 2010, Kaczmarek voiced the deliciously villainous, aptly-named, and Judge Judy-inspired character of Judge Constance Harm on "The Simpsons," a role she would follow up with a succession of TV movies and shorter series arcs before moving on to her next recurring role in 2014. 

Jane Kaczmarek in the TV role that wasn't, and the theatrical roles that were

Jane Kaczmarek's next endeavor — playing the character of Pam in Fox's remake of the British television series "Gavin & Stavey" — had all the elements necessary to become a major success. The series, entitled "Us & Them," paired "Gilmore Girls" and "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" phenomenon Alexis Bledel with "Parenthood" darling Jason Ritter, and boasted a veritable stamp collection of household names in comedy, including (in addition to Kaczmarek) Michael Ian Black, Kerri Kenney, and Jim Gaffigan. Moreover, Fox's competitors over at NBC had just enjoyed roughly a decade of success with their own British adaptation, "The Office." Unfortunately, Fox never ultimately aired the show. A season that was slated for 13 episodes was cut to just seven, none of which saw the light of day anywhere but on the niche streamer Crackle (via Television Obscurities).  

Despite the failure of "Us & Them," Kaczmarek's absence from (major) recurring television roles for the next few years had nothing to do with her lack of demand as an actor, and everything to do with her career on the stage. In addition to her well-known television characters, the actor has always enjoyed a prolific career in theater. In 2017, (prior to making a return to the big screen as Capt. Jande Lindel in the "CHIPS" reboot) she joined forces with her long-time stage partner Alfred Molina in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night." The two had teamed up for a number of other radio and theatrical performances, including "Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge" for the BBC, Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen," and Brian Friel's "Fathers and Sons" for LA Theatre Works (via The Boston Globe). 

Jane Kaczmarek was a whole different kind of mom on Playing House

While simultaneously starring in (and voicing characters for) a variety of plays and television shows from 2014-2017, Kaczmarek was also a common fixture on USA's "Playing House." It's safe to say her character on the USA comedy had an altogether different sort of "maternal instinct" than Lois Wilkerson. 

"Playing House" starred its co-creators and real-life friends Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham as best friends Emma Crawford and Maggie Caruso (respectively) who move in together to raise the newly-single Maggie's baby as a platonic team. As the assertive and wry Emma's (equally) assertive and wry mother Gwen, Kaczmarek was the exact opposite of the occasionally over-affectionate and over-protective mama bear she played on "Malcolm in the Middle." Gwen Crawford hides from her daughter in public, wears electric pink blazers with popped collars, writes poetry under the nom de plum Phylicia Rashad (a name she thinks she invented), drinks martinis in the middle of the day, and has more than a little difficulty bonding with her formerly estranged daughter. In other words, on the Lucille Bluth to Joan Cleaver scale, Gwen weighs in at around a 3.4. The character is a testament to Kaczmarek's versatility and range as a comedic (and dramatic) actor, especially considering that in her real life role as a mother, she's about as unlike Gwen Crawford as a mom can get.

In a 2017 interview with Broadway World, the seven-time Emmy nominee spoke at-length about her relative departure from TV, and her decision to transition more fully to working on stage. "I love being a mother," she told the outlet, "I love being here when they come home after school. I love being here in the morning when they wake up. Time of filming things is so much and it's usually out of town."

Jane Kaczmarek hasn't left acting, just television

Although she alluded to moving back to New York once her children were grown and out of the house, the actor made it clear she had little desire to return to TV. "I have bid adieu to my sitcom days," she said, adding that, "If there's something interesting in television that comes along in a few episodes, I would do it. But I would never do a television series again." 

Kaczmarek went on to explain that while she's "more content" in the theatre and finds the work she gets to do there "intellectually ... and emotionally stimulating," she also has the utmost appreciation for her former career in television: "It's been very, very, very, very good to me," she stressed, "and if I hadn't done it, I wouldn't be able to be doing what I want to do now, for the rest of my life" (via Broadway World).

In addition to raising her children and doing extensive work in the theater, Jane Kaczmarek was instrumental for many years in the now defunct Clothes Off Our Back Foundation, which she started with her then-husband, "The West Wing" actor Bradley Whitford. The foundation raised money for children's charities (including Feeding America, Hope North, and The Art of Elysium) by auctioning off stars' red carpet attire. According to a 2009 Success.com article, the sale of one dress that Jennifer Anniston wore to the Emmys (the year she beat out Kaczmarek for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series) "funded immunizations for 50,000 African children" (via Success).

Nowadays, the actor, philanthropist, mother, University of Wisconsin alum, and two-time Television Critic Association Awards winner for "Individual Achievement in Comedy" has ditched the shaggy sitcom-mom 'do in favor of jaw-droppingly stunning and oh-so-natural silvery waves. Whether it's the spectacular new look or the fact that the "Malcolm in the Middle" star is now spending her time how she wants, when she wants, and on the projects she wants, one thing is clear: Jane Kaczmarek is absolutely killing it, and it shows.