As one of Hollywood’s top-paid actresses by 2016, Melissa McCarthy has a direct line to millions of funny bones across the world. While she’s gained notoriety on the small screen — playing Gilmore Girls’ adorable chef, Sookie St. James, and as the eponymous lead of Mike & Molly — it’s been her larger-than-life film roles and devotion to character that’s cemented her amongst the comedy greats. McCarthy’s portrayal of the gruff and occasionally sexually deviant bridesmaid, Megan, in 2011’s Bridesmaids earned her a rare Academy Award nomination for a comedic role. It set the precedent for a string of blockbuster hits for the star, who was 41 when the Paul Feig flick hit theaters.
McCarthy’s career may have gone through a number of changes since she got her start in the Los Angeles comedy scene, but her knack for inspiring laughs has only strengthened. Aside from her robust filmography, this multi-talent has inspired a generation of women to look beyond the superficial to what really matters. “It’s still just me,” McCarthy told InStyle of dealing with her Hollywood success. “I’ve fully embraced it in terms of it can all go away as fast as it came. I know that, and I’ve seen it happen. I do feel like I work 500 percent on everything … If this all goes away and I didn’t try, I’d be, like, the dumbest idiot on earth.”
From childhood to superstardom, let’s dive into the transformation of Melissa McCarthy.
Melissa McCarthy was a goofball from the beginning
Born in Plainfield, Ill. in 1970 to “Irish-Catholic farmers” Michael and Sandra McCarthy, per Biography, Melissa McCarthy has stayed close to her humble beginnings throughout her showbiz success. As her husband, actor-filmmaker Ben Falcone, told WSJ Magazine in 2019, she’s still “very Midwestern.”
Melissa, who’s cousins with actress-model Jenny McCarthy (they’re reportedly “not very close”), was especially close with older sister Margie growing up, since the family lived in an isolated farm town. “I was bored. I had no neighbors, I had no kids to play with,” she explained on The Howard Stern Show. “I’d be, like, running around the barn pretending I was a detective or something.” Of her high school self, Melissa once told Anderson Cooper (via People), “I was super preppy, and by the end [of high school, I had] blue black hair that I’d shave in patches.”
Her mother, who used to work at World Book Encyclopedia and First Midwest Bank, was “really solid in her shoes” as a matriarch, Melissa told People in 2018. Noting that Sandra’s example was “one of the greatest gifts [she] got from her,” it seems Melissa inherited her comedic sensibilities from overhearing Comedy Central and The Carol Burnett Show in the living room, as well as watching her “really funny” dad in action. A Belt Railway Company of Chicago arbitrator, Melissa recalled Michael popping out of corners in pranks that were “really elaborate and probably semi-dangerous” during a Gilmore Girls press interview.
Sookie St. James brought comedic relief to Gilmore Girls
Considering she had already made a name for herself in the Los Angeles comedy scene by the late ’90s, it was only a matter of time before Melissa McCarthy took on television. After a cameo appearance on cousin Jenny McCarthy’s short-lived sitcom, Jenny, as well as a recurring spot on D.C., Melissa landed her breakout role of Sookie St. James in The WB’s Gilmore Girls in 2000. As the best friend and eventual hotel business partner to star Lauren Graham’s character, Lorelei Gilmore, Melissa appears in most of the original series’ 153 episodes, growing in her onscreen relationship with simple and sweet farmer Jackson Belleville (Jackson Douglas) and as a chef.
Sookie — and Melissa’s humble and humorous portrayal of the character — were integral pieces of the hit dramedy, although creator Amy Sherman-Palladino had a much different vision for the part. According to Screen Rant, actress Alex Borstein was originally cast and filmed the unaired pilot, but had to drop out due to her MAD TV commitments. Melissa was then chosen as her replacement. Sherman-Palladino also later revealed to HuffPost that Sookie “was originally supposed to be gay, but that was a non-starter [for the network] at that time.”
While E! reported Melissa was not initially approached for 2016’s reunion, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, she reprised her role in the nick of time with a short but sweet cameo.
Melissa McCarthy married her comedy troupe sweetheart
Melissa McCarthy cannot keep her hands off husband Ben Falcone on the big screen — whether she’s destroying his fast food restaurant in Tammy or inviting his flight marshal character to join the Mile High Club in Bridesmaids. However, the couple’s onscreen chemistry can be attributed to their romantic roots onstage, where they met as part of the Los Angeles comedy troupe Groundlings in 1998 (via Fatherly), and later tied the knot in 2005.
According to Falcone’s Groundlings bio, they went on to form their own company, On the Day Productions. In addition to Tammy, this husband-wife duo have produced films like The Boss and Life of the Party, for which they assisted in writing while Falcone also directed. The two comedian-actors might love creating magic in front of the camera — Falcone has made cameos in all McCarthy’s films since Bridesmaids — but apart from work, their family life is fairly low-key. They have two daughters together, Vivian and Georgette, inspiring Falcone to lovingly reflect on their family in his 2017 memoir, Being a Dad is Weird.
“I think it’s important to just teach them at a really young age: Look after your own stuff. Think about other people … Our girls are really good at doing that,” Falcone told Fatherly in May 2020. McCarthy echoed the wonderment in their children, previously telling Us Weekly that she “had to push almost 30 to get their kind of confidence.”
Melissa McCarthy did Mike & Molly for the right reasons
In 2010, Melissa McCarthy won the role of Molly Flynn in CBS sitcom Mike & Molly alongside Billy Gardell. The show follows a couple who fall in love after meeting at an Overeaters Anonymous group. While McCarthy told The Guardian in 2016 that she’s “been every size in the world, from a six to a 22,” she was cautious about doing a show touching on body image.
“I just don’t find [jokes about weight] funny,” the actress previously told People, noting that “weight wasn’t the topic” but merely “a slice of the pie” on the series. McCarthy responded firmly yet graciously when a 2010 Marie Claire column wrote the sitcom off as “fat people making out on TV,” telling People, “It was so unkind … At a different point in my life, it would’ve crushed me. But it didn’t.” The author later amended the article to apologize for its “insensitive” and “unproductive” comments.
Mike & Molly was a hit, scoring McCarthy her first Emmy Award nomination and win for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series in 2011. The show ran for six seasons. Upon its 2015 cancelation, McCarthy tweeted that she was “shocked and heartbroken” by the news, adding she “would have shot this show for 50 more years.” With its frank representation, Deadline reports that it played “an important role in helping American audiences accept a show that might not fit the traditional TV star mold.”
Melissa McCarthy stole the show in a blockbuster comedy
Even more so than Gilmore Girls, Melissa McCarthy’s true breakout moment was as Megan Price in 2011’s Bridesmaids. As part of Maya Rudolph’s character’s bridal party, she was a standout in every scene — whether plotting to climb a man “like a tree” or sitting over the sink during a bout of food poisoning, yelling, “It’s comin’ outta me like lava!” McCarthy’s buck wild performance scored her nominations at the Oscars, BAFTA Film Awards, and Screen Actors Guild Awards, and was part of the hit movie’s success: Taking in over $288 million worldwide, it surpassed Sex and the City as the highest-grossing rated R female comedy of all time (via The Hollywood Reporter).
While director Paul Feig told GQ in 2011 that McCarthy nailed her audition, she initially felt that she might have blown it by going too far. Wearing “no makeup and a bad pant” (via GQ), she later told Rolling Stone in 2017 that she “could not have been any weirder,” improvising a story about “handplay with a dolphin.” But as her husband, Ben Falcone, explained to GQ, “Melissa will do anything to get a laugh. It’s pathological.” And her dedication to the role showed, all the way up to the credits, when McCarthy’s character shows Air Marshal John (Falcone) her “bear sandwich.”
McCarthy’s sense of humor certainly had its moments on Gilmore Girls, but as co-star Rudolph said of her Bridesmaids performance to GQ, “I secretly delighted in knowing that vintage McCarthy was about to be unleashed upon the world.”
Melissa McCarthy elevated the buddy comedy
It was clear that comedy found its new heroine when Bridesmaids became Knocked Up and Superbad producer Judd Apatow’s highest-grossing film (via The Hollywood Reporter). After a cameo in Apatow’s This is 40, Melissa McCarthy’s next movie was 2013’s Identity Thief, starring alongside Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman. Her character, Diana, is a Slurpee-sipping con artist who steals the identity of Bateman’s Sandy, taking them on a cross-country journey to right her wrong. The duo’s chemistry was magic: Even though the film was critically panned, it grossed over $173 million worldwide on a $35 million budget.
McCarthy performed many stunts for the flick, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “Anything that I thought I could do, I was like ‘I’ll give that a try’ and at night, I was like ‘What have I done?'” However, her stunt skills came in handy later that year for The Heat, in which she plays the rough-around-the-edges cop partnered with Sandra Bullock’s no-nonsense agent. McCarthy teamed up with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig again for this buddy cop comedy, which took in nearly $230 million at the global box office.
Her secret to comedy, McCarthy explained to Collider in 2013, is grounding her characters in reality despite their over-the-top antics. Of herself and Bullock, she added, “We had no interest in making [a movie with] two wacky cops that are bad at their job and they’re fighting over lipstick in the car.”
Melissa McCarthy’s empire continues to grow
After proving herself as a comedian, dramatic actress, fashion designer, and mother, the world is truly Melissa McCarthy’s oyster. While her career only started to truly skyrocket in 2011, it was the product of years of hard work and a journey that gave her a husband, two beautiful daughters, and a ton of perspective. “I think I would have been probably cuckoo [if I’d been successful] at 18,” McCarthy, who turned 50 in 2020, admitted to Glamour. “I think the best thing I could have done was struggle until I was 30.”
Heading into the 2020s, McCarthy and Falcone both had their hands full with a stacked line-up of projects through On the Day Productions, including Thunder Force (a superhero film for Netflix reportedly starring McCarthy and Octavia Spencer), the action and comedy flick Superintelligence for HBO Max, and The Starling. According to Deadline, Netflix reportedly paid almost $20 million for the rights to the drama, which will star McCarthy and fellow Bridesmaids co-star Chris O’Dowd as a couple trying to fix their relationship.
If there’s anything that McCarthy — who was previously spotted at a 99-Cent Store buying art supplies for her daughters — has shown us, it’s that she’s just as grounded as her characters … and just as set on cracking us up, too.