The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anne Heche, wide-ranging actress, dies at 53 after car crash

Actress Anne Heche was taken off life support on Aug. 14, after she was pronounced brain dead due to a severe car crash in Los Angeles nine days earlier. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/Reuters)
7 min

Anne Heche, an actress whose roles ranged from a stress-ball White House aide in “Wag the Dog” to a Bates Motel stabbing victim in a remake of “Psycho,” but who claimed she was “blacklisted” from major studio projects in the late 1990s after she and Ellen DeGeneres broke ground as a celebrity same-sex couple, was taken off life support on Aug. 14. She was 53.

Her death, at a hospital in Los Angeles, was confirmed by her publicist Holly Baird. Ms. Heche had been hospitalized after driving her vehicle into a house in the city’s Mar Vista neighborhood on Aug. 5. The car was engulfed in flames, and she was pulled from the vehicle with severe burns. According to a statement one of her representatives released Friday, she suffered a severe anoxic brain injury and was declared brain dead, and was kept on life support so that her organs could be donated.

An initial blood test found narcotics in her system, Los Angeles police spokesman Tony Im told The Washington Post on Thursday night, but a full toxicology report was pending to determine if any substance was related to medical treatments.

Ms. Heche (pronounced “haysh”) first gained acclaim in the 1990s in supporting roles such as the beleaguered wife of an undercover cop (played by Johnny Depp) in the 1997 crime drama “Donnie Brasco” and as a tightly wound presidential staffer in the political satire “Wag the Dog,” with Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, later that same year. She often used her wispy and sprite-like look to contrast the sharp edges of her dramatic characters and as a comedic asset while taking quirky roles in rom-coms and other films.

Anne Heche’s family and friends share their love, sorrow at her death

Her breakthrough came with leading parts in several films released in 1998, including “Six Days Seven Nights,” in which she played a New York journalist stranded on a deserted Pacific island with a small-plane pilot (Harrison Ford) and “Psycho,” in the role of embezzler Marion Crane, whose stabbing death in a shower, with blood circling the drain, gained a place in Hollywood fame for Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 original.

Ms. Heche claimed the film industry turned its back on her after her relationship with DeGeneres, a comedian who starred in the ABC sitcom “Ellen,” became public just as “Six Days” began shooting — although she praised Ford for standing by her and ensuring that she remained in the cast.

She insisted that opportunities for leading roles began to dry up because of the romance at a time when few celebrities who were gay felt comfortable openly discussing their sexuality. Ms. Heche, in a 2021 interview with the New York Post, said she felt like “patient zero in cancel culture.” DeGeneres’s “Ellen” was dropped after the show’s character — and the real DeGeneres — came out as gay. Advertisers fled, ratings slumped and DeGeneres went on to host “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” a long-running talk and variety program.

'Ellen made gay okay': TV host celebrates 20th anniversary of sitcom's coming-out episode

Ms. Heche and DeGeneres attended the 1997 premiere of “Volcano,” in which Ms. Heche played a scientist trying to save Los Angeles from lava after a volcanic eruption. Ms. Heche claimed executives from U.S. distributor Fox advised them not to attend as a couple. They soon became sought-after stars for fundraisers and rallies for same-sex equality.

Ms. Heche and DeGeneres announced plans in 1999 for a civil union in Vermont if the state legalized the partnership, but they ended their relationship the next year. Ms. Heche went on to marry cameraman Coleman “Coley” Laffoon in 2001. They divorced in 2009.

“I was part of a revolution that created a social change,” Ms. Heche told Mr. Warburton magazine in 2020, “and I could not have done that without falling in love with [DeGeneres].”

Ms. Heche at times made headlines for erratic behavior she attributed to psychological problems caused by her father, an organist and choir leader whom she accused of sexually abusing her. Ms. Heche’s mother, Nancy, and sister Abigail denied any such abuse took place. (Ms. Heche’s father died in 1983 from what she described as AIDS-related causes.)

In August 2000, Ms. Heche wandered into the desert outside Fresno, Calif., reportedly wearing only a bra, shorts and sneakers, and ended up knocking on the door of a house. Police were eventually called and Ms. Heche, according to television station KSEE, offered a rambling statement that included references to traveling to heaven on a spaceship.

In her 2001 memoir, “Call Me Crazy,” she described creating alter egos, including one as a half sister of Jesus Christ named “Celestia,” as a way to deal with her inner demons. On CNN’s “Larry King Live” in 2001, she said she felt “insane” for 31 years before finding “peace and balance.” Not even her therapist knew of her struggles, she said.

“I was raised to always tell everybody that everything was fine,” she said, “and even though I was in therapy for years, I never told anybody that I had another personality. I never told anybody that I heard voices and spoke to God. I never told anybody any of it.”

Lean times

Anne Celeste Heche was born in Aurora, Ohio, on May 25, 1969, and was the youngest of five children in a family that, by Ms. Heche’s accounts, moved frequently and often scraped by with barely enough money for rent and necessities.

She told the Daily Telegraph that when she was 12, the family was forced to live for a time in a single room in the home of a member of their church congregation in Ocean City, N.J. During that time, she found a job at a hamburger stand on the boardwalk.

“That’s where I first became an actress,” she recounted to Suburban Life magazine. “I literally started singing for my supper, right on the boardwalk. I would flip burgers and sing show tunes to get people to come to our stand.”

After she moved to Chicago as a teenager, an agent spotted Ms. Heche in a play at the Francis W. Parker School and asked to bring her to New York for daytime soap opera auditions. Her mother insisted she finish high school, Ms. Heche recalled.

A day after graduation, she landed a dual role on NBC’s “Another World” playing identical twins Vicky Hudson (sinister) and Marley Love (upstanding) from 1987 to 1991.

Ms. Heche was rarely without a role or project since the 1990s, appearing in dozens of films and TV shows and several Broadway productions including opposite Alec Baldwin in “Twentieth Century.” She was nominated for a 2004 Tony Award for best actress in a play for her role as a narcissistic and glamorous leading lady.

She appeared in many independent films. In 2004, Ms. Heche played a supporting role in “Birth” alongside Nicole Kidman, about a woman who believes her dead husband is reincarnated as a 10-year-old boy. In the 2016 dark comedy “Catfight,” Ms. Heche and Sandra Oh portray quarrelsome rivals locked in a lifetime of dirty tricks and grudge settling.

In addition to Ms. Heche’s mother and sister, survivors include a son, Homer, from her marriage to Laffoon, and another son, Atlas, from a relationship with actor James Tupper.

In a life marked by difficulty, Ms. Heche expressed enduring regret that she had never had the opportunity to attend college. But she found satisfaction and fulfillment in her work.

“My training ground in school was in the best acting school,” she said in an interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 2000. “There’s nothing better than working five days a week and being in front of the camera every day.”