Hershey won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries/TV Film for her role in A Killing in a Small Town (1990). She has also received Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mary Magdalene in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and for her role in Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady (1996). For the latter film, she was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress. In addition, she has won two Best Actress awards at the Cannes Film Festival for her roles in Shy People (1987) and A World Apart (1988). She was also featured in Woody Allen's critically acclaimed Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), for which she was nominated for the British Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and Garry Marshall's melodrama Beaches (1988), and she earned a second British Academy Award nomination for Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010).
Establishing a reputation early in her career as a "hippie", Hershey experienced conflict between her personal life and her acting goals. Her career suffered a decline during a six-year relationship with actor David Carradine, with whom she had a child. She experimented with a change in stage name that she later regretted. During this time, her personal life was highly publicized and ridiculed. Her acting career was not well established until she separated from Carradine and changed her stage name back to Hershey. Later in her career, she began to keep her personal life private.
Barbara Herzstein was born in Hollywood, the daughter of Arnold Nathan Herzstein (1906-1981), a horse-racing columnist, and Melrose Herzstein (née Moore) (1917-2008). Her father's parents were Jews who had emigrated from Hungary and Russia respectively, while her mother, a native of Arkansas, was a Presbyterian of Irish descent.
The youngest of three children, Barbara always wanted to be an actress, and her family nicknamed her "Sarah Bernhardt." She was shy in school and so quiet that people thought she was deaf. By the age of 10, she proved herself to be an "A" student. Her high-school drama coach helped her find an agent, and in 1965, at age 17, she landed a role on Sally Field's television series Gidget. Barbara said that she found Field to be very supportive of her in her first acting role. According to The New York Times All Movie Guide, Barbara graduated from Hollywood High School in 1966, but David Carradine, in his autobiography, said she dropped out of high school after she began acting.
Hershey's acting debut, three episodes of Gidget, was followed by the short-lived television series The Monroes (1966), which also featured Michael Anderson, Jr. By this point, she had adopted the stage name "Barbara Hershey". Although Hershey said the series helped her career, she expressed some frustration with her role, saying: "One week I was strong, the next, weak". While on the series, Hershey garnered several other roles, including one in Doris Day's final feature film, With Six You Get Eggroll.
In 1969, Hershey co-starred in the Glenn Ford Western Heaven with a Gun. On the set, she met and began a romantic relationship with actor David Carradine, who later starred in the television series Kung Fu (see Personal life). In the same year, she acted in the controversial drama Last Summer, which was based on Evan Hunter's eponymous novel. In this film, Hershey played Sandy, the "heavy" who influences two young men (played by Bruce Davison and Richard Thomas) to rape another girl, Rhoda (played by Catherine Burns). Though the film, directed by Frank Perry, received an X rating for the graphic rape scene, Burns earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance.
During the filming of Last Summer, a seagull was killed. "In one scene," Hershey explained, "I had to throw the bird in the air to make her fly. We had to reshoot the scene over and over again. I could tell the bird was tired. Finally, when the scene was finished, the director, Frank Perry, told me the bird had broken her neck on the last throw." Hershey felt responsible for the bird's death and changed her stage name to "Seagull" as a tribute to the creature. "I felt her spirit enter me," she later explained. "It was the only moral thing to do." The name change was not positively received. When she was offered a part opposite Timothy Bottoms in The Crazy World of Julius Vrooder (1974) (or Vrooder's Hooch), Hershey had to forfeit half her salary, $25,000, to be billed under the name "Seagull" because the producers were not in favor of the billing.
In 1970, Hershey played Tish Grey in The Baby Maker, a film that explored surrogate motherhood. Criticizing the directing and writing of James Bridges, critic Shirley Rigby said of the "bizarre" film, "Only the performances in the film save it from being a total travesty." Rigby went on to say, "Barbara Hershey is a great little actress, much, much more than just another pretty face."
Hershey once said that starring in Boxcar Bertha (1972) "was the most fun I ever had on a movie." The film, co-starring Hershey's domestic partner, David Carradine, and produced by Roger Corman, was Martin Scorsese's first Hollywood picture. Shot in six weeks on a budget of $600,000, Boxcar Bertha was intended to be a period crime drama similar to Corman's Bloody Mama (1970) or Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Although Corman publicized it as an exploitation piece with plenty of sex and violence, Scorsese's influence made it "something much more." Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote of the film's direction, "Martin Scorsese has gone for mood and atmosphere more than for action, and his violence is always blunt and unpleasant—never liberating and exhilarating, as the New Violence is supposed to be." A spread recreating sexually explicit scenes from the movie appeared in Playboy magazine in 1972.
Hershey's experience with Scorsese was extended to another major role for her 16 years later in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) as Mary Magdalene. During the filming of Boxcar Bertha, Hershey had introduced Scorsese to the Nikos Kazantzakis novel on which the latter film was based. That collaboration resulted in an Academy Award nomination for the director and a Golden Globe nod for Hershey.
By the mid 1970s, Hershey concluded, "I've been so tied up with David [Carradine] that people have forgotten that I am me. I spend 50 percent of my time working with David." She had, in 1974, guest-starred in a two-part episode of Carradine's television series Kung Fu. She played, under the direction of Carradine, a love interest to his character, Kwai Chang Caine, during his time at the Shaolin temple. She also appeared in two of Carradine's independent directorial projects, You and Me (1975) and Americana (1983), both of which had been filmed in 1973. Her father, Arnold Herzstein, also appeared in Americana.
She publicly acknowledged the desire to be recognized in her own right. Later, in 1974, she did just that, winning a Gold Medal at the Atlanta Film Festival for her role in the Dutch-produced film Love Comes Quietly.
Later in the decade, Hershey starred with Charlton Heston in The Last Hard Men (1976). She hoped the film would revive her career after the damage she felt it had suffered while she was with Carradine, believing that the hippie label she had been given was a career impediment. By this time, she had shed Carradine and her "Seagull" pseudonym. Throughout the rest of the 1970s, however, she was appearing in made-for-TV movies that were described as "forgettable," like Flood! (1976), Sunshine Christmas (1977), and The Glitter Palace (1977), in which she played a lesbian.
Hershey landed a role in Richard Rush's The Stunt Man (1980), marking a return to the big screen after four years and earning her critical praise. Hershey felt that she would be forever in debt to Rush for fighting with financiers to allow her a part in that film. She also felt The Stunt Man was an important transition for her, from playing girls to playing women.
Some of the "women roles" that followed The Stunt Man included the horror movie The Entity (1982); Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff (1983), in which she played Glennis Yeager, wife of test pilot Chuck Yeager; and The Natural (1984), in which she shot Robert Redford's character, inspired by a real-life incident where Ruth Ann Steinhagen shot ballplayer Eddie Waitkus. For the role of Harriet Bird, Hershey had chosen a particular hat as her "anchor". Director Barry Levinson disagreed with her choice, but she insisted on wearing it. Levinson later cast Hershey as the wife of Danny DeVito's character in the comedy Tin Men (1987).
In 1986, Hershey left her native California and moved with her son to Manhattan. Three days later, she met briefly with Woody Allen, who offered her the role of Lee in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). In addition to a Manhattan apartment, Hershey bought an antique home in rural Connecticut. The Allen picture won three Academy Awards and a Golden Globe. The film also earned Hershey a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She described her part as "a wonderful gift."
Hershey followed Hannah and Her Sisters with back-to-back wins for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for Shy People and for her appearance as anti-apartheid activist Diana Roth in A World Apart (1988). Her character in the latter film was based on Ruth First. Also in the 1980s, she portrayed Errol Flynn's first wife, actress Lili Damita, in the TV movie My Wicked, Wicked Ways: The Legend of Errol Flynn (1985), which was based on Flynn's autobiography. She also played the love interest to Gene Hackman's character in the basketball film Hoosiers (1986).
Barbara Cloud of the Pittsburgh Press gave attribution to Hershey for starting a trend when she had collagen injected into her lips for her role in Beaches (1988). Humorist Erma Bombeck said of the movie, which also starred Bette Midler, "I have no idea what Beaches was all about. All I could focus on was Barbara Hershey's lips. She looked like she stopped off at a gas station and someone said, 'Your lips are down 30 pounds. Better let me hit 'em with some air.'"
In 1990, Hershey won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Special for her role as Candy Morrison in A Killing in a Small Town, which was based on Candy Montgomery's acquittal for the death of Betty Gore. Montgomery had killed Gore on Friday, June 13, 1980, in Gore's Wylie, Texas, home, by hitting her 41 times with an ax. The jury determined that she did so in self-defense. In preparation for the part, Hershey had a phone conversation with Montgomery. Many of the names of the real-life principals in the case were changed for the movie. The film's alternative title was Evidence of Love, the name of a 1984 book about the case.
Also in 1990, Hershey drew upon what Woody Allen once described as her "erotic overtones," portraying a woman who falls in love with her much younger nephew, by marriage, played by Keanu Reeves, in the comedic Tune in Tomorrow.
In 1991, Hershey played Hanna Trout, the wife of the title character in Paris Trout (1991), a made-for-cable television movie. In this Showtime production, Hershey collaborated again with A Killing in a Small Town director Stephen Gyllenhaal to play a woman who has an affair with her husband's lawyer. Her husband, an abusive bigot (played by Dennis Hopper), is on trial for murdering a young African American girl. The film, which was based on Pete Dexter's 1988 National Book Award-winning novel, featured Hopper and Hershey enacting a graphic rape scene that the actress found difficult to view. The picture was described as a "dramatic reach deep into the dark hollows of racism, abuse and murder." Paris Trout was nominated for five Prime Time Emmy Awards, including nods for both Hershey and Hopper.
Later in the year, Hershey played an attorney defending her college roommate for the murder of her husband in the suspenseful whodunit Defenseless (1991).
Because of her frequent television appearances, by the end of 1991, Hershey was accused of "selling out to the small screen." In 1992, Hershey appeared with Jane Alexander in the ABC miniseries Stay the Night (1992), prompting Associated Press writer Jerry Buck to write, "Barbara Hershey is a person who jumps back and forth between features and television very easily." She starred in another TV miniseries in 1993, succeeding Anjelica Huston as Clara Allen in the sequel series Return to Lonesome Dove. She was nominated for a Golden Satellite Award for another TV appearance, The Staircase (1998). Between 1999 and 2000, she played Dr. Francesca Alberghetti in 22 season-six episodes of the medical TV drama Chicago Hope.
Hershey co-starred with Joe Pesci as a nightclub owner in the film drama The Public Eye (1992) and as the estranged wife of homicidal Michael Douglas in the thriller Falling Down (1993). Among the other feature films in which she appeared during the 1990s was Jane Campion's adaptation of the Henry James novel The Portrait of a Lady (1996). Hershey earned an Oscar nomination and won the Best Supporting Actress award from the National Society of Film Critics for her role as Madame Serena Merle in that picture. In 1995, Last of the Dogmen, co-starring Tom Berenger, was released through Savoy Pictures. In 1999, Hershey starred in an independent film called Drowning on Dry Land; during production she met co-star Naveen Andrews, with whom she began a romantic relationship that lasted until 2010.
In 2001, Hershey appeared in the psychological thriller Lantana. She was the only American in a mostly Australian cast, which included Kerry Armstrong, Anthony LaPaglia, and Geoffrey Rush. Film writer Sheila Johnson said the film was "one of the best to emerge from Australia in years." Another thriller followed: 11:14 (2003) also featured Rachael Leigh Cook, Patrick Swayze, Hilary Swank, and Colin Hanks.
Hershey continued to appear on television during the 2000s, including a season on the series The Mountain. She also starred as Anne Shirley as an adult in Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning (2008), the fourth in a series of made-for-TV films based on the character, taking over the role from Megan Follows.
Hershey appeared as an American actress, Mrs. Hubbard, in an adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express for the British television series Poirot (starring David Suchet), which aired in the United States on Public Broadcast Service in July 2010. Also in 2010, Hershey co-starred in Darren Aronofsky's acclaimed psychological thriller Black Swan (2010) opposite Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. The following year, she co-starred in the James Wan horror film Insidious (2011). From 2012 to 2013, she had a recurring role in the first two seasons of ABC's hit drama Once Upon a Time as Cora, the Queen of Hearts and mother of the Evil Queen. In 2014, she reprised the role in one episode of the show's spin-off Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. In 2015, she once more reprised the role when she returned to the show for an episode of its fourth season, and in 2016, she appeared again for two episodes of the show's fifth season, most notably its landmark 100th episode. In A&E's new series Damien, Hershey portrayed series regular Ann Rutledge, the world's most powerful woman, who has been given the task to make sure Damien fulfills his destiny as the Antichrist. The role marks Hershey's latest TV gig following Once Upon a Time, The Mountain, Chicago Hope, and Lifetime's Left to Die TV movie.
In 1969, Hershey met David Carradine while they were working on Heaven With a Gun. The pair began a domestic relationship that lasted until 1975. Carradine said that during the rape scene in that movie, he cracked one of Barbara's ribs. They appeared in other films together including Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha. In 1972, the couple posed together in a nude Playboy spread, recreating some sex scenes from Boxcar Bertha. Later in 1972, Hershey gave birth to their son, Free, who changed his name to Tom when he was nine years old. The relationship fell apart around the time of Carradine's 1974 burglary arrest, after he had begun an affair with Season Hubley, who had guest-starred in Kung Fu.
During this period, Hershey changed her stage name to "Seagull". In 1979, a blunt newspaper article from the Knight News Service referenced this period of her life, saying of her acting career that "it looked as if she blew it." The article referred to Hershey as a "kook" and stated that she was frequently "high on something." In addition to that criticism, she had been ostracized for breast-feeding her son during an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, and for breast-feeding him beyond the age of two years. She said that this period of her life hurt her career; "Producers wouldn't see me because I had a reputation for using drugs and being undependable. I never used drugs at all and I have always been serious about my acting career." After splitting up with Carradine, she changed her stage name back to "Hershey", explaining that she had told the story of why she adopted the name "Seagull" so many times that it had lost its meaning.
By the time Hershey was 42, she was described by columnist Luaina Lee as a "private person who was mired in some heavy publicity when she first became a professional actress." Yardena Arar, writing for the Los Angeles Daily News, confirmed that Hershey had become a private person by 1990.
On August 8, 1992, Hershey married artist Stephen Douglas. The ceremony took place at her home in Oxford, Connecticut, where the only guests were their two mothers and Hershey's then 19-year-old son, Tom (né Free) Carradine. The couple separated and divorced one year after the wedding.
Hershey began dating actor Naveen Andrews in 1999. During a brief separation in 2005, Andrews fathered a child with another woman. In May 2010, after Andrews won sole custody of his son, the couple announced that they had ended their 10-year relationship six months earlier.
Hershey has residences in Los Angeles, Hawaii, New York, and Connecticut.