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A Billionaire Father, a Fear of Separation and a Fight for Her Life: Inside Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Private World

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When Julia Louis-Dreyfus took the stage to accept her fifth consecutive Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy for her work in Veep in 2016, not only did she make history by breaking the record she’d previously shared with Candace Bergen and Mary Tyler Moore for most wins in the category, she also used the moment to break the news to the world that her beloved father had passed away only two days prior.Immediately, confused fans who’d apparently never seen how either actor’s name is actually spelled began tweeting messages of sympathy at Richard Dreyfuss.”I’m actually not Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ father. But I really appreciate all the concerned tweets,” the Close Encounters of the Third Kind star was forced to tweet, immediately going viral. And the whole confusing notion of tweeting at someone you believe to be dead aside—not to mention the fact that he would’ve been only 14 on the day of her birth, January 13, 1961—the logic wasn’t too far off. More often than not, when actors share a last name, they’re a part of the same Hollywood dynasty.And while the idea of the iconic actress as part of one such dynasty would’ve made for a fine section in her biography, in reality, her true lineage, courtesy of the man whom she actually lost on that September night over two years ago, is even wilder.

When the comedic tour-de-force was born 58 years ago, it was to Judith, her American-born mother, and Gerard Louis-Dreyfus, her French-born father known to his family as William. And it is William and his family history that is truly the stuff of legend. In 1851, Julia’s paternal great-great-grandfather Leopold founded the Louis Dreyfus Group, a French commodities and shipping conglomerate that members of her family still sit on the board of. Her grandfather Pierre flew 81 missions over the Western Front for the French Resistance during World War II before taking over the family company with his brothers. He drove a race car in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s oldest active sports car race, which requires the endurance to drive for a full day. He had two children, Gerard and Dominique, before divorcing her and having two more with his second wife. He lived to be 102.”He was deaf and he didn’t have any teeth when we went to see him, and he was screaming at his butler—the kids got a kick out of that,” the actress recalled The New Yorker in December of last year. “But he was an incredibly handsome, dashing fellow, as was my father. They were both very dashing, tiny Frenchmen.”

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From 1969 to 2006, Julia’s father, who began going by William when he was a teenager shortly after his mother brought him and his sister to the United States, led the family business, driving its expansion into real estate, natural gas, and telecommunications. Per their website, they are active in more than 100 countries worldwide and, according to their 2015 annual report, the company took in $55.7 billion in revenue that year alone. Yes, you read that right.”He saved the company,” she told the publication. “But the reports of my father’s wealth are, in fact, greatly exaggerated in the press. He’s referred to as a billionaire, and I’m referred to by some heinous term like ‘billionaire heiress.’ It’s incorrect! My father—unfortunately—was never a billionaire. Far from it.”However much she may protest otherwise, there’s no doubt that on a scale from billionaire to peasant, William’s amassed fortunes certainly tipped much closer to the former than any of the rest of us ever might. (In 2006, Forbes estimated his net worth to be at $3.4 billion.) An avid art collector, he’d cultivated a collection of works that’s been valued at $50 million dollars, leaving the bulk of the collection in a trust to benefit the educational programs of the Harlem Children’s Zone. A true renaissance man, William was a poet, serving as chairman of the Poetry Society of America for 10 years, and a lawyer, having graduated from Duke University’s School of Law.

When Julia was just one year old, Judith and William split up, divorcing shortly thereafter. “I don’t have a memory of them together,” she admitted. When she was five, her mother got remarried to a surgeon named Tom Bowles, whom she called Daddy Tom. Daddy William had ready remarried a year earlier. When she was seven, she moved with Judith to Sri Lanka for a year so that Daddy Tom could work with Project HOPE, an international health care organization. “It was very exotic,” Judith told The New Yorker. “We were up in the mountains in the old capital. It was a way of life that was so entirely different from anything we’d known in New York. Unbeknownst to me was how much she missed her dad, William, during that time. It was very hard for Julia.”When they returned, settling in Washington, D.C., Julia was forced to learn to straddle two very different worlds. She lived with her mom, Daddy Tom, and, eventually half-sisters Amy and Lauren during the week. On weekends, she would visit Daddy William and his new family, which would eventually come to include two more half-sisters, Phoebe and Emma, at his home in Mount Kisco, New York. “The discrepancy was hard, because I was straddling two universes,” Julia said, adding that her father’s wealth made her feel “sort of ashamed” around her sisters Lauren and Amy, who only knew the decidedly upper-middle-class life Daddy Tom and Judith were providing for them. “I used to come home from Christmas and hide presents in the closet, because I didn’t want them to see,” she said.”To Laurie and to Amy, he was sort of Daddy Warbucks up there,” Judith added. “We certainly were not poor people, but by contrast there was a huge chasm.”

It didn’t help that she looked nothing like the people she spent most of her time with. “My two sisters with whom I grew up were very blond and very gorgeous, and I always felt sort of like they were so beautiful I didn’t fit in with them,” Julia said, noting that her dark, unruly curls were quite a source of angst growing up. “I didn’t think of myself as Jewish growing up,” she added, “except people always thought that I was because of my last name, so I kind of identified. But I did think of myself as the ugly duckling in the group.”Growing up, she and her friends in the neighborhood formed their own theater group, which they called the University Players, and they would perform in Julia’s basement. The group included her next-door neighbor Margaret Edson, who went on to take home the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999 for her play Wit. “We just lost ourselves in these improvised plays and the performances,” Edson told The Washington Post last year. “We had a game called town, and it would all be people in the town, and we had an inside game called office, and it would be people in the office, and we would just stay in it for hours, and I think it’s just because she was so good.”But it was at all-girls Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland that she began to truly develop her love for acting, not to mention crafting her into the woman she is today.

“There were things I did in school that, had there been boys in the classroom, I would have been less motivated to do. For instance, I was president of the honor society,” she told Capitol File magazine in 2011.  “Any play that was ever put on at Holton, I was a part of.”It’s also where she learned that she loved to make people laugh. “I was in some silly show, and I was supposed to faint,” she told The Washington Post, recalling her first time on stage in fourth grade. “I was a queen, and it wasn’t meant to be funny, but I fainted, and everybody laughed, and I remember thinking, ‘I didn’t know why they laughed but I liked how they laughed.'”In 1979, she enrolled at Northwestern University in Chicago, where she immediately began auditioning and was cast in the “Mee-Ow Show,” which she described to The New Yorker as “the comedy show on campus.” “It was the seminal moment in my life,” she added. “I remember thinking, Oh, this feels like something huge. And it was something huge: everything came from that.”She wasn’t kidding.

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Through her work in the show, she was asked to join an upstart theater troupe founded by, among others, a Northwestern dropout by the name of Brad Hall. Calling themselves the Practical Theatre Company, the four-person group began putting on a show they called “The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee.” Performances of the show in its 150-seat theater in Chicago’s Piper’s Alley, behind the famed Second City, grew in popularity very quickly and word traveled to some very important people out east. Upon the recommendation of Tim Kazurinsky, then a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, the show’s producer at the time Dick Ebersol—this was during the five fallow years in the early ’80s when creator Lorne Michaels was not involved with his baby—took in a performance and hired all four right on the spot.Elated at landing the dream gig with such ease, Julia dropped out after her junior year and moved to New York. It was there that she and her compatriots discovered that the dream wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. “It was a very dog-eat-dog environment,” she recalled. “I didn’t go in armed with a bag of characters from which to pluck. I came into it naïvely, with this notion that it would be ensemble work, and that writers would be trying to write for everyone. But it was very political and very male-centric. Very.”

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Luckily, she had Brad by her side. From their early days working together, Julia was taken with him. “He was gorgeous,” she said. “He looked like Björn Borg or something. I remember thinking early on that this was the guy for me, but I didn’t dare tell anyone, for fear they would say, ‘That’s ridiculous. You’re so young—you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ So I kept that little secret close to my heart.” After two years working on the show together, however, Brad was let go and Julia began feeling even more isolated than before. The lone bright spot? A writer she’d developed a friendship with by the name of Larry David. “He was as miserable as I was,” she said. “I’d hang out in his office and bitch and moan.”When Dick left the show in 1985 after her third season and Lorne returned, she wasn’t invited back.Soon, she and Brad headed out west to Los Angeles, where she began exploring a career that progressed in stops and starts, with roles in pilots that went nowhere or shows that were very short-lived. In 1987, the couple tied the knot. And then, a few years later and following the disappointment of a failed Warner Bros. development deal, a call came that changed everything.”A couple of days later, I get a call from my agent,” she said. “Larry David’s written this script with a comedian, Jerry Seinfeld—I hadn’t really heard of him—and they’re adding a girl.” Their pilot, titled The Seinfeld Chronicles, bombed and the network insisted that a female be added into the mix. And thus, Elaine Benes was born.Larry and Jerry had already auditioned the likes of Rosie O’Donnell, Patricia Heaton, and Megan Mullally when Julia came in to read for the role. But though she liked the unique sensibility of the material, she wasn’t entirely sold on the character. “In two out of the four scripts, I had some kind of meaty stuff to do—in the other two, less so,” she said. “And this was coming off of developing my own thing, so I thought, Gee, I don’t know.”After her audition, Larry chased her into the parking lot and asked her what she thought. And she still didn’t know. But despite reservations over whether it was the right move for her, she signed on that weekend. “I had a feeling about Seinfeld, like I had a feeling about ‘Mee-Ow,'” Julia recalled. “I’m sitting on top of a great treasure, and no one knows it.”

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And though it wasn’t overnight, Seinfeld did go on to become the treasure that Julia saw it as. The series ran for nine seasons, becoming one of NBC’s crown jewels and earning Julia her first Emmy. During her star-making tenure as Elaine, the actress welcomed two sons into the world, Henry, in 1992, and Charlie, in 1997. And once Seinfeld wrapped in May of 1998 with one of the most polarizing finales in TV history, she took an extended break to spend time with her little ones.”I’d had a lot of anxiety about being a mother working outside the home—that I was missing things, that I needed to be with them and I wasn’t,” she admitted. “I’d had a nursery on the set at Seinfeld, and I would take both boys with me—which in some ways was worse, because then you’re so split! I was racing between the stage and the nursery, I was breast-feeding and all that s–t.”But soon, she was ready to return to work. After an ill-fated attempt at an NBC comeback with the 2002 series Watching Ellie, which was created by her husband and only lasted two brief seasons, made it seem as though she might be falling prey to the so-called “Seinfeld Curse,” she bounced back with the 2006 CBS sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine, about a divorced mom running a gym and trying to make sense of her very messy life.

“There was a lot to tap into there,” she told The New Yorker. “It was about trying to keep your head above water as a mother who is sort of up against it. God, I loved working on that show: there were a lot of women in positions of authority, and it was super well run, super efficient in terms of time, and it was just a great gig. It was a very female point of view.”For its first season, she would take home her second Emmy, her first in the Lead Actress category. (She was in the Supporting category for Seinfeld.) And when she took the stage to accept her award, she couldn’t help herself: “I’m not somebody who really believes in curses, but curse this, baby!” The show lasted five seasons before coming to an end in 2010.

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And then, as her kids were getting ready to fly the coop—Henry’s now a musician in Los Angeles, while Charlie’s at Northwestern playing on the basketball team—lightning stuck for a third time as Veep came her way. And if Seinfeld was what made her TV royalty, then the raucously funny and foul-mouthed HBO series was what solidified her as a true comedy icon. But first, she had to land the gig. She met creator Armando Iannucci in late 2010 and it was then that he learned she was more than just funny, she also had a personal connection to the D.C.-set story of Vice President Selina Meyer, having grown up in the Beltway and also lived her life in the public eye.”Knowing what it’s like going into a room, and people are looking at you, and you have to keep smiling even though you have a raging head ache,” Iannucci told The Washington Post. “Having to maintain that air of keeping your [stuff] together. Primarily, it’s a comic instinct. We found this out when we started rehearsing. We’d have a little idea, and she would always have half a dozen suggestions of which way that could go.”She landed the role, and Veep premiered in 2012, becoming an instant sensation. And yet, she was still struggling with something. “When you have children, which is in so many ways a glorious endeavor, part of it is about constantly separating,” Julia told The New Yorker. “Even when they’re born—I remember thinking, Oh, God, I miss that movement in my body. And from there on that story continues: they crawl away from you. They go to school. It’s a constant. Separation has been a theme in my life, something that I’ve really struggled with.”And as the accolades continued to pour in, with Julia earning the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy for every single season that Veep has been eligible soon that familiar theme began to rear its ugly head. 

There was the 2016 Emmy weekend when her father passed away. And then a year later, the day after her win, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The fight to get well kept her from working on the final season of Veep right away, which meant that she wasn’t nominated for anything in 2018. And for a now cancer-free Julia, that might be alright. “So I was glad to give the Emmys a skip this year,” she said in December.Her treatment was a bit more difficult than she’d originally envisioned—”She was, like, ‘I’ll do chemo on Thursday, we’ll shoot Friday,'” David Mandel, whom Julia met as a writer on Seinfeld and who now servers as showrunner on Veep, told The New Yorker. “And we were, like, ‘We’ll let her figure out that that’s not right.”—and coming out the other side has admittedly changed her.”I have a different kind of view of my life now, having seen that edge—that we’re all going to see at some point, and which, really, as a mortal person you don’t allow yourself to consider, ever. And why would you? What are you going to do with it?” she told the publication. “I was a little more breezy before. I was a little…breezy.”And then, just as she was beginning to return to full strength and preparing to return to Veep, she was forced into another separation when her half-sister Emma—William’s youngest daughter, a social worker—suffered a fatal seizure in August while on a camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas with alcohol and cocaine in her system. And when Julia didn’t comment on the loss publicly, it was reported by tabloids that the siblings were estranged.

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“It was out of the blue,” she told The New Yorker.  “Given the fact that that heinous s–t came out, I would simply say I’ve kept this under wraps out of reverence for my dearest Emma.”She added: “It’s been a very bad period of time.”Though she’s found herself in yet another of those separations that play such a central role in her life now that filming on Veep’s final season has completed, she gets to live on and bring us joy another day. And not just through Selina Meyer’s final run of episodes, due on HBO this spring.With a clean bill of health, there’s still a future for Julia to do whatever she’d like. And though no one could blame her if she just wanted to take a rest, something tells us there’s another hysterical role waiting just around the corner.”I’ve always just wanted to work,” she said. “It has its challenges. But when it’s singing? It’s like if you’re skiing or something—you’re just thinking about getting down the hill. You look up and it’s four hours later.”Four hours and eight Emmys later, to be more exact.

Veep returns to HBO for its final season later this year.

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