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As feisty attorney Bethany Horowitz on the ABC hit series Boston Legal, Meredith Eaton-Gilden '96 has had the opportunity to continue her unplanned but wonderfully received acting career. Meredith, her short stature notwithstanding, is a tremendous talent whose colleagues are among her legion of fans. In fact, her film debut in Unconditional Love in 2002 caught the attention of two of Hollywood's most powerful names - Paul Haggis and David E. Kelley - prompting them to create roles in their television projects specifically for her.
Meredith, whose mother is a clinical psychoanalyst and father is an administrative law judge, is the granddaughter of Nina Eaton, founder of United Cerebral Palsy. For Meredith, a native Long Islander who grew up in the Five Towns area, there was never any doubt where she would attend college. "I always had my heart set on Hofstra," she says. "It was the only school I applied to. I was familiar with it. I always drove past it. I thought the campus was just beautiful."
She and her mother met with Dr. Ignacio Götz, who is now a professor emeritus and teaching fellow, to discuss the University's New College division. "I had a really good connection with Dr. Götz," Meredith said. "I received a real welcoming and warm feeling from him when we met for my entrance interview. He oversaw a lot of what I was doing academically and checked in with me. I felt very protected by him."
Dr. Götz, too, fondly recollects his advisee. "One thing that always impressed me about Meredith was her perseverance in the face of difficult health-related situations. She had to have painful operations, but she never used these as excuses for slowing down or doing mediocre work.
"When Meredith was contemplating coming to Hofstra, I met with her and her mother and offered her my office any time she felt tired and needed to rest. She made use of this offer very seldom, but I think that there developed a mutual trust that aided her academic work. I feel blessed for having known her."
Another supportive connection Meredith made was with the sorority she joined, Delta Phi Epsilon. "Just being a part of Delta Phi and forming important friendships were certainly defining for me." Among those important friends were Frances Zelazny Ganz '94 and Marcy Finkelstein Magero '97. "These two girls have become my friends for life," she adds.
Post-Hofstra, Meredith went to Adelphi University to pursue a master?s degree in clinical psychology. She worked part time at United Cerebral Palsy as a program administrator. She says of that period in her life, 'I learned many valuable things at that job, especially how to work with a developmentally disabled population, and how to better understand the needs of those who have physical and emotional problems."
At that time, acting was not on Meredith's radar. "I had never aspired to be an actress. My career path was in the field of psychology, and that was what I made up my mind to do with my life. But my first year into a Ph.D. program, I learned they were looking for a short-statured actress to be in the film Unconditional Love. So I threw my hat in the ring, never anticipating that I would actually get the part. That was when my acting career took off."
Transitioning from Long Island Ph.D. student to working with director P.J. Hogan (Muriel's Wedding and My Best Friend's Wedding) and actors Kathy Bates, Dan Aykroyd and Rupert Everett might have been intimidating for others. However, Meredith looked at this most unusual turn of events with a unique perspective.
"Throughout my life I was so used to being stared at and looked at by everybody because of my height. It felt as though I was out there for public consumption. So being in front of the camera never intimidated me, because it wasn't too far a departure from my daily life. I was used to living my life under a microscope.
"Working with Kathy Bates, Dan Aykroyd and Rupert Everett and learning the craft of acting from them was a valuable and rich experience. I found being on the set so invigorating. I absolutely loved it. I felt like I was home and that acting was what I was meant to do with my life."
After the release of the movie, Meredith was on the receiving end of unconditional admiration. One fan was Paul Haggis, who would go on to write and executive produce the Academy Awardwinning films Crash and Million Dollar Baby. He gave Meredith her first television series recurring role on the drama Family Law after seeing her work on the screen.
More recently, David E. Kelley, the writer and producer behind television's Ally McBeal, Boston Public and The Practice, wrote the part of Bethany on Boston Legal specifically for Meredith. He was also inspired by her performance in Unconditional Love. What was supposed to be a three-episode story arc lasted the entire season. Among the plot points with which Meredith had to contend was a romance between Bethany and Denny Crane, played by William Shatner. Though Shatner's Star Trek co-stars have never been shy discussing their less than amiable feelings toward him, Meredith has only praise for the actor.
"I'm often asked, what is it like to work with William Shatner? I can tell you that William Shatner is the most endearing and kind-hearted man I've had the fortune to work with. From the moment we met and the moment I stepped on the set of Boston Legal, he has treated me with the utmost respect and loving admiration. The set is a family atmosphere. Everybody is supportive of each other and welcoming. This is right down to the entire crew, who work just as hard, if not harder, than the actors, since they are the first to arrive and the last to leave. Boston Legal is the show you would want to work on if there would ever be an opportunity to choose."
Meredith's success in acting appears to be kismet. However, she doesn't take even a moment of her career for granted. "I have had 18 multiple orthopedic surgeries, which began at age 13 and ended at age 21. I was not even able to leave my room for a year and a half during my sophomore year of high school because of the extensive orthopedic surgeries directly related to my form of dwarfism, which carries severe orthopedic complications.
"I remember taking 21 credits a semester at Hofstra because I wanted to graduate on time. While my friends and sorority sisters were out on spring break vacations during recess, I was undergoing surgeries and rushing to get back to school after recess ended.
"So one might think I'm so successful, but I've worked very hard to have what I have. I think the experiences of me being in bed, of having every bone in my legs broken and of being in extraordinary pain that is indescribable - I'd like to think this [success] is the reward now for me and for my family who supported me every painful step of the way. Those experiences shaped me into the person I am today. Maybe that's why I'm so adamant and proactive in getting the things I want right now."
At press time, amidst reports of cast layoffs at Boston Legal, Meredith is unsure if she will return to the show this fall, though she hopes to. She has no preference as to what direction the character of Bethany might take; she just wants to continue to be a part of the show. "Whatever David Kelley may have in store for Bethany, I?m sure it will be fantastic."
In the meantime, fans and fellow classmates can be sure to see Meredith in the upcoming film Gary the Tennis Coach with Seann William Scott and Randy Quaid. She is also co-producing a film titled Little By Little written by Nathan Sanders. She is hoping that film will go into pre-production in early 2008.