On this day in 1998, Hilary Swank makes her final appearance in a multi-episode arc on the Fox prime-time soap opera Beverly Hills, 90210. Barely two years later, in a somewhat unexpected turn of events, Swank would be standing onstage at the Academy Awards to accept the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Boys Don’t Cry.
Born in Nebraska on July 30, 1974, Swank grew up mostly in Bellingham, Washington. She performed in school plays and was a talented athlete, swimming in the Junior Olympics and competing in gymnastics. After her parents separated, Swank’s mother Judy moved with her daughter to Los Angeles to support Hilary’s desire to become an actress. After arriving in L.A., mother and daughter lived out of their car for a couple of weeks until Judy was able to save enough money to rent an apartment.
In 1992, Swank made her film debut in a bit role in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Two years later, she landed the title role in The Next Karate Kid (1994), the fourth and final movie in the Karate Kid series. Playing a troubled teenager who learns karate from Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), Swank was a replacement for Ralph Macchio (then 32 years old), who had starred in the first three films. The film was received poorly by critics and earned only $8.9 million at the box office–by far the least money of all the Karate Kid movies.
Swank joined the cast of Beverly Hills, 90210 for the beginning of the show’s eighth season, when its popularity was waning (it was canceled in early 2000 after ten seasons). The show’s central characters had graduated from college and were embarking on their first jobs and other challenges of adulthood. Swank played Carly Reynolds, a single mom who gets involved with Steve Sanders (Ian Ziering) and works as a waitress at the gang’s hangout, the Peach Pit. After 16 episodes, Swank was dropped from the series.
In a 2005 interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes (shortly before she took home her second Best Actress Oscar, for her role as a female boxer in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby) Swank was candid about how the firing affected her confidence: “I thought if I’m not a good enough actor for 90210, then maybe I should [pack it in]….I was devastated.”
It turned out to be a stroke of luck, however, as the out-of- work Swank was able to audition for and win the lead role in the independent film Boys Don’t Cry (1999), directed by Kimberly Peirce and based on the tragic real-life story of Brandon Teena, a young transgender man in small-town Nebraska who was raped and murdered by his male acquaintances after they discovered his secret. Swank was paid just $75 per week–a total of $3,000–for Boys Don’t Cry, but it would make her career. She won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Actress and was catapulted onto the Hollywood A-list, leaving the days of prime-time soap operas well behind her.