Nightly News   |  November 11, 2009

Glenn Close: My sister is 'my hero'

Nov. 11: Making a Difference: The award-winning actress Glenn Close has played dozens of powerful, memorable parts, but off-screen she's taken on a supporting role at a recovery center for people with mental illness. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

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>>> in tonight's "making a difference" report we get to meet great actress glenn close . she's best known of course for films like "the big chill " and "fatal attraction" and all her television roles, but when she's home she's all about family. and on the subject of family it's her little sister who motivated glenn close to raise money and awareness for mental illness . all this week, as you know, we're focusing on the good works of well-known americans. and ann thompson has her story tonight.

>> reporter: the work actress glenn close does as a volunteer at new york 's fountain house isn't hard. ? i'm going to take all the red roses .

>> reporter: it's the understanding that's difficult.

>> i knew that i wanted to commit to doing something for mental illness , and i didn't want to just be used, as important as it is, as kind of a celebrity. you know, i wanted to really dig deep.

>> reporter: because, close says, mental illness runs in her family. her younger sister , jesse , is bipolar, a disorder that causes erratic shifts in mood and energy. jesse 's condition went undiagnosed until she was 47. even though their father was a doctor.

>> we didn't have any vocabulary for it in our family.

>> reporter: none?

>> it just wasn't done to even go to a psychiatrist. you just didn't talk about it.

>> reporter: that's changed.

>> one in six adults has a mental illness .

>> and we face a stigma --

>> reporter: the close sisters are stars of a national public service announcement directed by oscar winner ron howard in new york 's grand central terminal .

>> change a mind about mental illness . and you can change a life.

>> reporter: the goal -- to raise awareness about mental illness with the hope of changing public perception.

>> what is the stigma of mental illness that you've seen, that you've faced?

>> fear is the biggest. emotion, i believe. from both of us.

>> what are you afraid of?

>> i'm afraid of that what goes with stigma if you don't have an understanding of mental illness , people tend to make fun, and it's not fun.

>> reporter: glenn watched jesse go through five marriages, years of mania and depression, and suicide attempts. now jesse is healthy, the mother of three children.

>> how proud are you of jesse ?

>> she's my hero. and jesse acted -- spending a day in grand central station with life going by, hundreds of people going by, big crowds forming, watching this filming going on, wearing "bipolar."

>> reporter: to understand jesse , to help, led glenn to fountain house , a place where people recovering from mental illness can find house, jobs, and purpose.

>> with the right kind of treatment and medication and a place like fountain house you really can -- people get better all the time. it happens all the time.

>> reporter: danielle marchett sichlt free to leave the country.

>> reporter: a golden globe tony and emmy winner glenn close now stars in the tv series "damages" but it's her supporting role at fountain house that gives her the greatest reward.

>> today we understand people may be alcoholics and they can recover and go on and live. people who have cancer can recover and go on and live. does that same thing need to happen with mental illness ?

>> that is a huge message that's very important, that you can get to a place where you can live a full and productive life. * one-man army *

>> reporter: a message glenn close is sending to america with the help of her little sister . ann thompson, nbc news, new york .

>> ann 's full interview with glenn close is on our website, nightly.msnbc.com. and tomorrow night as our terrific series continues actress halle berry also making a difference by putting a face on a problem that many women hide. for now, though, that's our broadcast for this