David Strathairn was born on January 26, 1949 in San Francisco, California. His father was a physician and he has two siblings, a brother Tom and a sister named Anne. He attended Williams College, where he demonstrated great interest in the theater, and first befriended John Sayles, with whom he would later frequently collaborate. Strathairn graduated college and traveled to Florida to visit with a grandfather, but the grandfather passed away while Strathairn was en route. Strathairn, finding himself freshly-arrived and without friends in Florida, decided instead to join the Ringling Brothers Clown College and subsequently worked as a clown for six months in a traveling circus.
Relocating to New York State, he spent several years hitchhiking across America to work in local theaters during the summers. During one of these summers Strathairn reunited with Sayles, and this eventually resulted in his role in the highly regarded Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), Sayle's directorial debut.
Thereafter Strathairn developed an extensive resume of supporting roles, which have become increasingly substantial as his stature in the industry has grown. Only a few examples of his work include an off-beat patient of the psychiatrist played by Dudley Moore in the romantic comedy Lovesick (1983), in Silkwood (1983) as Welsey, in L.A. Confidential (1997) as the enigmatic millionaire Pierce Patchett, and in A Map of the World (1999) as Howard, the husband of Sigourney Weaver's character. Sayles frequently casts Strathairn, whose performances can be seen in Sayles' The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Matewan (1987), Eight Men Out (1988), City of Hope (1991), and Passion Fish (1992). Perhaps most notable of his collaborations with Sayles is his superb performance co-starring with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in Limbo (1999).
He works in television occasionally and may be familiar to television viewers as Molly's boss in the series "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" (1987).
Strathairn continues to be one of the most active male supporting actors in American film today, his work is highly regarded, and he can be counted on to deliver an understated yet powerful performance. His craggy, unorthodox good looks are perhaps attributable to his mixed Scottish and Hawaiian ancestry.