David Strathairn entered Williams College, where he first met future collaborator John Sayles. He also trained as a clown at the Ringling Brothers Clown College. He began working in local theaters during the 1970s, and later made his film debut in 1979's Return of the Seacaucus Seven, which was Sayles' first as a director.
Strathairn has since appeared in a wide range of supporting roles, appearing in films such as Silkwood, Lovesick, A Map of the World and L.A. Confidential. He also often appeared in many of Sayles' films, including City of Hope and The Brother from Another Planet. He also recurred in the TV series The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.
In 2005 Strathairn received wide critical acclaim for his portrayal of journalist Edward R. Murrow in the film Good Night, and Good Luck. Five years later he would receive more acclaim for his stint in the HBO television movie Temple Grandin. He currently stars in the Syfy series Alphas.
- Independent Spirit Award, Best Supporting Male, 1992 (for City of Love)
- Western Heritage Award, Best Television Feature Film, 1992 (for O Pioneers!)
- Cinequest San Jose Film Festival, Maverick Tribute Award, 2002
- Venice Film Festival, Best Actor, 2005 (for Good Night, and Good Luck)
- Emmy Award, Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie, 2010 (for Temple Grandin)
- Satellite Award, Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television, 2010 (for Temple Grandin)