Capshaw worked two years as a teacher of learning disabled children before moving to NYC to pursue a career as a model/actress. She worked in TV commercials while studying her craft and eventually landed jobs on several daytime soaps. Capshaw made her feature debut in the modest romantic comedy "A Little Sex" (1981), but regular movie assignments didn't materialize until after she had played the American entertainer Willie Scott opposite Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones.
Capshaw was fairly busy in films during the mid-1980s, often appearing with major talents in modest or unsuccessful fare: with Max von Sydow and Dennis Quaid in "Dreamscape"; with Eddie Murphy and Dudley Moore in "Best Defense" (both 1984); and with Richard Gere in "Power" (1986). She continued to appear in TV-movies and miniseries before taking a career hiatus to concentrate on marriage and child rearing. Capshaw returned to the business in the 90s, starring in a short-lived detective sitcom, "Black Tie Affair" (NBC, 1993) and taking supporting roles in the romantic remake "Love Affair" (1994) as the intended betrothed of Warren Beatty, as Sean Connery's wife in "Just Cause" and as Winona Rider's hippie mother in "How to Make an American Quilt" (both 1995). Critics were divided over her work in "The Locusts" (1997) with some feeling the actress was miscast as a slatternly farm owner while others felt she delivered a strong performance. Capshaw also played onscreen mother to her real-life daughter Jessica Capshaw in the film. The following year, the actress offered a sly comic turn as a fortyish widow who becomes involved with a twentyish salesman (David Arquette) in the comedy-drama "The Alarmist".