Timothy Hutton was born in Malibu, California. His father was actor Jim Hutton; his mother, Maryline Adams (née Poole), was a teacher. His parents divorced when Hutton was three years old, and his mother took him and his older sister, Heidi (born in 1959), with her to Boston. The family returned to California when Hutton was 12. "A lot of people think that because my father was an actor, I come from this big show-business background," Hutton told Bruce Cook of American Film magazine in 1981. "But that's not how I grew up at all. My mother took us to Cambridge because she wanted to get her M.A. She wound up teaching in Connecticut, but the way she saw it, after a while, if we all stayed there, my sister and I would just wind up as the proprietors of the local drugstore or something, so that was why she took us to Berkeley – to get us into the world, I guess. Now she's given up teaching and she's into printing miniature books." In 1976 when he was 16, Hutton sought out his father and moved in with him in Los Angeles. At Fairfax High School, while playing Nathan Detroit in a school production of Guys and Dolls, he realized he wanted to become an actor. With encouragement from both of his parents, he carefully built himself a career in television. On June 2, 1979, Jim Hutton died in Los Angeles from liver cancer, two days after his 45th birthday. In 1981, Hutton dedicated his Academy Award, which he had won for his role in the movie Ordinary People, to his father.
Timothy Hutton's career began with parts in several television movies, most notably the 1979 ABC TV film Friendly Fire. That year, he also played the son of Donna Reed in the Ross Hunter NBC television film, The Best Place to Be. He then made two CBS made-for TV films in 1980: Young Love, First Love with Valerie Bertinelli, and Father Figure with Hal Linden. For his first feature film performance, as Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People (1980), Hutton won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. His performance also earned him the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture – Male. Immediately following his success, he starred in the acclaimed 1981 ABC television film A Long Way Home co-starring Brenda Vaccaro. Hutton's next feature film, Taps (with George C. Scott, Sean Penn, and Tom Cruise), was popular with critics and audiences, but during the next several years, his motion pictures, such as Iceman, Daniel, Turk 182, Made in Heaven, and Q&A, struggled at the box office. His only substantial hit was 1985's The Falcon and the Snowman which teamed him again with Sean Penn. In 1984 he directed the music video for The Cars song "Drive".
In 1989, he made his Broadway stage debut opposite his Ordinary People co-star Elizabeth McGovern in the A.R. Gurney play Love Letters. He followed this with another Broadway role in the Craig Lucas hit comedy, Prelude to a Kiss, which also starred Mary-Louise Parker and Barnard Hughes. During the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Hutton began to take large supporting parts in films, most notably in Everybody's All-American with Jessica Lange and Dennis Quaid and French Kiss with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline. In 1996, he starred in the popular ensemble film, Beautiful Girls, playing opposite 14-year-old Natalie Portman in one of her early standout film roles. Moving on to television, he starred as Nero Wolfe's assistant and leg-man Archie Goodwin in the A&E television series A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001–2002); he also served as an executive producer, and also directed several episodes of the series. His other directing credits include the family film Digging to China (1998). In 2001 Hutton starred in the television miniseries WW3, and in 2006 he had a lead role in the NBC series Kidnapped, playing Conrad Cain, the wealthy father of a kidnapped teenager. He appeared in 13 feature films from 2006 to 2008. Hutton starred in the television series Leverage from 2008 to 2012, where he played former insurance investigator Nate Ford who led a group of thieves who acted as modern-day Robin Hoods. In 2014, Hutton was cast opposite Felicity Huffman in John Ridley's ABC crime drama American Crime.