Frances Sternhagen, actress who thrived in mature roles, dies at 93

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Frances Sternhagen, actress who thrived in mature roles, dies at 93
Frances Sternhagen, right, and Cherry Jones in the Broadway revival of “The Heiress,” at Cort Theatre in New York, on Feb. 7, 1995. Sternhagen, the Tony Award-winning actress who played leading roles in stage productions of “Driving Miss Daisy” and “On Golden Pond” as formidable older women, often when she was so young that she had to wear aging makeup, died on Nov. 27, 2023, at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 93. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Anita Gates

NEW YORK, NY.- Frances Sternhagen, the Tony Award-winning actress who played leading roles in stage productions of “Driving Miss Daisy” and “On Golden Pond” as formidable older women, when she was so young that she had to wear aging makeup, died Monday at her home in New Rochelle, New York. She was 93.

Her son Tony Carlin confirmed the death.

Sternhagen won Tonys as featured actress in a play for her performances in two very different productions. In a 1995 Broadway revival of “The Heiress,” based on Henry James’ novel “Washington Square,” she was Cherry Jones’ well-meaning, matchmaking Aunt Lavinia. In “The Good Doctor,” Neil Simon’s 1973 take on Anton Chekhov, she played multiple roles in comedy sketches.

Sternhagen came into her own in mature off-Broadway roles: as the strong-willed 70-something-and-up Southern widow in Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” in 1988, when she was still in her 50s, and the concerned retirement-age wife in Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” in 1979, when she was 49.

She received Tony nominations for her roles in the original productions of “On Golden Pond,” “Equus” and the musical “Angel” and in revivals of “Morning’s at Seven” and “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.”

People who never saw a Broadway show or even went to the movies may have known Sternhagen’s face from television. Beginning in the 1980s, when she played the controlling, working-class mother of oddball postal carrier Cliff Clavin on “Cheers,” she sailed through a period of playing maternal figures in memorable recurring roles in a number of hit series.

On “ER,” she was Dr. John Carter’s aristocratic Chicago grandmother. On “Sex and the City,” she was Trey MacDougal’s rich but peculiar mom. Most recently she played the mother of Kyra Sedgwick’s Southern character on the police procedural “The Closer.” She received three Emmy Award nominations, two for “Cheers” and one for “Sex and the City.”

Sternhagen was known to turn down movie roles because they would take her away from her family for too long, but over the years she did appear in some two dozen films. She was Burt Reynolds’ intensely caring sister-in-law in “Starting Over” (1979); a perfectionist magazine researcher in “Bright Lights, Big City” (1988); and cookbook author Irma Rombauer in “Julie & Julia” (2009). Her other films included “The Hospital” (1971), “Independence Day” (1983) and “Misery” (1990).

But stage was her first home, and her career flourished in off-Broadway productions. She made her New York stage debut at 25 in Jean Anouilh’s “Thieves’ Carnival” at the Cherry Lane Theater, and won her first Obie Award the next year, for George Bernard Shaw’s “The Admirable Bashville” (1956). She won again in 1965 for two performances (“The Room” and “A Slight Ache”) and received a lifetime achievement Obie in 2013.

Her reviews were positive from the beginning. “When an intellectual comedy is about to be staged, it is always a wise notion to send for Frances Sternhagen,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times in 1959, reviewing “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe,” an off-Broadway comedy. “She is the mistress of sardonic fooling.”

Frances Hussey Sternhagen was born Jan. 13, 1930, in Washington, D.C. She was the only child of John Meier Sternhagen, a U.S. tax court judge, and Gertrude (Hussey) Sternhagen, a World War I nurse who became a homemaker.

Sternhagen attended the Potomac School and the Madeira School, both in Virginia. At Vassar College, she originally studied history but was persuaded by an adviser to give drama a try.

After graduation in 1951, Sternhagen taught briefly at the Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts. When she auditioned at the Brattle Street Theater in nearby Cambridge, she was rejected. “They said I read every part as if I was leading a troop of Girl Scouts out onto a hockey field,” she told The Toronto Star decades later.

Returning to Washington, she took theater courses at the Catholic University of America and began appearing in Arena Stage productions.

At the same time she began working in New York theater, Sternhagen also ventured into television work; she made her small-screen debut in 1955 in Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” alongside Helen Hayes, on the series “Producers’ Showcase.” But she didn’t make her feature film debut until a decade later, with a supporting role as a high school librarian in “Up the Down Staircase” (1967). Like many working actors, she appeared on soap operas, including “Love of Life,” and in television commercials.

She continued working into her 80s. Her last Broadway appearance was in a 2005 production of Edward Albee’s “Seascape.” Her last New York stage appearance was off-Broadway in “The Madrid” (2013) at City Center, playing the mother a kindergarten teacher, played by Edie Falco, who leaves her job and family.

In Sternhagen’s final film, “And So It Goes” (2014), a comic drama with Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton, she played a wise, snarky and chain-smoking real estate agent.

Sternhagen married Thomas Carlin, a fellow actor, in 1956, and they had six children. The couple had met briefly at Catholic University, acted together in “The Skin of Our Teeth” in Maryland and fell in love when both were in the cast of “Thieves’ Carnival” in New York. Carlin died in 1991.

In addition to their son Tony, she is survived by three other sons, Paul, Peter and John; two daughters, Amanda Carlin Sanders and Sarah Carlin; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. She lived in New Rochelle for more than 60 years.

In 2001, Sternhagen talked to drama students at Vassar and gave an interview to the college’s alumni publication. She revealed that as an actress she liked working from the outside in, starting with how a character speaks and walks rather than with her inner motivation. And she attributed a good deal of her personal emotional development to acting.

“It’s through working on characters in plays that I’ve learned about myself, about how people operate,” she said.

As for young aspiring actors who look down on paying their dues by appearing in commercials, Sternhagen suggested, “Think of it as children’s theater.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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