Frances Sternhagen, Tony Award-winning actor who was familiar maternal face on TV, dies at 93

Appeared in “Cheers,” “ER,” “Sex and the City” and “The Closer”

By Mark Kennedy in New York

NEW YORK (AP) — Frances Sternhagen, the veteran character actor who won two Tony Awards and became a familiar maternal face to TV viewers later in life in such shows as “Cheers,” “ER,” “Sex and the City” and “The Closer,” has died. She was 93.

Sternhagen died peacefully of natural causes Monday her son, John Carlin, said in a statement posted to Instagram on Wednesday. “Fly on, Frannie,” he wrote. “The curtain goes down on a life so richly, passionately, humbly and generously lived.” Sternhagen’s publicist confirmed the death and said it occurred in New Rochelle, New York.

Sternhagen won a Tony for best featured actress in a play in 1974 for her role in Neil Simon’s “The Good Doctor” and a second one in 1995 for a revival of “The Heiress.” Her last turn on Broadway was in “Seascape” in 2005.

She was nominated for Tonys four other times, for starring or featured roles in “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” “Equus,” “Angel” and “Morning’s at Seven.” In 2013, she played Edie Falco’s mother in the off-Broadway play “The Madrid.”

Actress Frances Sternhagen attends the premiere of “Julie & Julia” in New York, on July 30, 2009. (AP Photo/Peter Kramer

“I have been very fortunate,” Sternhagen told the Daily Breeze of Torrance, California, in 2002. “And I think a lot of that is because I’m considered a character actor — which really means you can do a variety of things. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do leading parts, because I have. But you’re not limited to playing yourself.”

In a 2005 review of “Steel Magnolias,” then-Associated Press drama critic Michael Kuchwara called Sternhagen “one of the treasures of New York theater, able to invest any role she plays with considerable sympathy. Here, she turns what could be a throwaway part into one that provides much laughter — and applause.”

She kept up a flourishing career while at the same time raising six children. She always said her family came first — commuting from her suburban home in New Rochelle while acting on Broadway — but admitted that touring and movie and TV work sometimes took her away from home.

“I remember telling my older daughter when she was about 13 that sometimes I felt terribly guilty that I wasn’t home all the time,” she told a Gale Group reporter. “And my daughter said, `Oh, Mom, you would have been impossible if you were home all the time.′ I’m sure she was right.”

TV viewers knew her as played the rich grandmother of Dr. John Carter (Noah Wyle) in the long-running “ER.” On “Cheers” she was the know-it-all mother of postman Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger). “She was just impossible and great fun to play,” she told The New York Times. The role brought her two Emmy nominations.

More recently, she had a recurring role in “Sex and the City” as Bunny MacDougal, the strong-minded mother-in-law of Charlotte (Kristin Davis), which brought her her third Emmy nomination, and played Kyra Sedgwick’s mother in “The Closer.” Soap opera fans in the 1960s knew her in “Love of Life” as Toni Prentiss Davis, who carried a gun and went mad.

Playwright Paul Rudnick on Wednesday called her “a wonderful actress, capable of the highest comedy and deeply moving drama.” She was, he wrote on X, formerly Twitter, “an indelible presence.”

In “Equus,” in 1974, she originated the role of the mother of the troubled youth whose shocking act of violence against horses sets the drama in motion.

Actors Tom Aldredge, left, and Frances Sternhagen celebrate the opening of their play “On Golden Pond” in New York on Feb. 28, 1979. AP Photo/G. Paul Burnett,

In 1979, she appeared in the original Broadway production of “On Golden Pond” in the role of Ethel Thayer that Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for in the film version. “I feel very close to Ethel,” Sternhagen told the Times. “She reminds me of my mother and I took to her immediately.”

Sternhagen was one of three actors to handle the title role over the long off-Broadway run of “Driving Miss Daisy,” another stage role that became an Oscar-winner on screen, this time for Jessica Tandy.

She made her film debut in “Up the Down Staircase” in 1967. Among her other movies: “Hospital,” “Two People,” “Fedora,” “Bright Lights Big City,” “Misery,” “Doc Hollywood,” “Raising Cain” and “Curtain Call.”

Sternhagen was born in 1930, in Washington, D.C., where her father was a tax court judge. As a child she loved to perform — she recalled herself as “a shameful show-off” — but she never considered an acting career. She entered Vassar as a history major, but a friendly teacher suggested another direction: acting.

“Even though I was acting in college,” she told the New York Daily News, “it hadn’t occurred to me to major in drama.” But when it was noted that she was doing “C” work in history, Sternhagen switched to drama.

After graduation she taught drama, modern dance and singing outside Boston, earning $2,000 for the year before deciding to pursue work in the theater.

“I thought I would try it, see if I liked it, and then get out,” she told the Times in 1981. “But you never get out. It’s an addiction, because it touches your emotions, because it’s where you want to live. … I think those of us who can stay in it are just plain lucky.”

She met her husband, actor Thomas A. Carlin, while appearing in a production in Maryland. He died of heart failure in 1991.

She didn’t let her pregnancies interfere much with her work schedule, explaining that as an only child, “I always longed for a big family.’

“I was lucky,” she told the Times. “I usually didn’t show a pregnancy until the sixth or seventh month. I was afraid to stop acting, because if I stopped I would never start again.”

“I can’t say it’s been easy. There have been quite a number of things I haven’t done. You make choices and have to stick with them.”

She and Carlin had four sons, Paul, Tony, Peter and John, and two daughters, Amanda and Sarah. She also is survived by nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Feature image from Associated Press by Richard Drew

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