Frances Sternhagen, the versatile actress whose half-century on Broadway included two Tony Awards, seven nominations and memorable roles in Equus, On Golden Pond and The Heiress, has died. She was 93.
Sternhagen died peacefully Monday of natural causes at her home in New Rochelle, New York, her family said in a statement obtained by The Hollywood Reporter. “We continue to be inspired by her love and life,” they noted.
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With all her success on the stage, Sternhagen is perhaps best known for playing two mothers on television: the blue-blooded Bunny MacDougal on HBO’s Sex and the City and the overbearing Esther Clavin on NBC’s Cheers. She received Emmy nominations for both performances.
Sternhagen specialized in portraying characters who had a no-nonsense, overbearing attitude and plucky fortitude. She relished roles that were off the beaten track — the odder and more eccentric, the better.
“I must say it’s fun to play these snobby older ladies. It’s always more fun to be obnoxious,” Sternhagen said in a 2002 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I have known women like that, and I can imitate them, I guess.”
Sternhagen received her first Tony in 1974 for her work in several stories in the original production of Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor, then won again in 1995 for playing the widowed Aunt Lavinia opposite Cherry Jones in a revival of The Heiress.
In the original 1979 Broadway production of On Golden Pond, she received a Tony nomination for originating the role of Ethel Thayer (Katharine Hepburn’s character in the movie), and when Steel Magnolias began on Broadway in 2005, she portrayed Clairee (Olympia Dukakis had the part in that film).
She was nominated again in 1996 for her turn in Equus as Dora Strang, the mother of an emotionally disturbed son (Peter Firth), as well as for The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window in 1972, Angel in 1978 and Morning’s at Seven in 2002.
Sternberger arrived as Esther on the fifth season of Cheers. Like her son, the postman Cliff (John Ratzenberger), she had a propensity to spout obscure trivia facts. She also had a soft side … to a point. “You’re my pride and joy. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” Esther tells Cliff in her debut appearance in 1986, adding in amazement after a moment of reflection: “Gee, think of that.”
In Sex and the City, she was spot-on hilarious as Bunny, whose protectiveness of her son, Trey (Kyle MacLachlan), made life hell for his new bride, Charlotte (Kristin Davis). Her sense of entitlement knew no bounds, as witnessed when she barged in on the newlyweds to deliver fresh muffins, only to find them in the throes of morning sex.
“She has a sort of East Side mental breakdown when she finds them,” executive producer Michael Patrick King said about the character. “It’s my favorite scene. It’s the same episode where she sneaks into Trey’s bedroom at night when he has a cold and rubs Vicks VapoRub on his chest. Then Charlotte wakes up, and they are both rubbing VapoRub on this guy’s chest. It’s about territorialism, the son being the territory. It is both sick and erotic, and Franny was up for it.”
Sternhagen also made an impression as Millicent “Gamma” Carter, grandmother of John Carter (Noah Wyle), on NBC’s ER and as Willie Ray Johnson, the steadfast mother of LAPD Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick), on TNT’s The Closer.
Francis Hussey Sternhagen was born on Jan. 13, 1930, in the District of Columbia. Her father, John M. Sternhagen, was a member of the U.S. Board of Tax Appeals before becoming a judge for the Tax Court of the U.S. Her mother, Gertrude, was a socialite who served as a nurse during World War I.
Sternhagen’s first taste of performing came when she would make her dad, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, laugh by imitating her classmates at The Potomac School. She also attended Madeira, an all-girls’ prep school in McLean, Virginia, before enrolling at Vassar College.
Sternhagen was pursuing a history degree when her history professor inquired why she wasn’t a drama major. She had rejected acting, thinking she shouldn’t study something she enjoyed so much. The teacher convinced her otherwise. “I guess I wasn’t such a good historian,” she quipped in a 1979 interview with The New York Times.
She was voted head of the college’s drama club after a rousing performance as the title character in Richard II that culminated with her smashing a mirror in the middle of the dining hall.
After graduating in 1951, Sternhagen taught drama, music and dance in Milton, Massachusetts. “The best part of the job,” she recalled, “was that it gave me a chance to show off for the kids.”
After an unsuccessful audition for Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre, she came home and landed roles at the Arena Stage in Washington in The Country Wife and Our Town.
Sternhagen made her Broadway debut in 1955 playing Miss T. Muse in a revival of the Thornton Wilder comedy The Skin of Our Teeth, starring George Abbott, Helen Hayes and Mary Martin. A year later, she got an Obie Award for her performance in The Admirable Bashville and in 1959 co-starred with Gene Hackman in The Saintliness of Margery Kempe. (She appeared in dozens of off-Broadway plays and in 2013 received an Obie for career achievement.)
Sternhagen’s other Broadway credits included Great Day in the Morning in 1962, You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running in 1967, Edward Albee‘s All Over in 1971, You Can’t Take It With You in 1983 and Seascape in 2005.
She made her big-screen bow in 1967 as persnickety librarian Charlotte Wolf in Up the Down Staircase for producer Alan J. Pakula and later appeared in Starting Over (1979) and See You in the Morning (1989), both produced and directed by Pakula as well.
She was great as the off-kilter Doc Lazarus, who helped solve a series of murders in a remote outer space mining camp, in the sci-fi thriller Outland (1981), and her movie résumé also included The Tiger Makes Out (1967), The Hospital (1971), Bright Lights, Big City (1988), Misery (1990), The Mist (2007), Julie and Julia (2009), Dolphin Tale (2011) and And So It Goes (2014).
Sternhagen appeared with Thomas A. Carlin (the Scottish greenskeeper Sandy McFiddish in Caddyshack) in a 1955 off-Broadway production of Thieves’ Carnival at the Cherry Lane. They married the following year and were together until his death in 1991.
Survivors include her children, Paul, Amanda (Dr. Long on Friends), Tony, Sarah, Peter and John; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A celebration of her career and life is planned for mid-January, close to what would have been her 94th birthday.
During a 2001 return to Vassar, Sternhagen remarked that it was through “working on characters in plays that I’ve learned about myself, about how people operate.”
“Do what you love, whatever that is,” she added. “And if you’re able to make a living at what you love to do, you’re terribly lucky.”
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