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

A file picture of actress Frances Sternhagen holding her award for best featured actress in a play for her performance in ‘The Heiress’ during the Tony Awards in New York on June 4, 1995.

A file picture of actress Frances Sternhagen holding her award for best featured actress in a play for her performance in ‘The Heiress’ during the Tony Awards in New York on June 4, 1995.
| Photo Credit: 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.

“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 theatre, 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.”

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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.

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.

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