November 30, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
With fifty Broadway and off-Broadway shows to her credit over a career that spanned more than sixty years onstage, Frances Sternhagen has died at age ninety-three. Her passing on Monday marks a sad day as she is one of the last of a breed from a generation that once produced theatre actors of the highest caliber. Hers is an honored place in the Hall of Fame beside Zoe Caldwell, Colleen Dewhurst, Marian Seldes and Elizabeth Wilson to name but a few of her Tony Award winning contemporaries. It’s not as much about talent, as it is putting in the hours. The time these actresses spent honing their craft in theatres all over provided opportunities that don’t exist today for young actors. They were given chances to excel in everything from the classics to contemporary drama to high comedy and low comedy (Sternhagen’s first Tony was for hilariously tearing up the stage in Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor).
Even though she played some leading roles, Sternhagen was never a star. For most of her career, she was a supporting actress, which was fine with her (there were more jobs that way). Besides, she had a family to raise. Thomas Carlin, her husband who predeceased her in 1991, was also an actor and a teacher. Together they raised their six children in New Rochelle, outside of New York City, the home she lived in for more than sixty years. “We were trying to be good Catholics at the time,” she said. “This was before Vatican II. This did seem to be what you did. And being an only child I wanted a big family. In spite of the difficulties — and there were many — I certainly don’t regret it. It’s been very important to me.” A number of the Carlin children are involved in the arts. Tony Carlin, the eldest son, has more than thirty Broadway credits, a great many of them as standby or understudy, proving he’s one of those solid and professional actors people feel comfortable working with, just like his parents. His brother Paul Carlin played opposite his real-life mother in a revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night produced in 1999 at the Irish Rep off-Broadway.
Sternhagen attended Vassar College where she acted in plays and then did one year at Catholic University where she met her husband while appearing together in Thornton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth (ironically it would also be the play in which Sternhagen made her Broadway debut in a revival that starred Mary Martin as Sabina in 1955). Starting their family quickly, Carlin and Sternhagen were lucky to get work and trade off who stayed home when. One of the reasons she didn’t have a bigger film career was that she turned down a great deal of stuff if it meant being away from her children for long periods of time. Same for why she didn’t tour in shows while raising them.
Sternhagen was able to find work fairly easily and thrived in the early days of television soaps and such prime time live productions as Studio One and Goodyear Playhouse. For a long run in the 1970s, she was Mrs. Marsh who instructed everyone to brush their teeth properly with Crest toothpaste, the residuals from which undoubtedly helped send a few of her six kids to college.
Sternhagen possessed a sort of puritan strength that was the backbone of many of her performances. Cast primarily as a no-nonsense woman, she rarely played someone weak or vacillating and, more often than not, a person of authority. Although she did get some choice movie roles from time to time, landing a nice supporting part in a great big Oscar winning picture never presented itself. She was at her best going one-on-one with Sean Connery and matching him memorably moment for moment in 1981’s Outland (you can see a short clip here):
She was a familiar face on television, especially in her later years with recurring roles on E.R. as Noah Wylie’s granny; on Cheers as Esther Clavin, mailman John Ratzenberger’s controlling Mom; and on Sex and the City as the Blue Blooded Bunny, mother to Kyle MacLachlan. She even joined The Simpsons universe voicing a character on a 2002 episode, “The Frying Game.”
But it was in the theatre where Sternhagen was free to do her finest work. I was fortunate to see her in about a dozen plays (even one musical) and she was always a standout. She had a personal charisma that was undeniable and a knockout smile she could use to charm or destroy. One role for which she surprisingly received mixed notices was as a Jewish mother in Jules Feiffer’s Grown Ups (1981). Douglas Watt in the Daily News found her “woefully miscast.” I take strongly to that assessment as I thought this was one her most exceptional performances. I loved this play and production so much I saw it twice during its brief Broadway run. Watt and others like him who criticized Sternhagen’s WASP-ish demeanor were not seeing the forest for the trees because as a Jew who grew up on Long Island, I was able to observe many Jewish women who aspired to that very ideal. They wore their hair and clothes in the exact way Sternhagen was dressed and coiffed in an effort to assimilate. Her characterization rang very true for me.
Heartbreaking as the religious mother of a young boy who inexplicably blinds six horses in Peter Shaffer’s Equus, she played it for a long time over the course of its four-year run. I saw her do it four times and at every performance she gave 100%. Like Mildred Natwick, and other character women of her ilk, she played women older than herself on many occasions. Only forty-nine when she created the role of seventy-ish Ethel Thayer in Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond — later played on film by Katharine Hepburn — Sternhagen was totally believable.
What was great about Sternhagen is that whatever job she took on she found the truth in it, firmly grounding everything in reality. Whether it was in classics like Wycherly, Shaw, O’Casey, Wilder, Pinter and Beckett or in portraying villains on daytime television in such as Love of Life, The Secret Storm and The Doctors. When she started early in her career on soaps, she told Playbill in 1999, “I remember it was my first day… and I was a little contemptuous of the material, which was pretty silly of me. So, I went to the stage manager, who I knew, and he simply said, ‘Well, think of this as a ’30s melodrama.’ And I thought, ‘Perfect!’ … The ’30s sensibility is sort of fun, and it’s loads of fun to play the bad guys on soaps.”
She was nominated for seven Tony Awards, five of them in the Featured Actress in a Play category where she won two. Besides The Good Doctor in 1974, she was also honored for the 1995 revival of The Heiress. Here she is accepting her award for The Good Doctor.
Other career highlights in New York included Sternhagen taking over as the second Miss Daisy in the original off-Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy, Clairee in a Broadway revival of Steel Magnolias in 2005 and in that same year, her last Broadway appearance as an Edward Albee matron in a revival of Seascape opposite George Grizzard. And in the one I wish I had seen, she and Zoe Caldwell in Terrence McNally’s A Perfect Ganesh, which one critic called “a female buddy play with mystical overtones.”
Over and over again she never disappointed. Not once. Working until she was eighty-three, it’s a shame she was ill for the last decade of her life because she would have undoubtedly kept on going. Frances Sternhagen’s exit is, in certain respects, the end of an era for a specific kind of actress and career. She will be greatly missed.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.