Frances Sternhagen, the Tony award-winning actor known for playing formidable women on stage in Driving Miss Daisy and on screen in Cheers, Misery and Sex and the City, has died at her home in New York. She was 93.
Her son, John Carlin, confirmed her death on Instagram. “Frannie,” he wrote. “Mom. Frances Sternhagen. On Monday night, Nov 27, she died peacefully at her home, a month and a half shy of her 94th birthday … Fly on, Frannie. The curtain goes down on a life so richly, passionately, humbly and generously lived.”
Sternhagen won two Tonys, both as featured actress in a play, for two very different roles: as Aunt Lavinia in the 1995 Broadway revival of The Heiress, based on the novel Washington Square by Henry James, and for multiple roles in The Good Doctor, Neil Simon’s 1973 take on Chekhov.
But she was most recognizable to audiences outside Broadway for a number of memorable screen roles, including as Cliff Clavin’s mother in Cheers, Dr John Carter’s aristocratic grandmother on ER, and Trey MacDougal’s mother on Sex and the City. She garnered three Emmy nominations: two for Cheers and one for Sex and the City.
More recently, she appeared as Kyra Sedgwick’s mother on the police procedural The Closer.
Sternhagen also appeared in more than two dozen films, including Misery, Bright Lights, Big City, Julie & Julia, The Hospital and 1983’s Independence Day.
She received numerous Tony nominations over her illustrious stage career, including for On Golden Pond, Equus and Angel, and revivals of Morning’s at Seven and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. She was awarded a lifetime achievement Obie award in 2013.
Born on 13 January 1930, Frances Hussey Sternhagen was the only child of John Meier Sternhagen, a United States tax court judge, and Gertrude (Wyckoff) Sternhagen, a first world war nurse turned homemaker. She attended the Potomac school and the Madeira school, both in Virginia, before matriculating at Vassar College. She initially studied history, but was persuaded by an adviser to try out drama.
After graduation in 1951, Sternhagen briefly taught at Milton Academy in Massachusetts, and unsuccessfully auditioned for roles at the Brattle Street Theater in nearby Cambridge. She soon returned to Washington, took theater courses at the Catholic University of America and began appearing in Arena Stage productions.
She made her New York stage debut at age 25 in Jean Anouilh’s Thieves’ Carnival at the Cherry Lane Theater. A year later, in 1956, she won her first Obie for The Admirable Bashville. She won again in 1965 for two performances, in The Room and A Slight Ache.
Like many working actors, Sternhagen consistently booked small television roles, including on the soap opera Love of Live and numerous commercials. She continued working into her 80s; her final stage performance was in the off-Broadway play The Madrid at New York’s City Center, playing the mother of Edie Falco. Her final film role was as a wise, chain-smoking real estate agent in the 2014 comic drama And So It Goes with Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton.
Sternhagen was married to Thomas Carlin, a fellow actor whom she first met at Catholic University, from 1956 until his death in 1991. She is survived by the couple’s six children: sons Tony, Paul, Peter and John; daughters Amanda Carlin Sanders and Sarah Carlin; nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.