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In Praise of Frances Sternhagen on her 90th Birthday

As a seasoned New York theatergoer, I experienced her immense talents many times and today is cause to recall a few of her unheralded performances.

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Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

Authoritatively extolling the virtues of Colgate toothpaste as “Mrs. Marsh” in a series of 1970’s television commercials is how I became aware of Frances Sternhagen. Then I saw her onstage in Equus and On Golden Pond. Sex and the City fans know her as Kyle MacLachlan’s wickedly manipulative ultra-WASP mother, Bunny MacDougal.

Frances Sternhagen in “Sex in the City.”

In between, there was the continuum of one of the great American acting careers, spanning six decades. Everthing she did was utterly captivating and convincing. Ms. Sternhagen is 90 years old today, and this milestone is cause to reflect on her achievements and to send her best wishes from afar.

“Frances Sternhagen is delicious in her chaffering-starling way…” declared John Simon in his review of the celebrated 1995 Broadway revival of The Heiress, for which she received her second Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Play. Her first was for Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor in 1974.

Frances Sternhagen’s headshot circa 1980.

As a seasoned New York theatergoer, I experienced her immense dramatic and comedic talents many times. Ever radiant, having a lithe physicality, endowed with pleasing expressive facial features and most importantly possesing a distinctively rich voice that emphatically exudes intelligence and emotion; all of these qualities enhanced her always striking and euphoric characterizations with depth. Her appearance in a play made it a must see. Here are memories of three obscure flop productions. While she was customarily superb in all of them, she received no prizes. Such is a life in the theater, one is lucky to go from show to show.

I got you home, sat you down and stuffed food down your throat. You spit it up and I stuffed it down again. What did I know? I was terrified! To this day I wonder if that’s what made you a picky eater. I wake up sometimes in the middle of the night worrying about it…What did I know? The mistakes I made with you! You don’t hold it against me, sonny boy?

Jules Feiffer’s blistering semi-autobiographical dark family comedy masterpiece Grown Ups , had its Broadway opening on December 10, 1981, after 15 previews. It received good reviews overall but ran only 83 performances. This was perhaps because each character was unlikeable, and the plot was unsettling. Sternhagen was unforgettably towering as one of the most malevolent and subtly Jewish mothers ever depicted as she awesomely veered from cheery to chilling.

Andrew Johns’s new play, which opened last night at the Chelsea Playhouse, is a two-hander, but it is not until the closing seconds of the first act that the second character, Bracewell’s actress wife, appears. As played by Francis Sternhagen, she brings with her emergency relief.

Milo O’Shea and Frances Sterhagen in “The Return of Herbert Bracewell”

So, wrote Mel Gussow in his 1985 New York Times review of Off-Broadway’s The Return of Herbert Bracewell. This clunky minor work was enlivened by the always delightful Milo O’Shea as a grandiloquent mediocre actor in his 80’s looking back at his life while rummaging through props in an attic. Sternhagen was terrific as his combative and affectionate wife. Together, they wonderfully performed snippets of Shakespeare and bits of high comedy.

Carroll O’Connor starred on Broadway in 1985’s Home Front which opened on January 12 after 11 previews and ran for 13 performances. It previously had a successful engagement at London’s Hampstead Theatre. This was young playwright James Duff’s only work of note, as he died of AIDS soon after. It was a strained family drama set on Thanksgiving Day 1973. A disaffected Vietnam War veteran returned to his Texas home, there was a lot of arguing and a rifle figured prominently in the action. Mr. O’Connor was credible and moving as the father, but at one point he sat in a chair center stage and there was some audience laughter as it recalled a tableau out of All in the Family. Sternhagen did her considerable best as the concerned mother.

Christopher Fields, Frances Sternhagen, Carroll O’Connor and Linda Cook in a publicity shot from the Broadway play “Home Front.”

Nominated for seven Tony Awards, to merely just list Sternhagen’s multitude of credits would simply attest to her supremacy. Her prolific scope in a variety of parts in a diverse array of material on stage, screen and television over so many years, has made her one of the most quintessential and premier character actresses.

Recently, Turner Classic Movies broadcast director Arthur Hiller’s 1967 non-conformist curio, The Tiger Makes Out based on a Murray Schisgal play. In addition to showcasing its leads Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, the film is packed with prime New York stage performers of the era playing small parts. Bob Dishy, Charles Nelson Reilly, David Burns, Rae Allen, Sudie Bond, Elizabeth Wilson, Ruth White, John Harkins, Bibi Osterwald, David Doyle, Remak Ramsey and Dustin Hoffman appear. Even as the briefly seen “Woman on Bus,” Sternhagen stands out.

Born in Washington, D.C., she graduated from Vassar College and made an auspicious Broadway debut as “Miss T. Muse” in the 1955 revival of The Skin of Our Teeth that starred Helen Hayes, Mary Martin and George Abbott. Her last Broadway appearance was as George Grizzard’s patrician wife in the 2005 revival of Edward Albee’s Seascape.

Her marriage to fellow actor Thomas A. Carlin lasted from 1956 until his death in 1991 and produced six children. In 1959, the family moved to New Rochelle, New York, where the down-to-earth Ms. Sternhagen still resides. ”I need to be here,” she remarked during a 2000 interview at her home about refusing the offer to stay at a Manhattan apartment while appearing in a play. ”I’ve got stacks of mail. I like looking out my window to see the trees and my neighbors.”

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (804 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for

1 Comment on In Praise of Frances Sternhagen on her 90th Birthday

  1. Frances Sternhagen is one of my favorite actors of my 60 years of theatre-going. I have always wanted to write to her but did not/do not know how to find an address. I sometimes saw her on the train going home to New Rochelle–I would have spoken to her, but she seemed immersed in her reading. She was the one who made the very middling play On Golden Pond seem like a good play–it is a testimony to the middling tastes of Hollywood that Katherine Hepburn was cast in her role with forgettable results. I saw Sternhagen in many plays and, as every discerning person knows, she was uniquely able to shape a role in a way that no one else could. I’ve seen The Heiress several times with others in her role, but none could compare. I never saw her on television or in film. It was her stage presence that I cherish. I am thrilled that she is still alive. Perhaps she will read this testimony of a lifelong theatre lover and ardent fan.

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