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Frances Sternhagen, Tony Award-winning actor, dies at 93

Actress Frances Sternhagen has died aged 93 (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
Actress Frances Sternhagen has died aged 93 (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Frances Sternhagen, the veteran character actor and Tony Award winner, has died aged 93.

Sternhagen died peacefully of natural causes in her home in Washington, DC, her son, John Carlin, said in a statement posted to Instagram.

“Fly on, Frannie,” Carlin wrote. “The curtain goes down on a life so richly, passionately, humbly and generously lived.”

Obit Frances Sternhagen
Frances Sternhagen won two Tony Awards and became a familiar face on TV (AP Photo/Peter Kramer, File)

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 Tony Awards 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.”

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), in a role that brought her two Emmy nominations.

Obit Frances Sternhagen
Actors Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen (AP Photo/G. Paul Burnett, File)

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”.

Sternhagen was born in 1930, in Washington, DC, where her father was a tax court judge. As a child she loved to perform — she recalled herself as “a shameful show-off” — but she never considered an acting career. She entered Vassar as a history major, but a friendly teacher suggested another direction: acting.

“Even though I was acting in college,” she told the New York Daily News, “it hadn’t occurred to me to major in drama.” But when it was noted that she was doing “C” work in history, Sternhagen switched to drama.

After graduation, she taught drama, modern dance and singing outside Boston, before deciding to pursue work in the theatre.