Frances Sternhagen

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Frances Sternhagen
Frances Sternhagen 1962.jpg
Sternhagen in 1962
Born (1930-01-13) January 13, 1930 (age 93)
Occupation(s)Actress, former teacher
Years active1951–2014
Thomas Carlin
(m. 1956; died 1991)

Frances Sternhagen (born January 13, 1930)[1] is an American actress; she has appeared on- and off-Broadway, in movies, and on TV since the 1950s.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Sternhagen was educated at the Madeira and Potomac schools in McLean, Virginia. At Vassar College, she was elected head of the Drama Club "after silencing a giggling college crowd at a campus dining hall with her interpretation of a scene from Richard II, playing none other than Richard himself". She attended the Catholic University of America as a grad student, where she met Thomas A. Carlin, her future husband, to whom she was married from 1956 until his death in 1991; the couple had six children.[3] She also studied at the Perry Mansfield School of the Theatre, and at New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse.[2]

Stage career[edit]

Sternhagen started her career teaching acting, singing, and dancing to school children at the Milton Academy in Massachusetts, and she first performed in 1948 at a Bryn Mawr summer theater in The Glass Menagerie and Angel Street.[2] She went on to work at Washington's Arena Stage from 1953–54, then made her Broadway debut in 1955 as Miss T. Muse in The Skin of Our Teeth.[4] The same year, she had her off-Broadway debut in Thieves' Carnival, and her TV debut in The Great Bank Robbery on Omnibus (CBS). By the following year, she had won her first Obie Award for "Distinguished Performance (Actress)" in The Admirable Bashville (1955–56).[5]

She has won two Tony Awards, for Best Supporting Actress (Dramatic): in 1974 for the original Broadway production of Neil Simon's The Good Doctor[6] and in 1995 for the revival of The Heiress. She has been nominated for Tony Awards five other times, including for her roles in the original Broadway casts of Equus (1975) and On Golden Pond (1979), as well as for Lorraine Hansberry's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1972), the musical Angel (1978), which was based on Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, and the 2002 revival of Paul Osborn's Morning's at Seven.[6]

She portrayed the title character in 1988's Pulitzer prize-winning drama Driving Miss Daisy, which was originated by Dana Ivey at Playwrights Horizons in New York. Sternhagen took over the role after the show moved to the John Houseman Theatre and played it for more than two years. Her off-Broadway awards include two nominations for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play in 1998, for a revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (which starred her own son, Paul Carlin, as her character's son, Jamie Tyrone) for the Irish Repertory Theatre[7] and in 2005, for the World War I drama Echoes of the War.[2]

Sternhagen appeared as the Daughter in the original 1971 Broadway production of Edward Albee's All Over with Colleen Dewhurst and Jessica Tandy. In the summer of 2005, she starred in the Broadway production of Steel Magnolias along with Marsha Mason, Delta Burke, Christine Ebersole, Lily Rabe, and Rebecca Gayheart. She also starred in the 2005 revival of Edward Albee's Seascape, produced by Lincoln Center Theater at the Booth Theater on Broadway.

In 2013, Sternhagen was awarded the Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement.[8] She is included in the New Rochelle Walk of Fame.[citation needed]

Film roles[edit]

Sternhagen made her film debut in Up the Down Staircase (1967).[9] She has worked periodically in Hollywood since then. She had character roles in Paddy Chayefsky's The Hospital (1971), in Two People (1973), and in Billy Wilder's Fedora (1978). She appeared in Starting Over (1979), opposite Sean Connery in Outland (1981), and in Michael J. Fox's Bright Lights, Big City (1988).

She played Farrah Fawcett's mother in See You in the Morning (1989), Richard Farnsworth's wife in Misery (1990), Lillian in Doc Hollywood (1991) and John Lithgow's psychiatrist in Raising Cain (1992). Sternhagen starred in Frank Darabont's 2007 science-fiction horror film The Mist. She also appeared in the family films Dolphin Tale (2011) and And So It Goes (2014), her last acting role before retirement.

Television roles[edit]

She may be best known to TV audiences as Esther Clavin, mother of John Ratzenberger's Boston postman character Cliff Clavin, on the long-running series Cheers, for which she received two Emmy Award nominations. She also played Millicent Carter on ER; Bunny MacDougal, mother of Trey, Charlotte's first husband on Sex and the City (another Emmy Award nomination); a memorable Willie Rae Johnson (mother of Brenda Leigh Johnson, played by Kyra Sedgwick) on The Closer; and Law & Order, among other network dramas and sitcoms. She worked for many years in soap operas such as Another World, The Secret Storm, Love of Life and played two roles on One Life to Live. She recorded a voice-over for a May 2002 episode of The Simpsons ("The Frying Game"). She is also recognized as Mrs. Marsh from a series of television commercials for Colgate toothpaste that aired in the 1970s.


Year Title Role Notes
1967 Up the Down Staircase Charlotte Wolf
1967 The Tiger Makes Out Lady On Bus
1971 The Hospital Mrs. Cushing
1973 Two People Mrs. McCluskey
1978 Fedora Miss Balfour
1979 Starting Over Marva Potter
1981 Outland Dr. Marian Lazarus Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress
1983 Independence Day Carla Taylor
1983 Romantic Comedy Blanche Dailey
1986 Resting Place Eudora McCallister
1988 Bright Lights, Big City Clara Tillinghast
1989 Communion Dr. Janet Duffy
1989 See You in the Morning Neenie
1990 Sibling Rivalry Rose Turner
1990 Misery Deputy Virginia Nominated—Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress
1991 Doc Hollywood Lillian
1991 Walking the Dog Antique Dealer Short film
1992 Raising Cain Dr. Lynn Waldheim Nominated—Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress
1998 It All Came True Amy
2000 Midnight Gospel Ruth Short film
2001 Landfall Emily Thornton
2001 The Rising Place Ruth Wilder
2002 Highway Mrs. Murray
2007 The Mist Irene Reppler
2009 Julie & Julia Irma Rombauer
2011 Dolphin Tale Gloria Forrest
2014 And So It Goes Claire
Year Title Role Notes
1956 Westinghouse Studio One Betty Episode: "The Arena"
1957 Westinghouse Studio One Mary Episode: "My Mother and How She Undid Me"
1957 Goodyear Television Playhouse Elizabeth Barnes Episode: "The House"
1959 Play of the Week Eva Episode: "Thieves Carnival"
1961 Play of the Week Unknown Episode: "In a Garden"
1962 The Broadway of Lerner and Loewe Theatre-Goer TV movie
1962 The Nurses Mrs. Harris Episode: "The Lady Made of Stone"
1964 The Defenders Louise Kiley Episode: "May Day! May Day!"
1964 Profiles in Courage Miss Koeller Episode: "Mary S. McDowell"
1967 NET Playhouse Unknown Episode: "Infancy and Childhood"
1967 Hallmark Hall of Fame Abigail Episode: "Soldier in Love"
1967–1968 Love of Life Toni Prentiss Davis TV series
1970 The Doctors Phyllis Corrigan TV series
1971 NET Playhouse Unknown Segment: "Foul!"
1971 Another World Jane Overstreet TV series
1972 Great Performances Wilma Atkins Episode: "The Rimers of Eldritch"
1974 The Secret Storm Jessie Reddin TV series
1974 Great Performances Paulina Episode: "Enemies"
1977 The Andros Targets Mrs. Mason Episode: "In the Event of My Death"
1978 Who'll Save Our Children? Nellie Henderson TV movie
1980 Mother and Daughter: The Loving War Mrs. Lloyd TV movie
1980 The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg Mary Richards TV short
1983 Prototype Dorothy Forrester TV movie
1984 The Dining Room Various TV movie
1985 Spencer Millie Sprague 7 episodes
1986–1993 Cheers Esther Clavin 7 episodes
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
1987 At Mother's Request Berenice Bradshaw TV movie
1987 Once Again Unknown TV movie
1990 Follow Your Heart Cloe Sixbury TV movie
1991 American Experience (voice) Episode: "Coney Island"
1991 The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd Dora Episode: "Here's a High Dive Into a Shallow Pool"
1991 Golden Years Gina Williams 7 episodes
1991 Law & Order Margaret Langdon Episode: "The Serpent's Tooth"
1992 She Woke Up Noelle TV movie
1992 Tales from the Crypt Effie Gluckman Episode: "None But the Lonely Heart"
1993 Labor of Love: The Arlette Schweitzer Story Mary Rafferty TV movie
1994 Vault of Horror I Unknown TV movie
1994 The Road Home Charlotte Babineaux 6 episodes
1994 Reunion Tobie Yates TV movie
1995 The Outer Limits Jean Anderson Episode: "The Choice"
1997 Law & Order Estelle Muller Episode: "Legacy"
1997–2003 ER Millicent Carter 19 episodes
1998 The Con Hadabelle TV movie
1998 To Live Again Constance Holmes TV movie
2000–2002 Sex and the City Bunny MacDougal 10 episodes
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series
2002 The Laramie Project Marge Murray TV movie
Nominated—Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film
2002 The Simpsons Mrs. Bellamy (voice) Episode: "The Frying Game"
2004 Becker Naomi Episode: "Subway Story"
2006–2012 The Closer Willie Ray Johnson 15 episodes
2012 Parenthood Blanche Braverman Episode: "Road Trip"
Year Title Role
1955 The Skin of Our Teeth Miss T. Muse
1955 The Carefree Tree Widow Yang
1960 Viva Madison Avenue! Dee Jones
1962 Great Day in the Morning Alice McAnany
1965–1966 The Right Honourable Gentleman Mrs. Ashton Dilke
1967 A Doll's House Nora
1967–1969 You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running Harriet / Edith / Muriel (standby)
1968–1969 The Cocktail Party Lavinia Chamberlayne
1969 Cock-A-Doodle Dandy Loreleen
1970 Blood Red Roses Various (standby)
1971 The Playboy of the Western World Widow Quin
1971 All Over The Daughter / The Mistress (standby)
1971 Mary Stuart Mary Stuart / Queen Elizabeth (understudy)
1972 The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window Mavis Parodus Bryson
1972 Enemies Paulina
1973–1974 The Good Doctor Performer
1974–1977 Equus Dora Strang
1978 Angel Eliza Gant
1979–1980 On Golden Pond Ethel Thayer
1981 The Father Laura
1981–1982 Grown Ups Helen
1983–1984 You Can't Take It with You Unknown
1985 Home Front Maurine
1993 A Perfect Ganesh Margaret
1995 The Heiress Lavinia Penniman
1999 The Exact Center of the Universe Unknown
2002 Morning's at Seven Ida Bolton
2005 Steel Magnolias Clairee
2005–2006 Seascape Nancy
2013 The Madrid Rose


  1. ^ "UPI Almanac for Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021". United Press International. January 13, 2021. Archived from the original on February 27, 2021. Retrieved February 27, 2021. …actor Frances Sternhagen in 1930 (age 91)…
  2. ^ a b c d Joy, Cara."Frances Sternhagen in Talks to Join Company of Broadway Magnolias",, November 22, 2004.
  3. ^ Profile,; accessed October 6, 2021.
  4. ^ "Frances Sternhagen". Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League. Archived from the original on May 28, 2019. Retrieved May 28, 2019.
  5. ^ "1950s". Obie Awards. Village Voice and American Theatre Wing. Retrieved May 28, 2019.
  6. ^ a b "("Frances Sternhagen" search results)". Tony Awards. Tony Award Productions. Retrieved May 28, 2019.
  7. ^ Lefkowitz, David."Brian Murray & Frances Sternhagen Take Irish Journey, Mar. 22" Archived September 30, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, March 22, 1998
  8. ^ "2013 Obie Awards". Obie Awards. Village Voice and American Theatre Wing. Archived from the original on May 29, 2015. Retrieved May 28, 2019.
  9. ^ "Frances Sternhagen Credits"; accessed August 27, 2011.

External links[edit]