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February 23, 2024
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‘Cheers’ and ‘ER’ star Frances Sternhagen dies at 93, family says

Frances Sternhagen, a Tony-winning actress with many decades on the stage and screen, died Monday of natural causes in New Rochelle, New York, her family said in a statement. She was 93.

She was known for her recurring role as the regal grandmother of Dr. John Carter, played by Noah Wyle, on “ER” and as Cliff’s mother on “Cheers,” for which she was twice nominated for Emmys.

She made a distinct impression in her role as the doctor who helps Sean Connery’s cop in Peter Hyams’ 1981 sci-film “Outland,” and in “Misery,” she played the sheriff’s wife, Virginia, who was part of the search for James Caan’s novelist character.

Her other films include “Julie and Julia,” “Starting Over,” “Independence Day” and “Doc Hollywood.”

In a role similar to that of Millicent Carter on “ER,” Sternhagen recurred on “Sex and the City” as Bunny MacDougal, the blue-blood mother of Trey, played by Kyle MacLachlan — earning a 2002 Emmy nomination for her performance in an episode in which she discovers her son having sex with his girlfriend and bolts from the room. 

Sternhagen also appeared from 2006 to 2012 as Willie Rae Johnson, the Southern mother of Kyra Sedgwick’s character on “The Closer.” She had most recently appeared onscreen in Rob Reiner’s 2014 feature film “And So It Goes,” starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton.

She was also known for her stint on NBC’s “Another World” as Jane Overstreet in the early 1970s.

In a long career on Broadway, Sternhagen was seven times a Tony nominee, winning in 1974 for featured actress in a play for Neil Simon’s “The Doctor” and in 1995 for featured actress in a play for a revival of “The Heiress.” Her other Tony nominations were for Lorraine Hansberry’s “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” featured actress, in 1972; “Equus,” featured actress, 1975; “Angel,” actress in a musical, 1978; “On Golden Pond,” actress in a play, 1979; and Paul Osborn’s “Morning’s at Seven,” featured actress in a play, 2002.

Starring on Broadway in the original production of “On Golden Pond” in 1979, Sternhagen created the role of the mother, Ethel Thayer, played by Katharine Hepburn in the 1981 feature adaptation. More recently, she appeared on the Rialto in 2005 in “Steel Magnolias” as Clairee (the role played by Olympia Dukakis in Herbert Ross’ 1989 movie) and, the same year, in Edward Albee’s “Seascape.”

Frances Hussey Sternhagen was born in Washington, D.C. At Vassar College she studied drama and was head of the drama club before graduating in 1951. She studied at the Perry Mansfield School of the Theatre and with Sanford Meisner at the Group Theater.

Interviewed by the Vassar alumni magazine in 2001, Sternhagen proclaimed herself to be an actor who works primarily “from the outside in,” elaborating: “I like to be the Minister of Silly Walks. I like finding how a character speaks and walks and dresses.” She told the author of the article that Burt Lancaster helped her understand the difference between theater acting and movie acting.

At the Milton Academy in Massachusetts, she taught acting, singing and dancing to the prep school students. She worked at Washington’s Arena Stage in 1953 in 1954 and then made her Broadway debut as Miss T. Muse in Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” in 1955. The same year, she debuted Off Broadway in “Thieves’ Carnival” and on TV in “The Great Bank Robbery” on CBS’ “Omnibus.” She won an Obie Award for her performance in “The Admirable Bashville” in 1956.

Sternhagen was presented with the Helen Hayes Tribute by the Helen Hayes Award Organization in 2007. An inductee into the Theatre Hall of Fame, she also sat on the hall’s executive committee.

Sternhagen was married to actor Thomas Carlin from 1956 until his death in 1991. She is survived by six children: sons Paul, Tony, Peter and John and daughters Amanda and Sarah; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. 

Her family said they are planning a “celebration of her remarkable career and life” for mid-January, around what would have been her 94th birthday.

“We continue to be inspired by her love and life,” her family said in a statement.

Diana Dasrath

Diana Dasrath is entertainment producer and senior reporter for NBC News covering all platforms.

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