Frances Sternhagen
Sternhagen in 1962
Born(1930-01-13)January 13, 1930
DiedNovember 27, 2023(2023-11-27) (aged 93)
Alma materVassar College
Catholic University of America
Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre
  • Actress
  • former teacher
Years active1951–2014
Known for
(m. 1956; died 1991)
RelativesJohn M. Sternhagen (father)

Frances Hussey Sternhagen (January 13, 1930 – November 27, 2023) was an American actress. Sternhagen was known as a character actress who appeared on- and off-Broadway, in movies, and on television for over six decades.[1] She received numerous accolades including two Tony Awards, a Drama Desk Award, a Saturn Award, as well as nominations for three Primetime Emmy Awards.

Sternhagen gained acclaim for her extensive career on the Broadway stage. She made her debut in The Skin of Our Teeth (1955). She went on to receive two Tony Awards for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performances as various characters in Neil Simon's comedic play The Good Doctor (1973) and as Lavinia Penniman in Ruth and Augustus Goetz's dramatic play The Heiress (1995). Her other Tony-nominated roles were for The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1972), Equus (1975), Angel (1978), On Golden Pond (1979), and Morning's at Seven (2002).

She gained prominence and Primetime Emmy Award nominations for her recurring roles as Esther Clavin in the NBC sitcom Cheers (1986–1993) and Bunny MacDougal in the HBO series Sex and the City (2000–2002). She also had recurring roles in the NBC medical drama ER (1994–2009), and the TNT series The Closer (2006–2012). Sternhagen acted in numerous films including The Hospital (1971), Starting Over (1979), Misery (1990), and Julie & Julia (2009).

Early life and education

Frances Hussey Sternhagen was born in Washington, D.C., on January 13, 1930.[2][3] Her father was tax court judge John M. Sternhagen and her mother was a homemaker who served as a nurse during World War I.[2] She was educated at the Madeira and Potomac schools in McLean, Virginia.[2] 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 graduate student. She also studied at the Perry Mansfield School of the Theatre, and at New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse.[1]


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1948–1973: Early work

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.[1] She went on to work at Washington's Arena Stage from 1953 to 1954, 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]

Sternhagen made her film debut in Up the Down Staircase (1967).[6] Following this, she worked periodically in Hollywood. She had character roles in the Paddy Chayefsky-written The Hospital (1971), Two People (1973), and Billy Wilder's Fedora (1978). Sternhagen appeared as the Daughter in the original 1971 Broadway production of Edward Albee's All Over with Colleen Dewhurst and Jessica Tandy. She worked for many years in soap operas such as Another World, The Secret Storm, Love of Life, and The Doctors, and she played two roles on One Life to Live. She is also recognized as Mrs. Marsh from a series of television commercials for Colgate toothpaste that aired in the 1970s.

1974–1993: Theater roles and Cheers

Sternhagen won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play in 1974 for the original Broadway production of Neil Simon's The Good Doctor.[7] She was also nominated for Tony Awards in that decade for her roles in Lorraine Hansberry's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1972), Equus (1975), the musical Angel (1978), which was based on Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, and On Golden Pond (1979).[7] She was also nominated for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play in 1979 for On Golden Pond. Sternhagen 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.

During this time Sternhagen appeared as Charles Durning's strong-willed wife in Starting Over (1979) with Burt Reynolds and Jill Clayburgh, the acerbic and tough-as-nails Dr. Marian Lazarus opposite Sean Connery in Outland (1981), a turn that garnered her a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress, and played roles in Bright Lights, Big City (1988) and Doc Hollywood (1991), both alongside Michael J. Fox. Sternhagen's work as Sheriff Buster (Richard Farnsworth)'s wife Deputy Virginia in Rob Reiner's Misery (1990), an adaptation of Stephen King's 1987 novel of the same name, and her performance as Dr. Lynn Waldheim in Brian De Palma's 1992 psychological horror-thriller Raising Cain garnered her two more career Saturn Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress. Sternhagen also played Farrah Fawcett's mother in See You in the Morning (1989). 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 which she played from 1986 to 1993. For her performance, she received two Primetime Emmy Award nominations.[2]

1994–2014: Final roles

Sternhagen won a second Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play in 1995 for the revival of The Heiress. She received her seventh and final Tony Award nomination for the 2002 revival of Paul Osborn's Morning's at Seven. Sternhagen's later television roles included Millicent Carter on ER; Bunny MacDougal, mother of Charlotte's first husband Trey, 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 recorded a voice-over for a May 2002 episode of The Simpsons ("The Frying Game").

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. She received Drama Desk Award nominations 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[8] and in 2005 for the World War I drama Echoes of the War.[1] In 2013, Sternhagen was awarded the Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement.[9] She is included in the New Rochelle Walk of Fame.[citation needed] Her final film roles included Irene Reppler, one of the numerous local townfolk trapped in a supermarket, in Frank Darabont's horror-chiller The Mist (2007), real-life Joy of Cooking author Irma Rombauer in Julie & Julia (2009), Clearwater Aquarium owner Gloria Forrest in Dolphin Tale (2011) and, in her final screen appearance, Claire in the Rob Reiner romantic comedy And So It Goes (2014) starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton.

Personal life and death

Sternhagen met Thomas A. Carlin while in graduate school and was married to him from 1956 until his death in 1991; the couple had six children, four sons and two daughters.[10]

Sternhagen was a longtime resident of New Rochelle, New York.[2] She died at her home on November 27, 2023, at the age of 93.[2][11]



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
1983 Independence Day Carla Taylor
1983 Romantic Comedy Blanche Dailey
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
1991 Doc Hollywood Lillian
1991 Walking the Dog Antique Dealer Short film
1992 Raising Cain Dr. Lynn Waldheim
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 Resting Place Eudora McCallister TV movie
1986–1993 Cheers Esther Clavin 7 episodes
1987 At Mother's Request Berenice Bradshaw TV movie
1987 Once Again Esther 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 [sv] Mary Rafferty TV movie
1994 Vault of Horror I Unknown TV movie
1994 The Road Home Charlotte Babineaux 6 episodes
1994 Reunion [it] 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 21 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
2002 The Laramie Project Marge Murray TV movie
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 Notes
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 Helmer
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 Penelope Sycamore
1985 Home Front Maurine
1993 A Perfect Ganesh Margaret
1995 The Heiress Lavinia Penniman
1998 Long Day's Journey into Night Mary Cavan Tyrone
1999 The Exact Center of the Universe Vada Love Powell
2002 Morning's at Seven Ida Bolton
2004 Echoes of the War Mrs. Dowey
2005 Steel Magnolias Clairee
2005–2006 Seascape Nancy
2013 The Madrid Rose

Awards and nominations

Year Association Category Project Result Ref.
1972 Tony Award Best Featured Actress in a Play The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window Nominated
1973 Tony Award Best Featured Actress in a Play The Good Doctor Won
1974 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play Equus Won
Tony Award Best Featured Actress in a Play Nominated
1978 Tony Award Best Actress in a Musical Angel Nominated
1979 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Actress in a Play On Golden Pond Nominated
Tony Award Best Actress in a Play Nominated
1981 Saturn Award Best Supporting Actress Outland Won
1990 Saturn Award Best Supporting Actress Misery Nominated
1991 Primetime Emmy Award Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series Cheers Nominated
1992 Primetime Emmy Award Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Nominated
1992 Saturn Award Best Supporting Actress Raising Cain Nominated
1995 Tony Award Best Featured Actress in a Play The Heiress Won
1998 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Actress in a Play Long Day's Journey into Night Nominated
2002 Tony Award Best Featured Actress in a Play Morning's at Seven Nominated
2002 Primetime Emmy Award Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series Sex and the City Nominated
2003 Satellite Award Best Supporting Actress - Television The Laramie Project Nominated
2004 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Actress in a Play Echoes of the War Nominated


  1. ^ a b c d Joy, Cara."Frances Sternhagen in Talks to Join Company of Broadway Magnolias",, November 22, 2004.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Gates, Anita (November 29, 2023). "Frances Sternhagen, Actress Who Thrived in Mature Roles, Dies at 93". The New York Times. Retrieved November 29, 2023.
  3. ^ "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)…
  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. ^ "Frances Sternhagen Credits"; accessed August 27, 2011.
  7. ^ a b "("Frances Sternhagen" search results)". Tony Awards. Tony Award Productions. Retrieved May 28, 2019.
  8. ^ Lefkowitz, David."Brian Murray & Frances Sternhagen Take Irish Journey, Mar. 22" Archived September 30, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, March 22, 1998
  9. ^ "2013 Obie Awards". Obie Awards. Village Voice and American Theatre Wing. Archived from the original on May 29, 2015. Retrieved May 28, 2019.
  10. ^ Profile,; accessed October 6, 2021.
  11. ^ Wild, Stephi. "Tony-Winning Stage and Screen Actress Frances Sternhagen Dies at 93". Retrieved November 29, 2023.