Newsday drama critic Linda Winer's wish has come true. When she reviewed Talking Heads, Alan Bennett's six solo plays, which are being presented in Programs A and B Off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theater, she raved that Lynn Redgrave was "irresistible," Kathleen Chalfant, "ever-remarkable"; Christine Ebersole, "heartbreaking"; Brenda Wehle, "lovely"; Daniel Davis, "wonderful"; and that Valerie Mahaffey, had "a sweet generosity." But, she concluded, "I kept wanting more!"

Now she has it; and, thanks to Frances Sternhagen, this is one time you don't have to worry about wishes coming true. A seventh play, Waiting for the Telegram in its U.S. premiere, has been added, and Miss Sternhagen is, as always, irresistible, ever-remarkable, heartbreaking, lovely, wonderful and even has a sweet generosity.

"I was in on opening night," explains Miss Sternhagen, "but critics don't come to opening nights anymore. They review previews, and I wasn't here. It wasn't the producers' fault. I was on a family trip in South America. Tom Hulce [actor turned producer] said, 'That's all right. We're going to be moving things around, so we'll just put you in when you're back.' What we didn't know was that I wouldn't get reviewed" [or seen by the Drama Desk Awards nominating committee and voters before the season cut-off].

Theater Hall of Famer Miss Sternhagen was bitten by the acting bug at age 13 when she tired of piano lessons while growing up in Washington, D.C. "I became much more interested in drama," she says, "but I never expected to do anything professional."

In fact, expectations were quite low. "Father had to retire," recalled Miss Sternhagen. "He couldn't work because he had what came to be known as Parkinson's Disease. He went through thirteen years of treatments and hospitals, and nothing worked. My mother had to take little jobs. For a while, she taught remedial reading. There was no money for college." Thanks to family friends who had no children of their own, she was able to go to boarding school at [Virginia's prestigious] Madeira, where she not only acted but also directed.

When she qualified for and was accepted at Vassar, the family friends once again came to the rescue. "At Vassar, I had wonderful teachers," says Miss Sternhagen, "and it was there that I first sensed what acting really was."

She knew how to command a stage -- even if it was in the dining hall. To interest more students in drama, she was asked to do a scene from Richard II . As she played Richard, there was a chorus of giggles. "I took control by grabbing my mirror and hurling it to the floor. It broke into a million pieces and you could hear a pin drop. That alone, got me elected head of the Drama Club!"

Vassar helped Miss Sternhagen hone the unique voice that has made her an attention-getter. She told an interviewer: "Some of the [Madeira] students were people I really wouldn't have much to do with in my life because they were very wealthy. Some were very sophisticated, at least to my way of thinking. A few of them had what I call that Groton/Harvard accent I saw at Vassar, too." She developed a theater voice that was nicknamed "the lockjaw."

Early on, she used it in a television show with Ann Jackson and Eli Wallach. "I was playing a babysitter, and I said with that accent, 'I gave the baby a pacifier,' and Annie and Eli just found that hilarious. I did the same sort of thing in The Importance of Being Earnest in Princeton at the McCarter with Ellis Rabb and Rosemary Harris. I developed a Mayfair accent because of one word. Jack says, 'Do you love me, Gwendolyn?' And I said, 'Passionately.' The word 'passionately' just gave me the clue to the character. Just perfectly."

In her late teens, Miss Sternhagen made her professional stage debut as the 30ish Laura in a 1948 stock production of The Glass Menagerie. After graduation, she attended the Perry-Mansfield Theater School and studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Back in Washington, she taught acting, singing and dancing to school children and became involved with Arena Stage. In 1954, she made her Off-Broadway debut as Juliette in Girardoux' Thieves' Carnival.
"That was one of the last times I'd play an ingenue!" smiles Miss Sternhagen. "I don't know why, but I was often cast in older roles. It was probably partly due to my voice, but I also had an understanding of older people, which stemmed from being around mostly older people in my childhood. They were funny and eccentric and I must have absorbed some of that."

She says that live TV, "when it was really live, was a great training ground. I miss those times. They were exciting. It was intense and crazy. It was live and you couldn't correct a mistake."

Miss Sternhagen said she had wonderful parts in her 20s and 30s, but it wasn't until she was in her 40s that she realized she'd made it to the plateau where she could make a living as an actress and do what she wanted to do. She says she never felt the urge to hone her skills as a director. "I've worked with wonderful directors and I don't have that kind of mind that has a concept of how a performance should be developed."

She received the 1973 Tony Award for her multiple characterizations in Neil Simon's The Good Doctor. She followed with two of her all-time favorite stage roles: Dora Strang in Equus (1974) and Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond (1979). In 1995, opposite Cherry Jones in The Heiress, Miss Sternhagen received her second Tony.

After acting almost non-stop through the years onstage and in film, it was TV that made Miss Sternhagen "a household face, if not exactly a household name" in recurring roles on three hit series that are indelibly printed in the minds of TV fans: steely, domineering Ester Clavin of "Cheers"; Millicent "Gamma" Carter on "E.R."; and steely, domineering Bunny McDougal of "Sex and the City."

Miss Sternhagen has been blessed to be in that one percentile of actors who've been able to effortlessly go from stage to film to TV. "All that work came about as a result of someone seeing me onstage in something or the other." So it wasn't just having a great agent? "Agents can be very helpful after you're established in negotiating better deals for you and also at the beginning of your career by helping to put you in places where you can be seen. I've had good agents, but, too often, I've seen where an agent can push you too high and then, if you don't get a certain role, your career flattens out."

She's appeared in 25 plays on Broadway alone, and numerous Off-Broadway productions. It wasn't always easy. Married to Broadway actor Thomas Carlin, the couple had six children [among them Tony Carlin, now in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg]. Her late husband had problems that led to alcoholism. "Thomas was quite handsome and started as a very promising juvenile, but as he got older, directors didn't know how to cast him. That added to his unhappiness and he drank more. They preyed on each other. It was sad and affected the family. Not becoming a star shouldn't bother people in our business so much. Just so you're working!"
"Though I loved my husband very much, and we were very close, there were times when I was so grateful to go off to work even though I had to leave the kids with a sitter and wonder what was going to happen when I left. I felt so guilty going off when I knew things were not exactly fun at home. But going off to a world of creativity and imagination, helped insulate me from a lot of turmoil."

Among her regrets as an actress is the fact she never got to do more Chekhov. "But I can't complain," Miss Sternhagen says. "I'm doing what I love. I simply love acting! It's you who's out there, but you are creating another world and other people. As long as even one person in your audience is reached by your gift, you've accomplished your purpose."

Asked to name her favorite role, Miss Sternhagen says, "There are so many. It's a long list. I always say, 'My next role is my favorite!'"


Key Subjects: 
Frances Sternhagen, Talking Heads, Alan Bennett
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer
May 2003
Frances Sternhagen Looks Back -- And Forward