Frances Sternhagen: The Ultimate Character


Villain, crank, crackpot, biddy. Frances Sternhagen has spent a lifetime perfecting the worst aspects of her character. She’s done a good job of it. The Hyde School alumni parent has snagged two Tonys, two Obies, and two Drama Desk Awards on her way to being inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.

“I make a nice villain,” laughs Sternhagen, taking a break from filming Sex in the City, in which she plays the obnoxious, controlling mother of hunk Trey. “Most of us who are character actors tend to really enjoy being someone else. We spend our lives imitating and mimicking people.”

Life hasn’t always been easy for Sternhagen. She switched from teaching to acting in her 20s, overcoming daunting odds. “They would listen to my audition pieces and say, ‘Miss Sternhagen, I advise you to give up teaching if you want to act. You deliver everything like you’re leading girls onto the hockey field.’ ”

Sternhagen stuck with it, however, cutting her teeth at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., before heading up to the New York stage. She had critical success onstage, earning a prestigious Charles Durwin award, but only began to hit commercial success with a series of commercials in the 1970s. “I was the Colgate toothpaste lady, the character was named Mrs. Marsh,” recalls Sternhagen. “My children were sort of embarrassed for me, but it started paying for college tuition and for a couple of years of Hyde.”

Along the way, Sternhagen married the actor Tom Carlin and raised six children, four of whom eventually attended The Hyde Schools. Sternhagen credits The Hyde School with helping her and her family through some painful years.

“My late husband had an accident with the two older boys and it was devastating,” says Sternhagen. “My son Paul later said that his confidence just went after that accident. He slipped into some underachieving behavior. But he spent a couple of years at Hyde and had a breakthrough and did very well.”

During the Hyde years, Sternhagen’s career took off. She played Peter Firth’s mother in the Broadway production of Equus, sharing the stage with Richard Burton. “We had to take another exit because the crowds around the stage door were just impossible,” she recalls. “He and Elizabeth Taylor were still somewhat of an item. On opening night, Elizabeth left a note in lipstick on his mirror. It said something like, ‘You’re wonderful darling, all the best.’ He was a sweet, nice man.”

Sternhagen branched out into movies, playing scrappy older women in films such as Independence Day, Misery, Doc Hollywood and Raising Cain. On the small screen, she became known for her signature Cheers role of Ester Claven, the formidable mother of mailman Cliffy Claven. “I was the obnoxious domineering mother,” says Sternhagen. “Really ridiculous, but great fun to play.”

As often as possible, Sternhagen brought her children along on film shoots. “There were times when I was jealous of my family,” says Sternhagen. “I was stuck in the studio all day, while they were out viewing the sites in Greece and Germany and France.” Something about it must have rubbed off, because all of her children have chosen a life in the arts — four are actors, one is a dancer, one a musician.

There have been times when life and art intersected. In the theatrical tradition that has given rise to such shows such as A Chorus Line, or evenAmerica’s Spirit, Sternhagen’s family developed a semi-autobiographical performance piece called Family Affairs that they performed around the Westchester, N.Y., area. “The show was scenes and songs about various family conflicts and issues,” says Sternhagen. ” It was a wonderful program, with three of our children performing with us.”

Sternhagen lauds the emphasis on performing arts at Hyde. “The fact that every single child, faculty member and parent has to do something — it makes an enormous difference in how they approach things from then on. For somebody like me, being on stage is the only place I know who I am. But for people who don’t think they’re talented … or don’t have a need to perform, it takes an enormous amount of courage.

“I think it’s very interesting that character development is now beginning to be recognized in quite a lot of schools in the country. I think The Hyde School should get more credit for what it started doing in the 1960s.”

From Hyde School Alumni News