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Frances Sternhagen, ‘Cheers’ and ‘Sex and the City’ actor, dies at 93

Frances Sternhagen, in a white halter gown, smiles and holds a Tony Award in one hand and a sparkling clutch in the other
Frances Sternhagen won two Tony Awards during her career, including one in 1995 for featured actress in a play for her performance in “The Heiress.”
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)
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Frances Sternhagen, a stage and screen actor who received acclaim for her maternal roles on “Cheers,” “Sex and the City” and “The Closer,” has died. She was 93.

Sternhagen died “peacefully at her home” in New Rochelle, N.Y., of natural causes on Monday evening, according to her publicist and her son, John Carlin, who shared his mother’s death in a statement posted Tuesday on social media.

“I will post more soon, but for now I just want to give thanks for the remarkable gift of an artist and human being that was Frances Sternhagen,” Carlin wrote. “She was beloved by many. I’m very lucky I was able to call her my mom, my friend, my song and dance partner.

“Fly on, Frannie,” he continued. “The curtain goes down on a life so richly, passionately, humbly and generously lived.”

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A veteran character actor, Sternhagen was a familiar maternal face to TV viewers in such shows as “ER” and “The Closer.”

For her turn in NBC sitcom “Cheers” as Esther Clavin, mother of the titular bar’s regular Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger), Sternhagen was nominated twice for Primetime Emmys, in 1991 and ’92. A decade later, in 2002, she was again Emmy-nominated for her “Sex and the City” performance as Bunny MacDougal, the first mother-in-law of Charlotte York (Kristin Davis). She also was known for her roles in the movies “Misery” and “The Mist.”

“I must say it’s fun to play these snobby older ladies. It’s always more fun to be obnoxious,” Sternhagen told The Times in 2002. “I have known women like that, and I can imitate them, I guess.”

On the stage, Sternhagen was an accomplished performer. She won a Tony for featured actress in a play in 1974 for Neil Simon’s “The Good Doctor” and a second one in 1995 for a revival of “The Heiress.” Her last turn on Broadway was in “Seascape” in 2005.

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She was nominated for Tonys four other times, for starring or featured roles in “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” “Equus,” “Angel” and “Morning’s at Seven.” In 2013, she played Edie Falco’s mother in the off-Broadway play “The Madrid.”

Daniel Sullivan, her director in the 2002 revival of the 1938 play “Morning’s at Seven,” praised her strong personality and warmth behind the scenes.

“She has backbone; it’s not as though she is just docilely going ahead and doing anything you want her to do,” Sullivan said in the 2002 Times report. “Franny is very definite, a true pro, but her sort of sweet nature certainly is true in her working relationships.”

Playwright Paul Rudnick on Wednesday called her “a wonderful actress, capable of the highest comedy and deeply moving drama,” who “could seem regal or plainspoken.” She was, he wrote on X, “an indelible presence.”

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Maria Alex Beech, also a playwright, remembered working with Sternhagen on a play and described her as “self-effacing and humble.”

“She came to rehearsal with her own sandwich and sat with us, just one of us,” Beech wrote in a tweet. “She never let on that she had a long career in entertainment. She was a true artist’s artist. A true actor’s actor. And a dream playwright’s actor.”

Sternhagen was born in 1930 in Washington, D.C., where her father was a tax court judge. As a child she loved to perform — she recalled herself as “a shameful show-off” — but she never considered an acting career. She entered Vassar as a history major, but a friendly teacher suggested another direction: acting.

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After graduating college, she taught drama, modern dance and singing outside Boston, earning $2,000 for the year before deciding to pursue work in the theater.

“I thought I would try it, see if I liked it, and then get out,” she told The Times in 1981. “But you never get out. It’s an addiction, because it touches your emotions, because it’s where you want to live. ... I think those of us who can stay in it are just plain lucky.”

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She met her husband, actor Thomas A. Carlin, while appearing in a production in Maryland. Together they built a large family, something Sternhagen said she had always wanted. She kept up a flourishing career while at the same time raising six children. Carlin died of heart failure in 1991.

Sternhagen and Carlin had four sons, Paul, Tony, Peter and John, and two daughters, Amanda and Sarah. She also is survived by nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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