R.I.P. Frances Sternhagen, two-time Tony winner and Cheers actress

Image credit: The Everett Collection

Frances Sternhagen was an iconic actress whose long career on Broadway and in acting was awarded with two Tony Awards and seven nominations.

With all of her success in the industry, she was best remembered for playing two mothers on television: Bunny MacDougal on Sex and the City (1998) and the overbearing and blunt mother to Cliff Clavin on Cheers (1982).

She specialized in characters with no-nonsense attitudes, adding to her already powerful presence as an actress. She also rose to the top in roles that were out-of-the-box. She thrived at playing characters who were uncomfortable — it was her personal comfort zone.

Sternhagen received her first Tony Award in 1974 for her work in several stories from the original production of Neil Simon's The Good Doctor and won another in 1995 for her role as Aunt Lavinia in the revival of The Heiress. 

With the success of her Broadway work, she also had much success in television, too. Sternhagen arrived as Esther Clavin on the fifth season of Cheers. She had many brief but memorable appearances on the hit-series. 

Many remember Ma Clavin for her need to blurt out trivia facts or one-liners at the bar. Ma Clavin was portrayed by Sternhagen as being an overbearing, yet, loving mother who only wanted the best for Cliff, played by John Ratzenberger. 

She infused Ma Clavin with a mix of maternal concern and good comedic timing. She left a lasting impression on Cheers fans across the country. 

Sternhagen also made an impression as Millicent "Gamma" Carter, grandmother of John Carter (Noah Wyle), on NBC’s ER and as Willie Ray Johnson, the mother of LAPD Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) on The Closer

She gave incredible performances in productions including the 1972 production of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Equus (1975), Angel (1978), On Golden Pond (1979) and Morning’s at Seven (2002). She earned Tony nominations for all five of those shows.

She made her big-screen appearance in 1967 as Charlotte Wolf in Up the Down Staircase (1967) and later in Starting Over (1979) and See You in the Morning (1989).

Sternhagen was born on Jan. 13, 1930, in the District of Columbia. Sternhagen’s first taste of performing came when she would make her dad, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, laugh by imitating her classmates at The Potomac School. Sternhagen created a wonderful career for herself and for her fans to enjoy. She has left a lasting impact on the acting world.

Sternhagen was 93 and died of natural causes.

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