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Friday, November 20, 2009

Deeper Dish with Frances Sternhagen

In 1979 my parents took me to see the film, Starting Over, starring Burt Reynolds as a recently divorced man torn between his new girlfriend (Jill Clayburgh) and his ex-wife (Candice Bergen). I still adore this movie today, but I'm especially fond of it for introducing me to the wonderful Frances Sternhagen, who plays Burt's sister-in-law. She and her onscreen husband, Charles Durning, make a delightful couple and steal every scene they are in. And ever since the film, I've been a fan of Frannie's.

The actress made her Broadway debut in 1955 as Miss T. Muse in The Skin of Our Teeth, and she went on to win two Tony awards for her performances in the 1974 production of Neil Simon's The Good Doctor and in the excellent 1995 revival of The Heiress. She has received five other Tony nominations for her roles in the original Broadway productions of Equus (1975) and On Golden Pond (1979) as well as for The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1972), the musical, Angel (1978), and the 2002 revival of Morning's at Seven. Her most recent Broadway role was as Clairee in the 2005 production of Steel Magnolias with Delta Burke and Christine Ebersole.

However, Sternhagen is probably best known for her memorable television roles as Cliff Clavin's mother on Cheers (for which she received two Emmy Award nominations), John Carter's grandmother on ER, and, of course, her Emmy-nominated performance as Bunny MacDougal, Charlotte's mother-in-law on Sex and the City. She has also appeared in many films over the years, including Up the Down Staircase (1967), Bright Lights, Big City (1988), See You in the Morning (1989), Misery (1990), The Laramie Project (2002), and The Mist (2007). And the fabulous lady has continued to entertain us this year with her recurring role as Kyra Sedgwick's mother on TV's The Closer and an amusing cameo as Irma Rombauer, author of The Joy of Cooking, in the film, Julie & Julia. I am so thrilled and honored to have Frances Sternhagen here on the Dish to discuss her amazing career and answer a few pop culture questions.

Let's begin with Julie & Julia. How did you get cast in the role of Irma?
Nora Ephron simply said to me that I was the first person she thought of for the role, offered it to me, and that was that.

How was your experience working on the film?
I loved working with Meryl and Helen and Linda, but I didn’t like that I didn’t get to go Paris--our scene was shot in New York.

What is the most memorable moment you have had while performing onstage?
During The Heiress, Cherry Jones and I, both exhausted, lost our footing on the stairs; there was no wall, only a scrim, so we had nothing to grab onto and we both fell. We tumbled quite literally like tumbleweeds, or bad gymnasts, down the stairs. Now, we are supposed to be in the 19th century, but the stage manager came out in jeans and called a stop to the show. Cherry turned to the audience and said, "Please be patient. Give us a few minutes and we’ll start again. I did not try to kill Frannie." We resumed the show, but I didn't get a single laugh because everyone was concerned about the poor lady who took a tumble.

Out of all the Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional theater you've done, what stage role have you enjoyed performing the most?
I can't limit myself to just one role. I've been fortunate in the roles I've played, and among my favorites are Margery Pynchwife in The Country Wife, Flora in A Slight Ache, Dora in Equus, Nancy in Seascape, and Ethel in On Golden Pond.

You've appeared in many interesting films and television shows over the years. What's the first thing that pops into your mind about:

Up the Down Staircase?
I had very little to do, but I spent some time with Eileen Heckart and enjoyed it enormously because she was such a fabulous, entertaining person.

Starting Over?
Loved Charlie Durning and loved having the chance to play an interesting, somewhat witty character who really had little to do with the rest of the story. She was just fabulous for the sake of being fabulous. I also love that Tennessee Williams nearly wet himself from laughing at a line I had in the film.

See You in the Morning?
Well, it was director Alan Pakula's real-life story, and I played his mother-in-law, whom he liked. My part of the story was happy and pleasing to him, while the overall story is rather mournful.

Every single person was fun and wonderful, and Ted Danson was a real leader, and everyone relied on him for opinions and style. I was in one episode where I thought I was mean, rather than funny, and I must have muttered this to someone. And Ted came to my defense and had things changed. This show was a perfect package.

Sex and the City?
Clever writing, and I particularly enjoyed working with Kyle MacLachlan, who is such a nice man. And the girls! All wonderful, and all right here in NYC, close to home.

The Closer?
A good, strong company; a great detective story. James Duff, the show’s creator and producer, is a good and longtime friend.

You’ve also had a number of roles on daytime soap operas, including Toni Prentiss Davis on Love of Life, Phyllis Corrigan on The Doctors, Jane Overstreet on Another World, and Jessie Reddin on The Secret Storm. Which character was the most fun to play?
I would say Toni on Love of Life because I played her the longest and got to go through more changes than with the other characters.

In high school I was:
Happy, which is apparently rare among high-schoolers.

If I had to gain 30 pounds for a role, I would eat:
I wouldn’t take any role that demanded that I gain weight. You can look appropriately fat through costuming, padding and makeup.

The last good book I read was:
Tracy Kidder’s Strength In What Remains.

I never miss a television episode of:
MacNeil/Lehrer Report. I'm also fairly addicted to PBS.

Three of my favorite movies are:
Doesn't everyone mention Casablanca? So will I. I also love The Wizard of Oz, which I watched with all of my children. I have six. High Noon is also a favorite.

If I was stranded on a desert island for a year, I would want to listen to:

If I could star on Broadway in any role in any musical or play, I would be:
Nonplussed that anyone would offer this power to me.

My favorite Broadway show I’ve ever seen is:
South Pacific, which I saw with my parents on my very first trip to New York City. I loved it, and I wept buckets when I saw the revival. I also saw Kiss Me, Kate on that trip, so it comes in second.

The last good play or musical I saw was:
The Norman Conquests.

If I could have anyone in the world--living or dead--be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
Jack O’Brien, who is quite alive, thank God; Dean Acheson; and Gracie Allen.

What's next for Frances Sternhagen?
You tell me!

Thank you, Frannie, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish.


Alan Scott said...

She's one of my favorites, too. In fact, she's the only one that kept the "The Mist" from being a total loser. The scene where she hits Marcia Gay Harden in the head with a can of vegetables was hysterical.
Thanks for the post!

Deep Dish said...

I'm so glad you liked the interview, Alan!

Stephen said...

She is one my favorites & Deep Dish landed an interview! & a good interview at that... you know I love your blog & it jut keeps getting better. Thanks for this,

Deep Dish said...

Thanks for your kind words, Stephen!

IAmATVJunkie said...

I just love her more now. Thanks, Marc, this was great.

Linda W said...

My favorite line of hers is from Doc Hollywood - the welcoming committee scene - she offers up Hungry Man Dinner. Everytime I see them advertised I hear her voice!