Frances Sternhagen remembers when Richard Burton forgot his lines, what Jessica Tandy thought of Driving Miss Daisy, and why Cherry Jones tumbled down a staircase.
Late last month, she told those stories at TDF's Drama Dialogues, a program that hosts live discussions with renowned theatre artists. As she was interviewed by Stephen DiMenna, a theatre director and TDF teaching artist, Sternhagen reflected on a career that includes two Tony awards, twenty-two Broadway shows, and memorable turns on TV series like Sex and The City and Cheers.
We're delighted to present highlights from that conversation.
Stephen DiMenna: What was it that brought you into the theatre?
Frances Sternhagen: My father was not well, and I used to enjoy making him laugh by telling him stories about my schoolmates and imitating people. Also the fact that I wasn't much good at math, the things you're supposed to be good at in school. I really was best at all the extracurricular stuff, and that encourages you to go in that direction. Whenever I was in school, I was leaning toward being in plays or singing in the chorus or being in dance productions, all the way up through college.
SD: Do you remember the first time you went to the theatre?
FS: It was a children's play at the National in Washington, D.C. of Robin Hood. I think I went with two of my friends, and we were probably about eight, and afterwards, we saw Robin Hood leave the theatre with make-up on. And it was bizarre. Fortunately, I was able to forget about that.
SD: At some point, you were inspired to want to have a life in the theatre. When you were a young actress in New York, who were some of the most inspiring people for you?
FS: Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy were definitely inspiring. I read for a play for Hume that I didn't get, and then the following summer, my husband [the late actor Thomas Carlin] was in a play that Hume and Jess were going to bring to Broadway. I got to know them a bit that way, and believe it or not, at the end of it, they invited us to go down to their island in the Bahamas. It was just heaven to go down there.
I was in Driving Miss Daisy for two years [Off Broadway], and I remember that Jessica Tandy came while I was in it [because] they asked her to do the movie. She came and sat in my dressing room, and the first thing she said to me was, "I don't see how they're going to make a movie out of this perfect little play." But they did!
SD: The Skin of Our Teeth was one of your first Broadway shows.
FS: I understudied Helen Hayes and Mary Martin, and I was a Muse. I had a wonderful time because of course it's just a wonderful play.
We went first to Paris and then to Washington and Chicago, and it was in the summer, and the little girl who was then twenty, I guess, who was playing the dinosaur in a dinosaur suit got to Chicago to the Blackstone Theatre. And there was no air conditioning. This was 1955. And she fainted on stage and had to get dragged off.
SD: Can we talk a little bit about The Good Doctor with Christopher Plummer in 1974? For those of you who don't know, it's a Neil Simon play, but it's based on several Chekhov short stories. It's several little vignettes narrated by the doctor, whom Christopher Plummer played. Can you tell us about that experience?
FS: I was called by Barney Hughes, [the actor] Barnard Hughes. He called and said he was doing the new Neil Simon play, and would I be interested in coming into see about it? "Well, yes, yes I'd be interested!"
So I came in and read for it and got it, which had never happened before. You never go in, read for a play, and right away find out that you got it. That was the beginning of the good luck feeling about that play. It was so much fun.
I had never done Chekhov, and I had always wanted to, so this was a great opportunity for me to do Chekhov. They were terrific short stories, and one was "The Governess." In the short story, it's a young woman talking to her boss, who is a man, but in this play, Neil changed it to a woman. In the costume design, the woman that I was to play was very severe, with hair pulled back in a bun and a black dress with keys. It was like she was the housekeeper and this young governess was in a subservient position.
Marsha Mason was playing the governess, and we started working on it and realized that we just weren't getting anywhere. We didn't know what it was. We thought that we'd better improvise and see if we could get it that way. As we did that, I said, "You know, I think I should have a very feminine costume. I'd like to have sleeves that have ruffles at the end. I'd like to have a wig that is blonde and curled. I'd like to have big, drooping earrings and a long, velvet dress. I think that would be more appropriate." Well, as soon as I felt really feminine, the scene began to work. It needed that kind of mean, "I'm better than you are" thing. This woman was more than a boss. She envied her youth. She envied the fact that she was good with children. And it made the scene work.
There was another called "The Defenseless Creature." It was a woman coming into a bank, and she kept saying her husband had lost his job and needed his job back. And the bank manager kept saying, "Madam, I have nothing to do with your problem." And then she'd keep on going.
And Rene Auberjonois was watching from the back. He didn't happen to be in this one. It was me, and Barney was the assistant, and the bank manager was Chris Plummer. And at one point, Rene suggested that I get up on the desk and start… [she mimes having a fit]. Well, it worked like a charm.
SD: And you won a Tony Award.
FS: Yes, I did! Thanks to Rene Auberjonois.
SD: A few years later, you did another seminal production on Broadway, Equus, as Alan's mother, Mrs. Strang. Was that Anthony Perkins playing [Alan's] psychiatrist?
FS: First it was Tony Hopkins, then it was Tony Perkins, then it was Richard Burton, and then Tony Perkins came back.
John Dexter directed it, and he had directed it in London. Peter Firth had played the part of Alan Strang in London, and he came here to do it with his beautiful blond curls.
At one point, Richard Burton came in. They wanted him for the movie, so he was gonna do the play for a while, which was sensible. But John Dexter threw him into a Saturday matinee. I don't think he'd had two weeks yet of rehearsal. At one point, in my scene with the doctor, I had to get from my seat onto the stage, it was like a little boxing ring, to talk to the doctor. And at one point Richard just didn't remember the line and went into another scene. I started to step back into my chair because he had finished my scene, and I got back and felt Marian [Seldes'] hand on my knee, like, "What are we gonna do?" And I jumped back onto the stage and said, "Doctor, doctor, there was one more thing I had to tell you!"
Richard was so cute afterward. He wrote the entire cast a letter and posted it on the bulletin board, apologizing to one after another. "One: I apologize to Frances, who had to come onto the stage again." Everybody just loved him. He was such a sweet guy.
SD: And that production was a hit. It ran for almost three years.
FS: The wonderful thing about that production was its theatricality. I think several of the reviews mentioned that as a story, it was a psychological thriller. It wasn't all that new in its concept. But John Dexter made it into what it became.
SD: You also did that wonderful production of The Heiress in 1995 with Cherry Jones.
FS: When we took it to the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, Cherry and I had spent one afternoon doing a play reading, so I guess we were tired. And at one point we both had to go up the stairs. And you couldn't hang on to anything. The wallpaper was just beautiful flocked fabric. There was no wall, but it looked like a wall. And the banister was small. Cherry went halfway up and lost her footing and fell onto me, and we both landed at the bottom of the stairs. The curtain closed, and Cherry, in her costume, went out and said, "I just want to tell you all that Frannie is fine. We're going to continue." Well, I didn't get a single laugh in the second act! Everybody was thinking, "Is she really okay?"
SD: You've also worked in television and film. For you, what are the challenges and differences of working there instead of in the theatre?
FS: I remember the first time I was ever in a television show, years ago, a woman said to me, "You're moving your face too much." And of course, my immediate thought was, "Well, who is she to be telling me that?" But then I thought, "Well, she's absolutely right." You don't want to be doing all the things you do in the theatre so that the last row will see you.
SD: Which do you prefer?
FS: I think most people who start on the stage love to work on the stage. We love to do movies, because movies are so popular in America, but people who start on the stage love it because you have that relationship with the audience, which is unique. You really do feel that presence so enormously that it's as if you've got another character you're playing with.
So many people, they say, "The moment I heard all the laughter, that's when I knew I wanted to be an actor." And also those moments when all you hear is silence. That is just as thrilling. It's so exciting to know that you've hit home with a serious moment.
Audience Question: When you're in a play, how do you learn all your lines?
FS: Learning the lines is just work. It's a lot of work. And it's interesting that I always have to learn them in character. I have to do it as if I'm playing the part. It somehow doesn't mean anything to me if I'm just learning lines, whereas my husband could always just learn lines. And Noah Wyle is that way. He can just learn the lines.
I remember when my husband would say, "Do you want me to cue you?" I'd say, "Yeah, would you?" And as he would read the other parts, he'd say, "Don't act. Just say the lines." And I'd say, "I can't! I can't do it that way!" So he had to listen to me sort of being the character. But he was very helpful.
Audience Question: Are there characters you have a hard time separating from when you come home?
FS: It's a job. Really, I think once you've started the very serious rehearsal work, that's when you sort of stay with the character. Going home on the train, people would see me muttering. But once you open, you've got it, and you do it. You do it whenever there's a performance, and then you go home.
SD: And when you do a long run, how do you keep it fresh? How do you keep it from becoming rote?
That's harder, but it's absolutely necessary. The audience helps so much, because when you get a response from the audience, it feeds you. It really feeds you. And when you've got good actors to play with and good material, that also really feeds you.