From a certain vantage point, it’s hard not to suspect that stage veterans Lois Smith and Frances Sternhagen have been living parallel lives—a suspicion that only gained credence when, at this year’s Obies ceremony, Meryl Streep presented them with the award for lifetime achievement, the first time it has ever been shared.
Both Smith and Sternhagen moved to New York in the first half of the ’50s to pursue their acting ambitions, and both found almost immediate success. Smith quickly landed a role on Broadway, playing a bubbly high school student in Time Out for Ginger; Sternhagen won an Obie at the very first ceremony in 1956 for her role in The Admirable Bashville.
Contrary to the prevailing trend, neither chased fame and fortune in Hollywood. They stayed in and around New York and, for more than six decades, have continued to work on stage and screens big and small. Last August, Smith, now 82, starred Off-Broadway as the bitter matriarch Mable Murphy in Sam Shepard’s Heartless, a role he wrote for her. And this spring, Sternhagen, 83, played Edie Falco’s mother in the Off-Broadway production of Liz Flahive’s The Madrid.
So what’s the secret to having such long, successful careers in acting? In a recent interview at her apartment on the Upper West Side, Smith hardly hesitated. “Stay alive and show up!” she says, before breaking into a booming laugh. “I really do think it’s as simple as that—or not so simple as that. I’ve just been so fortunate.”
Though she often attributes her success to being “really lucky,” Smith’s career was built on years of early practice. Born in Topeka, Kansas, and raised in Seattle, Smith began acting in the biblical and morality plays her father put on at their evangelical church. Her father, who worked for a telephone company and took classes in directing and acting at night, cast his young daughter in countless parts. Bit by the acting bug, she did drama in high school as well as at the University of Washington, where plays were performed six nights a week for six-week runs.
After two years of college, she moved to New York in 1952 with her husband and, while sorting checks at a bank by night and going to auditions, made it to Broadway the same year. By the end of 1955, she belonged to Lee Strasberg’s exclusive Actors Studio, scored a leading role in The Young and Beautiful on Broadway, and starred alongside James Dean as the tender barmaid Anne in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden.
Of that last one, she shakes her head in awe of her good fortune. “It was such a great piece of luck to be in such a powerful movie with powerful people involved,” she says. “It was the first film I made, the first film [Dean] made. And he was so good. He was definitely a moody person—very much like his character in the film. But he was just wonderful.”
As for Sternhagen, her earliest memories of acting are of doing comedic impressions of her classmates to entertain her father, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. A native of Washington, D.C., she was voted head of the drama club at Vassar College after she silenced the dining hall by smashing a mirror during a scene from Richard II. After graduation, she went on to work at the Arena Stage in D.C. In 1954, Sternhagen moved to New York and two years later received an Obie for distinguished performance. “It certainly did boost my confidence,” she says of her award from her house in New Rochelle, where she raised six children with her late husband, the actor Tom Carlin. “I also got married in ’56, so it was a rather heady year.” In 1965, she won her second Obie for the Harold Pinter plays A Slight Ache and The Room, in which she starred opposite Robert Earl Jones.
Over the years, these two talented women have delighted audiences in numerous notable productions. With Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Smith earned two Tony nominations, one for her role as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and one for playing Halie in Shepard’s Buried Child. Her films include Fried Green Tomatoes, Dead Man Walking, and Five Easy Pieces, for which she received a 1970 National Society of Film Critics Award for her role as Jack Nicholson’s sister. And, in 2006, she received her first Obie—as well as several other awards—for her powerful performance as Carrie Watts in Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful.
Sternhagen has earned seven Tony nominations and received the award twice, for her turns in Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor and The Heiress, the adaptation of the Henry James novel Washington Square. Other theater credits include Driving Miss Daisy, On Golden Pond, and Terrence McNally’s A Perfect Ganesh. Fans of Sex and the City will best remember her as Kyle MacLachlan’s overbearing mother, Bunny, while sci-fi geeks will know her as the hard-nosed Dr. Lazarus in the 1981 Sean Connery flick Outland.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the two women’s résumés is that their paths have only crossed once, on Moisés Kauf-man’s HBO adaptation of The Laramie Project, and even then they didn’t share a scene. “I’m hoping someday we will get to work together,” Sternhagen says. “I get a number of scripts sent to me saying, ‘I hope to get you and Lois Smith for this.’ And I think, ‘Ooh! Good!’ But I don’t think they’ve gotten any further than that so far—so we’ll see.”
Reflecting on what’s changed since she began her career, Smith has one gripe: “There’s not enough time for rehearsal anymore. It’s been continually squeezed during my years as an actress. And time is an ingredient that cannot be substituted for, so that’s hard on the work and on the quality of what can be realized.”
Asked the same question, Sternhagen answers, “I think people are doing the best they can. It’s always hard to put plays on. So many go see movies or watch television, and to go to the theater takes effort. And if they have made an effort to come and see the play, it’s quite wonderful because you’re actually sharing an experience with them.”
What would Sternhagen tell a young actor hoping to follow in her footsteps? “If you want to do it, just do it wherever you can. That’s the only thing.”