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In Appreciation: Frances Sternhagen

Frances Sternhagen, the versatile actress whose half-century on Broadway included two Tony Awards, seven nominations and memorable roles in Equus, On Golden Pond and The Heiress, has died. She was 93.

Sternhagen died peacefully Monday of natural causes at her home in New Rochelle, New York, her family said in a statement obtained by The Hollywood Reporter. “We continue to be inspired by her love and life,” they noted.

With all her success on the stage, Sternhagen is perhaps best known for playing two mothers on television: the blue-blooded Bunny MacDougal on HBO’s Sex and the City and the overbearing Esther Clavin on NBC’s Cheers. She received Emmy nominations for both performances.

Sternhagen specialized in portraying characters who had a no-nonsense, overbearing attitude and plucky fortitude. She relished roles that were off the beaten track — the odder and more eccentric, the better.

Sternhagen received her first Tony in 1974 for her work in several stories in the original production of Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor, then won again in 1995 for playing the widowed Aunt Lavinia opposite Cherry Jones in a revival of The Heiress.

In the original 1979 Broadway production of On Golden Pond, she received a Tony nomination for originating the role of Ethel Thayer (Katharine Hepburn’s character in the movie), and when Steel Magnolias began on Broadway in 2005, she portrayed Clairee (Olympia Dukakis had the part in that film).

She was nominated again in 1996 for her turn in Equus as Dora Strang, the mother of an emotionally disturbed son (Peter Firth), as well as for The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window in 1972, Angel in 1978 and Morning’s at Seven in 2002.

Sternberger arrived as Esther on the fifth season of Cheers. Like her son, the postman Cliff (John Ratzenberger), she had a propensity to spout obscure trivia facts. She also had a soft side … to a point. “You’re my pride and joy. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” Esther tells Cliff in her debut appearance in 1986, adding in amazement after a moment of reflection: “Gee, think of that.”