Stage and TV actress Sada Thompson died in Danbury, Conn., on Wednesday, May 3. Thompson, best known for her portrayal of the matriarch in the 1970s television series Family, was 83. The cause of death was lung disease. [Right: Family cast members Meredith Baxter, Gary Frank, Thompson, James Broderick, Kristy McNichol.]
In 1972, Thompson won a Tony for playing four roles – three daughters and their mother – in George Furth's Twigs. Spending much of her stage career away from Broadway, Thompson became a star in the 1970 Off Broadway production of Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, which two years later Paul Newman made into a movie starring his wife Joanne Woodward.
On the big screen, Thompson could be seen only three times: Robert Mulligan's The Pursuit of Happiness (1971), a generation-gap drama toplining Michael Sarrazin (who died a couple of weeks ago) and Barbara Hershey; Desperate Characters (1971), with Shirley MacLaine and Kenneth Mars (who died last February); and Ed Harris' biopic Pollock (2000), in which Thompson played painter Jackson Pollock's mother, Stella.
For her television work, Thompson earned nine Emmy nominations, four of those – including one win in 1978 – for her performance as Kate Lawrence in Jay Presson Allen's well-intentioned (though not exactly realistic) Family, opposite James Broderick, Meredith Baxter, Kristy McNichol, and Gary Frank. Additionally, Thompson received three Golden Globe nods for Family.
Other notable television roles included Mrs. Gibbs in the 1977 film version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town (Fay Bainter played that part in Sam Wood's 1940 feature); the mother disgusted when she finds daughter Mariette Hartley kissing Lynn Redgrave in Noel Black's My Two Loves (1986); and the title role in Terrence McNally's AIDS drama Andre's Mother (1990), with Richard Thomas as Andre's surviving “longtime companion,” and Sylvia Sidney (whose own son died of AIDS) as Andre's grandmother.
“I'd miss not being able to tell a story every night,” she once said, as quoted in the New York Times. “That really thrills me, that is the greatest! Thousands of years ago, when some caveman told his family about the fight he had that day with a dinosaur, and, in the telling, became the dinosaur, and became himself in the fight — well, there's your first actor.”