Sada Thompson, known to television audiences for her portrayal of the matriarch in the ABC series “Family” but also a significant presence in New York theater, died May 4 from lung disease in Danbury, Conn. She was 83.
While she did not appear frequently on Broadway, she won a Tony in 1972 for George Furth’s “Twigs,” in which she played four parts — an aged woman and three daughters — in four vignettes directed by Michael Bennett. Yet she appeared on the Rialto only two more times.
She started her legit career Off Broadway, appearing in classics such as “The Misanthrope” and Chekhov’s “Ivanov,” in the 1950s. She made her Broadway debut in 1955 in “The Carefree Tree.” Later she drew attention on the Main Stem for her work in Edward Albee’s “American Dream,” in which she played the overwhelming Mommy, wife to a weak husband, and in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” in which her Winnie faces doom with good cheer.
The role that made her stage star came Off Broadway in 1970: the lead in Paul Zindel’s melodrama “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” about a self-deluding mother who torments her two troubled daughters and her elderly boarder.
In the summer of 1971 she appeared in Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra” at the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford. Conn.
During her stage career she gave performances of classic works in regional theaters and even outside the U.S. She starred in Lillian Hellman’s “Little Foxes” with Elizabeth Taylor in London, toured Scandinavia with the Scandinavian Theater Company in Wilder’s “Skin of Our Teeth” and played Lady Macbeth at the Old Globe in San Diego.
As her career progressed, however, Thompson spent more time on the big- and smallscreen. She was Emmy nominated for a TV adaptation of John Osborne’s “The Entertainer” in 1976 and in 1977 for her role as Mrs. Gibbs in an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
In “Family,” which ran 1976-80, she starred as Kate Lawrence, the mother in an upper-middle-class family in Pasadena, Calif. Thompson was nominated for an Emmy for “Family” four times, winning in 1978.
She was later nominated for a guest role on “Cheers” in 1991 and then in 1995 for supporting actress for HBO’s “Indictment: The McMartin Trial.” In 1995 she also appeared as a ruthless, powerful mother in an episode of “Law and Order.”
Her last screen appearance came in Ed Harris’ 2000 biopic “Pollock,” in which she played the artist’s mother.
Sada Carolyn Thompson was born in Des Moines, though her family moved to Fanwood, N.J. when she was a girl. She received a degree in drama from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, and she and some fellow students started a summer stock troupe. Eventually she and Donald Stewart, whom she met at school and married, moved to New York, Her first professional credit was the 1953 original reading of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milkwood,” directed by Thomas himself.
Thompson is survived by her husband; a daughter; and a brother.