Sada Thompson, the durable matriarch of stage and screen who won a Tony Award for her portraits of three sisters and their mother in the 1971 comedy "Twigs" and an Emmy Award for playing the eternally understanding mother in the television series "Family," has died at age 81.
Thompson died Wednesday of a lung disease at Danbury Hospital, agent David Shaul said Sunday from Los Angeles.
Thompson won wide acclaim during an illustrious career that spanned more than 60 years, during which she gravitated toward quality work that allowed her to plumb her characters' complexities.
"When you start off acting, it does seem very romantic, and the make-believe part of it all seems very exciting," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. "It's only later that you begin to realize how fascinating the work is — that it's a bottomless pit, and you never get to the end of it. Human character is just endlessly fascinating."
Even before she graduated in 1949 from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, then called the Carnegie Institute of Technology, she was on a trajectory to take on challenging roles drawn from the classics as well as contemporary plays.
A prolific actress, she made her mark in theater and film generally portraying the matriarchs in family dramas.
In her stage debut in 1945, she played Nick's Ma in William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life." She was Mrs. Higgins in "Pygmalion" (1949), the resentful matriarch determined not to hurt again in "Real Estate" (1987), the embattled Mrs. Fisher in the 1991 comedy "The Show-Off," the slovenly and bitter mother, Beatrice, in the 1965 production of "The Effect Of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" and Dorine in "Tartuffe" (1965). She collected Obies for the latter two.
By far, her biggest Broadway success was "Twigs," by George Furth, in which she played three sisters — as well as their mother. The play took its title from a line by Alexander Pope: "Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined." She won a Tony and the New York Drama Critics Award that season.
The New York Times' Walter Kerr noted that what held the play together was "the peculiar luminosity that moves with Miss Thompson wherever she goes."
Throughout her career, her choices brought recognition from fellow actors more than they made her famous.
"When you're around great actors (like Thompson), they become an ideal or a goal that keeps reminding you of the quality you want your work to be," William Anton, who played Thompson's son in the 1989 San Diego production of "Driving Miss Daisy" and a preferred son-in-law in "The Show-Off," told the Los Angeles Times in 1991.
In the late '70s, she picked up an Emmy for her portrayal of the levelheaded Kate Lawrence in the ABC drama "Family," which ran for five seasons.
Born Sada Carolyn Thompson on Sept. 27, 1929, in Des Moines, Iowa, she got her unusual name from her maternal grandmother, whose name, Sarah, was turned into Sada. Her parents moved to New Jersey when she was 5, and her fascination with the stage began soon thereafter. Her parents would often take her to a summer theater where plays would stop on their way to Broadway or before they began their national tours.
"I saw stars like Helen Hayes, Maurice Evans, Tallulah Bankhead and Cornelia Otis Skinner," she told The Associated Press in 1987. "It was enchanting. I knew that was the world I wanted to be in."
In 1956, she won a Drama Desk Award for Moliere's "The Misanthrope" and for an English girl mourning the death of her half-brother in war in "The River Line" (1957). She was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Carla's mother in the NBC comedy "Cheers" (1991).
Thompson said she loved a good character role.
"There's always something more to be accomplished with a character," she told the AP in 1987.
"Theater is a human experience. There's nothing shellacked or finished off about it. I guess that's why it always draws me back."
Thompson met and married a fellow drama student, Donald Stewart, at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1949. Their daughter is a costume designer.