Sada Thompson, Emmy-winning actress, dies at 83

Sada Thompson, 83, who won acclaim in matronly roles on Broadway and was best known for her Emmy-winning role as the caring mother on the television drama series “Family,” died May 4 at a hospital in Danbury, Conn. According to news accounts, she had lung disease.

If not a household name, Ms. Thompson was nonetheless a versatile and celebrated stage actress.

Critic Walter Kerr called her “one of the American theater’s finest actresses” after seeing her in the 1970 off-Broadway production of Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.”

She portrayed a “slatternly mother of two and savior of none,” Kerr wrote, who walks around the house in her dressing gown all day smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey from a mug. A deeply embittered character, Ms. Thompson was credited with bringing remarkable shadings of sympathy to the role.

The following year, she starred on Broadway in George Furth’s “Twigs.” The play was split into four vignettes featuring four lead female characters. They included a widow, an Army wife, a women who suspects her husband of cheating and an Irish matriarch nearing her deathbed.

Ms. Thompson played them all. In the production’s final moments it is revealed that the women are three sisters and their mother who deal with life’s harsh moments in separate but related ways.

In a Times review, theater critic Clive Barnes wrote that Ms. Thompson stunningly portrayed “that special sympathy for life, that expansiveness, that not only makes stars but also makes audience idols.”

She transferred her stage skills to television in 1976 as Kate Lawrence, the patient and doting mother of three children in ABC’s prime-time drama “Family.”

The show ran on ABC until 1980 and was produced by Mike Nichols and Aaron Spelling. Each episode aimed to depict everyday American life in the 1970s with subplots that deal with alcoholism, homosexuality, teenage sex and cheating spouses.

She won an Emmy in 1978 for her performance but remarked that the show bored her professionally. “I get bugged by little bitsy scenes where I just have to stand around looking maternal,” she said.

Sada Carolyn Thompson was born in Des Moines on Sept. 27, 1927. She grew up in Fanwood, N.J., where her father edited poultry industry magazines including Turkey World.

She was inspired to become an actress at 7, after attending a matinee performance of the Cole Porter Broadway musical “Red, Hot and Blue,” starring Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope.

“To me it was total enchantment,” She told the Times in 1971. “I had to be a part of it.”

After receiving a degree in theater from what is now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, she and some college classmates performed at the University Playhouse in Mashpee, Mass.

The young actors were paid $5 a week but luckily, Ms. Thompson pointed out, there was an Italian restaurant close to the theater that gave them a deal on dinner.

“You always had a good idea of what you were going to have to eat,” Ms. Thompson told the San Diego Union Tribune in 1984. “Spaghetti, spaghetti, spaghetti.”

In the early 1950s, she settled in New York and was cast by the poet Dylan Thomas to appear in the dramatic reading of his lyric poem “Under Milk Wood.”

“His idea of rehearsals was to hear one reading and say, ‘Perfect, let’s go out for a beer,’ ” Ms. Thompson told the Times.

She spent most of her acting life on stages removed from the bright-light marquees on Broadway. In the 1950s impressed audiences and critics in the Stratford, Conn., Shakespeare Festival and in regional theater productions.

She received Obie awards for appearances in the off-Broadway productions of “Tartuffe” (1965) and “The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.”

Survivors include her husband of 61 years, Donald Stewart; a daughter; and a brother.

Early in her career, Ms. Thompson told the Times: “I knew I could not be simply a New York actor: some small roles, a couple TV commercials, a few readings, that is not a career in theater. I wanted parts that would really use me, stretch me, burn me up. . . . That’s the only way you learn your craft.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.