The star is waiting, seated on a chair in the Kennedy Center's publicity office. She is not wearing mink, she is not wearing designer blue jeans and tottering on 6-inch heels, she is not even wearing makeup. She's wearing a bright, red polyester pantsuit, gray socks and orthopedic-looking sandals, topped with an olive-drab corduroy car coat of the type often seen in suburban shopping centers.
"I'm sorry," she says, dabbing at her nose with a Kleenex, "I seem to be getting a cold, so I can't talk very loud."
Frances Sternhagen could do terrible things to the image of actresses if she gets famous enough. Gone the stereotype of the tempestuous, tormented glamor-girl, gone the temperamental, demanding, flighty self-centered neurotic...
Instead -- she is a woman of "under 50," described almost invariably in such terms as "warm," "friendly" and "easy to work with," unpretentious and devoted to a husband and six children. And she has worked more or less steadily since shipping out to New York from Washington 25 years ago, which is a phenomenon in itself.
"She was offered a starring role opposite Steve McQueen in 'Enemy of the People' a few years ago," said her agent Jeff Hunter. "It was a great part and enormous money, but it meant eight weeks in California and I couldn't persuade her to leave her family that long." Bibi Andersson got the part, although the movie has not been released.
The name Frances Sternhagen is not exactly a household word, although one of her faces is familiar as the Colgate toothpaste-toting Mrs. Marsh in a particularly obnoxious television commercial. In her current role in "On Golden Pond" at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater (through Feb. 17), she plays a white-haired and resilient 69-year-old, in what Post drama critic Richard L. Coe called "her finest role."
She comes from the mold of actress that is a less-treasured tradition here than in England -- one who can and does play many roles of different types, who can assume physical characteristics that bear no relation to her own, and who is more concerned with the art of acting than the pursuit of stardom. She is what is usually called a "character actress," a redundant term that means you can play parts other than ingenues.
Films and television too often demand "types," and the art of acting is reduced to the craft of representation. New York is the home for most character actors sooner or later, because by shuttling between commercials, soap operas, the occasional film and the theater, one can possibly make a living.
Frances Sternhagen is one of the most successful at this -- she's done everything from a daytime soap to starring roles on Broadway, one of which won her a Tony award, Broadway's equivalent of the Oscar.
She is often referred to as "Washington's own," which is sort of a misnomer because she hasn't been based here since 1955. But she was born here, the daughter of a tax court judge, John M. Sternhagen, who died in 1954, and she spent almost two years at Arena Stage in the early '50's. She is very much the proper product of Georgetown, having completed Potomac School, Madeira, and then Vassar College. Gifted with a strong jaw, and good cheekbones, she does not appear to be obsessed with her looks.
She tells (very entertainingly, to be sure) a story about a publicity gimmick she was forced to endure after landing her first part in New York, an ingenue role in "Thieves Carnival" that "I was totally wrong for."
It seems someone decided it would be a great idea to have her "made over" at Helena Rubinstein's, with a reporter in attendance to observe the transformation.
"I felt they were saying 'look at this dowdy clunk being made over into Miss Glamor.' The Helena Rubinstein lady and the reporter would talk to each other over my head as though I didn't exist." (She acts the part of each as she tells the story.) "One would say to the other: 'What would you call her skin? Yellow?' and the other said, 'No, sallow, I think. Call it sallow.' One lady said, 'You should wear more makeup dear, you have no expression in your face.' It was awful."
After the opening of "On Golden Pond," a group from the company went to "Le Bistro," in Georgetown. Sternhagen had a glass of milk and left before her cheese sandwich appeared, since it seemed to be taking an unnecessarily long time to arrive.
Her jobs have ranged from plays by Wycherly, Shaw and O'Casey to Wilder, Pinter and Beckett. She was a villainous night-club pianist on "Love of Life" for seven or eight months before she was written out and has done time on "The Secret Storm" and "The Doctors" as well.
She won her Tony for Neil Simon's "The Good Doctor," and nominations for a musical, "Angel," and two dramas, "Equus" and "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window."
"She can play anything," said Alan Schneider, with whom she's worked in about 10 shows starting with "The Skin of our Teeth" at Catholic University in 1952. "Not only that, she's extremely pleasant and gracious and someone you want around at rehearsals." Schneider is known as a director who can be something less than a joy to work with, but he and Sternhagen have always gotten along.
"When we did 'Skin of our Teeth,' he told me to play this one long monologue of Sabrina's as though I were riding a two-wheeled bicycle," she recalled. "It sounds like a strange direction, but I knew exactly what he meant. It meant I had to be up the whole time, that I could turn but not pause or I'd fall off."
The only thing she won't do is tour. "I get too lonesome," she explained. You see, there are all these children, and she seems not to have felt any compunction about asserting the importance of her family to what some less secure people might view as the detriment of her career. Her husband, Thomas A. Carlin, is an actor and teacher who appeared in Washington last year in "Players."
"My husband has always been wonderful. He made me feel libbed before women's lib," she said. "Somehow it always worked out; either he would have a soap and I'd have a play, or vice-versa. We had a couple of terrible housekeepers, we would get babysitters... I feared that if I stopped work I would stagnate."
They've lived since 1959 in an older community in New Rochelle, N.Y., in a house where she says "we've never been able to keep plaster on some of the walls, and the plumbing is terrible." It's a community of people who "love the water," she says, where people know each other and watch out for each other's kids and don't mind if your house is a mess.
Why, one can't resist asking, did they have six children with both parents engaged in as insecure a profession as acting?
"We were trying to be good Catholics at the time," she said. "This was before Vatican II. This did seem to be what you did. And being an only child I wanted a big family. In spite of the difficulties -- and there were many -- I certainly don't regret it. It's been very important to me."
Most of their children, she said, seem to want to go into the performing arts in one way or another; two "have won the top acting awards at their colleges."
The affect on the children of having two actors for parents is hard to determine, she said. "We do have a tendency to be always on or off, we're very sensitive to each other's moods. As we've grown up -- and I don't mean just the children -- I think our profession has contributed to making us feel very alive. We're all fortunate in that we like each other immensely."
While many actors and actresses find their "salability" diminishes as they get older, Sternhagen has if anything encountered the reverse.
"People like me, and (co-star) Tom Aldredge, and Barney Hughes, in our young years we got the off-beat roles. In the middle years I had a harder time; I did a lot of stand-by work. But when people like us get older, we have a better time. We have the energy to play the older parts. For example, in this part, ladies of the right age (69) feel they can't remember the lines."
She's just finished a movie with Burt Reynolds and Jill Clayburgh, "Starting Over," in which she plays what agent Hunter described as Reynold's "doting sister-in-law," and last year played a "Mrs. Danvers type" in Billy Wilder's movie "Fedora."
Her career, in fact, is "growing each year," Hunter said. At "under 50," she seems to have plenty of challenges ahead, and seems to be quite ready to face them.