A celebrated stage actress whose occasional forays into TV and rare steps into feature films were selected with great care, Sada Thompson was cast in many "mother roles" throughout her lengthy career, due in large part to the no-nonsense aura she gave off in many matriarchal roles. Born Sept. 27, 1927 in Des Moines, IA, she was the oldest of three children of magazine editor, Hugh Woodruff Thompson, and his wife, Corlyss Gibson. The youngster grew to love the theater. Her first role on a semi-professional stage was, ironically, as a mother, in a college production of "The Time of Your Life." Thompson made her professional stage debut in Massachusetts in a production of "The Beautiful People." Continuing to land roles, she spent several years playing parts as diverse as Billie Dawn in "Born Yesterday" and Madame Arcati in "Blithe Spirits." After arriving in New York City in the mid-1950s, she often performed classic Shakespearean and Chekhovian roles as well as average Americans at prestigious theaters and elsewhere for three decades. Stage stardom arrived with her turn as Beatrice, the slovenly mother in Paul Zindel's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" (1970), for which she won an OBIE. She solidified her success with her versatile, Tony-winning turn as four women in the same family in George Furth's "Twigs." Thompson even played Lady Macbeth in a 1969 production at the San Diego Shakespeare Festival.
Although Thompson had appeared on live TV shows like "Goodyear Playhouse" as early as 1954, she had remained a New York actress and had not migrated West when TV production did so. As such, she was unknown to many in the TV audience when she became Kate Lawrence, the Pasadena homemaker and mother with a spine of pliable steel, in "Family" (1976-1980), the groundbreaking ABC series which took a realistic look at a contemporary middle-class American family. Thompson earned an Emmy as Best Actress in a Drama Series in 1978 for her work and subsequently found herself in demand for TV movies and miniseries, often in mother roles. Among her highlights were the matriarch in the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production "Home Fires Burning" (CBS, 1989); the emotionally confused and torn mother of a son who died from AIDS complications in "Andre's Mother" (PBS, 1990); Miss Mandy, the plantation doyenne, in "Queen" (CBS, 1993); and Virginia McMartin, the grandmother accused of fostering child abuse, in "Indictment: The McMartin Trial" (HBO, 1995). Showing her comical side, she was even sassy Carla's mother in an episode of the NBC sitcom "Cheers" in 1991. Thompson has made fewer inroads into feature films. She made her debut in the now obscure, "You Are Not Alone" in 1961 but was perhaps best remembered as Claire, the lonely divorcee who allows her ex-husband to live in her home in "Desperate Characters," a 1971 Shirley MacLaine vehicle. She also offered an effective cameo as the title character's stern mother in the biopic "Pollock" (2000). The well-respected character actress passed away on May 4, 2011 in Danbury, CT, of lung disease. She was 83 years old.