It’s All About Family
Actress Sada Thompson Converses with A&U’S Dann Dulin About the Work of Caring, Starring in the AIDS-Themed Movie, Andre’s Mother, and the Loss of Family
1230 Holland Street, Pasadena, California. That address is where many cutting-edge issues of the day were confronted by the Lawrence clan, in the seventies’ television trendsetting series, Family. Contemporary issues of the day, such as child abuse, gay lifestyle, teenage drinking, menopause, and adultery were presented. And you can bet if AIDS had been in the headlines then, Family would have tackled that too.
Soon after the series ended, Sada Thompson, who played Kate Lawrence (she garnered an Emmy for her portrayal), like so many of us, would live through the horrors of losing friends to AIDS. “I remember those early years when nobody had ever heard of it,” she recalls, “and yet it just swept through the theater and took so many wonderful people. It was so mysterious.” She pauses, then says austerely, “It’s definitely a plague.”
Thompson is speaking from her home in Connecticut, where, up until a few years ago, she lived with her husband of fifty-seven years, Don Stewart. (They have a daughter, Liza, who is a costume designer.) He presently resides in a facility for Alzheimer’s patients. “He is very ill and has been there for three years,” she explains over the phone. There is a heaviness in her voice. “He had [the disease] several years before that. It got to the place where I really couldn’t protect him anymore from driving, well, just wandering,” she divulges. “It became too difficult and I wanted to protect him as much as I could.” She scoped out a number of places before settling on this facility, and is quite pleased. I parallel her experience to that of someone who is caring for someone with AIDS. As I inquire more about her husband, she interrupts and says politely, “Oh, let’s not talk about that.”
Over the years, Thompson and her husband have been active participants in Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA), even before the organization had a name. “They have supported us, and we are very fond of both Sada and Don,” says Tom Viola, executive director of BC/EFA. They have also been involved with other organizations representing the blind and other theatrical charities. Sada stresses that she would like to do more, but now her time is consumed by caring for her husband.
Thompson’s first love has always been the stage, where she is firmly rooted. She made her Broadway debut in the first public reading of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, and for her performance playing four women in Twigs, directed by Chorus Line creator Michael Bennett (who died of AIDS), she won a Tony Award. In fact, she and her Family TV husband, James Broderick (father of Matthew), knew each other before they were cast in the series, as they starred together in the Broadway show, Johnny No-Trump. A versatile actress, Sada has played such diverse roles as Billie Dawn (Born Yesterday), Lady MacBeth, and Virginia McMartin (an HBO film entitled Indictment: The McMartin Trial, for which she was nominated for an Emmy). In recent years, she’s been praised for her work playing Carla’s mother in an episode of Cheers (which brought her yet another Emmy nod), and playing the mother of Jackson Pollock in Ed Harris’s sensational film, Pollock. “A lot of my part was cut,” she admits, “but I loved working with Ed.”
Though “semi-retired,” Sada still has a passion for the stage. She’s presently involved with a new work-in-progress, an adaptation of a book, New Burlington: The Life and Death of an American Village. I ask about the possibility of a Family reunion. She tells me that several years ago, Gary Frank (who played Sada’s son, Willy) was developing a script. Indeed, Gary wrote a pilot, had a couple of the original producers on board, shopped it around, but no one was interested. When asked about his memories of working with Thompson, Gary reveals, “She helped me define myself in those years we were together; a great influence in my life. Sada was the matriarch of the show and rightfully so, because she brought such compelling gravity to it, as she does with each role. When she’s not acting, she’s the most charming, eccentric, sometimes giggly and silly—a gorgeous woman.”
This reporter must admit that it’s a thrill to talk to “his mom,” as Sada and her TV family substituted for the love and support he felt he wasn’t getting from his own family at the time. I’m sure Family has consoled others, as well. Thompson has a motherly aura, and it’s evident in her strong, comforting voice.
In the early nineties, Thompson portrayed yet another mom and yet another character named Katherine, in Terrence McNally’s acclaimed film, Andre’s Mother (recently released on DVD). Her character confronts her son’s death from AIDS, and Thompson’s multilayered performance rivets the viewer. “I liked doing it and I liked my part very much,” she affirms. “Experiencing the whole production was very personal. I thought it expressed the bewilderment of parents in the beginning. I went to high school with a couple whose son died of AIDS and I know that they were extremely confused. They were never hostile toward him, or the choices that he made—and they were perfectly astonished by the gay friends who came to support and look after him. When I read the script, I was reminded of them.” Sada chuckles, then adds, “And I like the way Terrence writes.” McNally won an Emmy for his script.
Thompson’s personal encounter with the epidemic came with the death of her friend, Peter Caulfield. “He was such a blazing young actor and a lovely, lovely guy. I met him in San Diego at the Globe Theater and he was playing young leads there, then he went to New York. The
last play he was in was The Man Who Came To Dinner at the Circle in the Square…” She stops, takes a short breath and sighs, “I’ve lost many, many people. My family…”
Thompson needs to visit her husband, but before she hangs up, she remarks, “The reports I hear from Africa are so terrifying. I’m very conscious of AIDS and keep up-to-date by reading. I think so many people have behaved admirably in helping others who are HIV.” For the last several sentences, her voice is slightly muffled. She probably pulled the receiver away from her mouth. Back again, Sada’s speech is now distinctive and unsettling when she concludes, “AIDS is a specter that haunts us all.”
Dann Dulin interviewed actor Bryce Johnson for the September 2006 issue.
What was one of your favorite memories of working on Family?
The essential pleasantness of it. It really was a very happy set. I mean there were days when it was trying as the devil, but for the most part it was joyous. We all got along splendidly, though we never socialized off the set. After the series ended, Jimmy and I made a point to go out to dinner once a week with each other.
Where is your Emmy?
It’s in my dressing room in the bedroom.
What do you consider your best work?
You’d have to ask somebody else. [She laughs modestly] I really, really couldn’t say. I just love to work!
Name your favorite movie of all time.
Oh, there’s so many. I’m pulling a blank. Well, Henry the V. There are so many that I richly enjoyed. I’m a constant customer at Blockbuster. [Laughing]
Where is your favorite place to disappear to?
Maine. Also, all my life I’ve read a great deal and disappearing into a book is also a refuge and a feeding.
What is something you’re “dying to do” before you leave this earth?
Gee, I don’t know. I love seeing my friends. I’d like to go out to California and see what’s left of my friends, since a lot of them have bitten the dust. And spend more time with our daughter and her husband, who live and work out there.
What are you most proud of?
Well, I think my marriage.
Name one word to describe Sada Thompson.
[A brief silence] Wonder. Life has been very good to me, but I continue to have — what I see in my daughter too — that kind of fresh surprise.