Original Stars of On Golden Pond Still Afloat on Broadway

Special Features   Original Stars of On Golden Pond Still Afloat on Broadway Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen, the first Thayers of Broadway, are still on Broadway in their Golden Years.
Frances Sternhagen in Steel Magnolias and Tom Aldredge in Twelve Angry Men.
Frances Sternhagen in Steel Magnolias and Tom Aldredge in Twelve Angry Men. Photo by Joan Marcus

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As Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond returns to Broadway for the first time since its 1979 debut, the show's original stars Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen are not only present in theatregoers' minds but still on the Broadway stage.

"There are two productions now that I treasure and that's Twelve Angry Men and On Golden Pond, " declared Aldredge, who currently stars in the former production on Broadway. "The most joyous experiences I had in my life."

His original co-star Sternhagen — who just opened in the Broadway staging of Steel Magnolias — agrees. "That was one of the happiest experiences, we had a wonderful time doing that."

Both actors, at the time, were playing characters 20 and 30 years their senior. "They originally wanted Melvyn Douglas, but he was in his eighties and he told them 'I just can't remember the lines'," Aldredge recalled. "And so they started auditioning for it and I went down to the Hudson Guild and got the role." Sternhagen remembered, "At first I thought, 'You know, I'm not old enough to play this,' but it was interesting that my daughter and my husband said 'Think of your mother and it will be fun to do' and as indeed it turned out, it really was a lot of fun."

The actress called upon her own experiences for the role. "I just knew from my family background, I had spent a number of summers in Maine, and I just knew a lot of women who were very like that. That was of an era and both characters were very recognizable for me."

"I stole from my father," quipped Aldredge about his inspiration. "I recalled my father, although he wasn't that type of man, but I used his body language and his voice."

Aldredge and Sternhagen both fondly recall working with each other. "She's the delight of the theatre and the world. She's one of the greatest ladies I've ever known," boasted Aldredge about his onstage paramour. "We had such a joyous time for almost two years. We played everywhere: the Hudson Guild, then we were waiting for the [New Appollo] theatre to be renovated, so we spent three months in Washington at the Eisenhower Theatre. We went to St. Louis, to Cleveland. All over."

"We both had some of the same methods of working," Sternhagen concurred. "So right from the beginning it was very compatible, never felt there was any difficulty."

The humble stage stalwarts recognized they would be passed over for the movie version for more bankable names. "I remember when Katharine Hepburn came to see the show in Wilmington and, of course, we all knew why she was coming," Sternhagen told Playbill.com. "I knew I wasn't going to get the movie. But she came backstage and was very cordial."

Likewise, Aldredge had a similar experience with the 1981 film's star Henry Fonda. "I remember that so well. We were still at the New Apollo and, of course, he had been cast for the film. We knew we weren't going to be, it was just out of the question. But, he came backstage and he said the most delightful thing to me. He said 'Tom, if I had seen you do this first, I would never have accepted the role.'"

In the years since the 1979 production, both actors have maintained their stage careers amid their own work in film and television.

Aldredge has since appeared on Broadway ten times in shows including Into the Woods, Inherit the Wind, 1776, Two Shakespearean Actors, The Crucible, The Little Foxes, Passion and Twentieth Century — earning Tony nominations for the latter three. Other credits include turns in the films "Rounders," "Intolerable Cruelty" and "Cold Mountain" as well as a recurring role in HBO's "The Sopranos."

Sternhagen, after her Tony-nommed turn in On Golden Pond, returned to Broadway in Grown Ups, You Can't Take It With You, a Tony-winning turn in The Heiress and another Tony-nominated turn in Morning's at Seven. Off-Broadway she has played in Driving Miss Daisy, Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Exact Center of the Universe and The Foreigner. She also appeared in the films "Bright Lights, Big City," "Misery," "Doc Hollywood," "The Laramie Project" and recurring roles on television's "Cheers," "ER," and "Sex and the City."

Both actors regretfully won't be able to take in the new revival — which stars James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams at the Cort Theatre — as their present Broadway shows perform in concurrent schedules. Aldredge can be seen as the elder juror #9 in Reginald Rose's drama Twelve Angry Men currently playing through May 15 at the American Airlines Theatre. Sternhagen, meanwhile, plays Clairee, the wealthy widow of the former mayor, in Robert Harling's southern-set drama Steel Magnolias which opened at the Lyceum Theatre.

Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen in the original <i>On Golden Pond.</i>
Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen in the original On Golden Pond.
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