The career of Sada Thompson illustrates the difficulties faced by superb character actors in a marketplace that rewards youth and glamour. Thompson went professional in 1947, appearing in numerous stock productions in a wide-ranging variety of roles (Peg in Peg o' My Heart, Nina in The Seagull, Billie in Born Yesterday, Birdie in The Little Foxes — all within two seasons). She seems to have worked constantly, and one can imagine that she was from the first an exceptional actress. But the closest she could come to Broadway were understudy jobs in 1953 (on a play that closed out-of-town) and 1955 (on a play that lasted three weeks). In the mid fifties she moved from stock to non-profits like the Phoenix and the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, CT.
Thompson finally made her Broadway debut in 1959 with a featured role – as an old biddy – in Marc Blitzstein's Juno (two weeks and out). Strong work continued, with Thompson finally returning to Broadway in 1967 as the star of the comedy Johnny No-Trump, which closed the night it opened.
In two decades, Thompson earned a reputation as a fine actress, outside of New York anyway. But in terms of popular recognition, she never had a chance. In 1970 she took a role – one of those overbearing mothers living a life of dismal failure, cousin to Amanda in The Glass Menagerie -- in an exceedingly strange new play with an exceedingly strange title, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in the-Moon Marigolds. Suddenly, Sada Thompson – the same Sada Thompson who theretofore could barely get a toehold in Manhattan -- was acclaimed one of the American theatre's finest actresses. (So said Walter Kerr, for example.)
This led to a full-fledged starring role in a big-budget Broadway play from George Furth, the author of the hit Company, and choreographer-turned-director Michael Bennett. Thompson – who had been searingly powerful in Marigolds – gave one of the funniest performances in memory in Twigs. (Thompson played four characters, a woman and her three daughters; one of them, Dorothy I believe it was, was tears-in-your-eyes funny.) In her first time in the Broadway spotlight, other than the one-performance Johnny No-Trump, Thompson won a Tony Award for Best Actress.
Thompson went to Hollywood, were she starred as Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Hal Holbrook in the 1974 miniseries "Lincoln" (derived from Carl Sandburg's biography). And then, in 1976, came the acclaimed dramatic series Family. This was not just another TV show. "Family" was top-rate entertainment, founded upon a strong and interesting set of characters, featuring fine writing and acting, and dealing with themes of a more contemporary nature than much of what could then be found on network television. There was an apparent reason for this: Mike Nichols served as executive producer.
Sony Home Entertainment has just released what they call "The Complete First and Second Seasons," a six-disc set containing the first 28 episodes. (The show started as a mid-season replacement, so the first season consists of only six episodes.) Thompson starred opposite James Broderick, co-star of Johnny No-Trump (and father of Matthew). The series also featured Meredith Baxter Birney, Kristie McNichol and Gary Frank. Guest stars during the 1976 and 1977 seasons include Helen Hunt, Tommy Lee Jones, James Woods, Mildred Natwick and Elizabeth Ashley. And Sada – this time playing a warm and sympathetic character -- won an Emmy for her efforts.
Director Rob Reiner (the "All in the Family" sitcomedian, who had recently established himself as a film director with "This Is Spinal Tap" and "Stand By Me") and novelist-screenwriter William Goldman (of "Butch Cassidy" and the unparalleled Broadway chronicle "The Season") teamed together in 1987 for The Princess Bride. Take one of those old Errol Flynn swashbucklers and run it through a filter of good-natured kidding; mix it with an ingratiating cast; and provide just a touch (but not too much) of the 2,000 Year Old Man treatment. What you get is charming and enormously good-natured entertainment. "The Princess Bride" is kind of like "Shrek" without the layer of twenty-first century rudeness. Excessively and deliciously droll, you might call it.
Reiner found a couple of enchanting young leads, Cary Elwes and Robin Wright; supported them with the sturdy and accomplished Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest and Wallace Shawn; and – for good measure – threw in "special appearances" by Peter Falk, Carol Kane and Billy Crystal. There's even a giant, played by Andre the Giant. The two-disc "Buttercup Edition" is decked with assorted features, including commentary from both Reiner and Goldman -- two incisive artists well worth listening to for the 98-minute running time. "The Princess Bride" is all in good fun; and, 20 years on, remains all good fun.
—Steven Suskin, author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.