Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Sada Thompson grew up in New Jersey, where her magazine-editor father had been transferred. Active in high school plays, she was all of 16 when she first appeared at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, playing Nick's Ma in a campus production of The Time of Your Life. Graduating from Carnegie with a BFA in 1949, Thompson launched her professional career, playing mature and sometimes elderly women at a time when she herself was barely old enough to vote. While working at New York's 92nd Street YMHA, a Jewish cultural center, she participated in the first-ever reading of Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, which led to her off-Broadway debut in the 1955 staging of that same piece. She spent the next decade in regional theatre, returning to New York for her first real breakthrough performance in the Lincoln Center's production of Tartuffe. A few years later, Thompson won an Obie Award for her work in Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and in 1971 she copped the Tony award for her interpretation of four different women in the Broadway production Twigs. On the strength of this success, she was signed to play the Bunker Family's free-spirited neighbor Irene Lorenzo on All in the Family. After a single taping session, it was obvious that Thompson and producer Norman Lear would never see eye to eye, and she was replaced by Betty Garrett (one unnamed source close to both sides of the argument later claimed that "Sada had too much genuine class and didn't yell loud enough for a Norman Lear show"). While she continued appearing in television specials like Our Town and The Entertainer and miniseries like Sandburg's Lincoln, Thompson would not consider a weekly program until she was personally asked by executive producer Mike Nichols to play matriarch Kate Lawrence on his seriocomic series Family. She remained with Family from its debut in 1976 until its cancellation in 1980, winning a 1978 Emmy Award in the process. Thompson spent her later years occasionally co-starring in such made-for-TV films as 1985's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the controversial Indictment: The McMartin Trial (for HBO). Her last major assignment was a turn as Jackson Pollock's mother in Ed Harris's Pollock (2000). Thompson died 11 years later, of lung disease. She was 83.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Grew up in New Jersey after her father, a magazine editor, was transferred there for work.
- Won an Obie Award and a Drama Desk Award in 1970 for her performance in the Off-Broadway play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.
- Played four separate roles in the 1972 Broadway play Twigs.