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A SQUEAKY CLEAN LIFE AS WIFE AND MOM IS ACTRESS'S OWN `SOAP'

Frances Sternhagen has balanced an acting career with a successful marriage and raising six children. She calls it sort of her own soap opera.

Sternhagen told John Simon in Connoisseur that it hasn't been easy, but it has been good for her acting career. The actress, currently starring off-Broadway in Alfred Uhry's long-running "Driving Miss Daisy," said children help you keep your feet on the ground."I think there are a lot of times when children can be a very good model for actors because they are so simple," Sternhagen said. "They're so open and direct. And I didn't have anything to do with children when I was growing up because I was an only child and dealt with a lot of older people.

"But I think I always wanted my own soap opera. And acting was just about the only thing I could do well enough to feel I could be paid for it; but your family sees to it that you do not get too full of yourself."

Sternhagen, who is married to actor Thomas Carlin, said a couple of her six kids had drug problems for a while.

"It's very hard," she said. "We sent three of the children to school in Maine for a while, and that was very helpful. It had a family-therapy program connected to it.

"My husband and I both believe in marriage, so the marriage itself has a value that is above each of us.

"And we're both religious; that helps, but it hasn't been easy. I'm just grateful those children are all people I'm interested in."

She described herself as very self-centered as a young person, and it was only through having children that she began to emerge from that state.

"Nancy Marchand and I were in a play at one point and I was driving her home," Sternhagen reminisced. "We sat in the car and talked for awhile. We looked at each other and said, `How did we do it?' And you don't know; you just do it.

"You go blindly ahead and . . . all those diapers, all that laundry and all those anxious telephone calls of trying to arrange schedules and getting dinners. . . ."

She recalled reading an article on Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach in which Jackson was asked, "How do you manage the dinner hour?" and Jackson replied, "Well, I guess ours is as horrible as everyone else's."

"Which just gave me so much hope," Sternhagen said. The actress said she finds fulfillment in acting and understands herself better by exploring the characters she plays.

"Also, you do what you do," she said. "That was the one area where I felt confident. I tried to major in history at Vassar and the head of the department called me in once and she said, `Frances, why aren't you majoring in drama?'

"And I said, `I don't know. I thought that was fun but you shouldn't major in it.' And she said, `Well, I really think you should.' "

Sternhagen, as Simon summed her up, is "a New York stage actress who is not actressy and temperamental, not neurotic or maliciously gossipy, not sexually adrift but solidly married and a sextuple mother . . . a woman who is unaffected, level-headed . . . normal."