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Melissa Yandell Smith, the actress who played Frances McDormand’s character’s sister in the Academy Award-winning movie Nomadland, has died. She was 64.
She died from colon cancer on Sept. 7 at her home in San Francisco surrounded by family and friends, according to her obituary printed in The New York Times.
A Yale classmate and longtime friend of McDormand, who would go on to win the Oscar for best actress for Nomadland, Smith appeared in a few important scenes in the film as Fern’s sister Dolly. Her appearance in Nomadland was the highest-profile and the only screen credit of Smith’s career having spent much of her professional life working in theater and teaching, serving as conservatory director at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco for 25 years.
In a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle, McDormand said of her “best friend” Smith, “We had a 42-year friendship that incorporated our ambitions, our dreams, our successes and our failures. I am as proud of that deep friendship as I am of my 38-year marriage and being a mother to my adored son.”
Born on June 8, 1957, in Louisville, Kentucky, Smith attended Louisville Collegiate School and the Kentucky Country Day School, graduating from the latter in 1975. She went to Yale and graduated with a BA in English and Theater in 1979 and then enrolled in the Acting Program at the Yale School of Drama.
In her first week at Yale School of Drama, she would meet Warren David Keith, who would later become her husband, and also McDormand. She moved to New York in 1982 to work in theater but also began her long career in teaching, first at The Honolulu Youth Theater in Hawaii and in Purchase, New York at the SUNY, Purchase Youth Theater.
After stints teaching acting at Princeton and the Caymichael Patten Studio in New York, she joined ACT as conservatory director in 1995, and for many years oversaw the MFA program, which remains one of the leading graduate acting programs in the U.S. She stepped down from her position in 2020 for health reasons.
Despite her focus on teaching, she continued to act, performing in several theater productions in New York and at ACT, Berkeley Repertory Theater and the California Shakespeare Theater.
She is survived by her husband, the actor Warren David Keith, and son, Owen.
The ACT announced it is planning a celebration of her life at a later date.
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