Lynne Thigpen, 54; Actress Ranged From Fugard to ‘Carmen Sandiego’

Times Staff Writer

Lynne Thigpen, an Emmy- and Tony-winning stage, film and television actress whose best-known roles ranged from the Chief in the long-running PBS children’s show “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” to crime-fighting computer whiz Ella Mae Farmer in the CBS police drama “The District,” died at her Los Angeles home Wednesday of unknown causes. She was 54.

Thigpen, who had been in good health, was at home Wednesday night with her partner, Larry Aronson, when she was stricken. An autopsy was pending, said her manager, Mel McKeon.

Production of “The District,” which was about to begin filming the 20th of 22 planned episodes, was suspended Thursday as the cast and crew mourned the loss of the show’s co-star.


“I’m in shock. She was a wonderful actress and a friend,” Craig T. Nelson, who leads the cast in his role as a crusading Washington police chief, said in a statement released by the network.

CBS spokeswoman Beth Haiken said no decisions have been made about how Thigpen’s death will affect the program, which is in its third season.

Thigpen was proud of her portrayal of Farmer, a role she once described as “a more complete black female of a certain age.” It was one in a wide-ranging series of roles she played since she began acting professionally 30 years ago.

Born in Joliet, Ill., and a graduate of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, Thigpen made her New York stage debut in the musical “Godspell” in 1973, a role she reprised in the film. She appeared in other musicals over the next several years, earning her first Tony nomination in 1981 for her work in “Tintypes,” a revue featuring American music from the Civil War to World War I.

During the 1980s and 1990s, she worked extensively in television, beginning with a regular part as a secretary in the NBC sitcom “Love, Sidney.” Daytime audiences knew her as the grieving Grace Keefer in the ABC soap opera “All My Children.” She also had recurring roles in “thirtysomething” and “L.A. Law.”

In 1991, she landed the part of the clue-giving Chief on PBS’ “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” an educational quiz show in which young contestants in trench coats tried to determine the location of a thief named Carmen with the help of a detective agency headed by Thigpen.

The years that Thigpen played the Chief, winning a Daytime Emmy for the later series “Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?” gave her a devoted core of 6- to 13-year-old fans who would stop her on the street and try to stump her with their own geography questions. It got so bad that Thigpen, who had planned to become a teacher before she discovered acting, began to carry a pocket-sized atlas in her purse.

Early during her run as the Chief, she also was appearing eight times a week in the acclaimed off-Broadway production of Athol Fugard’s play “Boesman and Lena.” She won a 1992 Obie award for her role as the long-suffering wife of a black vagrant living under apartheid in South Africa.

In 1997, she co-starred in “An American Daughter,” a play by Wendy Wasserstein that also featured Kate Nelligan and Hal Holbrook in a production at New York’s Lincoln Center. She won a Tony award for her portrayal of a black, Jewish oncologist in her 40s struggling to conceive a child.

In 2000, she won her second Obie for “Jar the Floor,” a drama by Cheryl West. She earned praise for her work in Los Angeles productions of August Wilson’s “Fences” in 1988 and “Having Our Say,” adapted by Emily Mann from the book by Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany, in 1996.

Thigpen often went after roles that were not originally written for a woman, let alone a black woman.

That was how she won a part in the 1982 hit movie “Tootsie”: “I read the stage manager’s part,” she said, “and I thought there’s no reason that couldn’t be a woman.

“Sometimes you have to make your own luck, create your own way of people looking at something, instead of the traditional mold,” she said.

Among her many film credits were roles in “Lean on Me,” “Bob Roberts” and “The Paper.” She appears in the upcoming “Anger Management.” Services are pending.