In Memoriam: Fran Bennett

Fran Bennett headshot

Rest in power: Fran Bennett

The CalArts community mourns the loss of School of Theater faculty emerita Fran Bennett, who passed away over the weekend. She served the CalArts community for 36 years as Linklater Voice faculty, as well as Head of Acting/Director of Performance from 1996-2003. She retired from full-time teaching at CalArts in 2014.

For those who met Bennett, her booming voice was instantly recognizable. Her looming presence was unforgettable.

In a message sent earlier today to the School of Theater, Dean Travis Preston wrote:

Fran’s voice was unmistakable. She never shied away from using it. And she taught so many throughout the years to find and free their own.

Before there were diversity committees and personnel at CalArts, there was Fran. She unceasingly championed students, artists, and innovators of all backgrounds, and demanded that leaders do more to serve the left out and kept out. 

Her King Lear launched the CalArts Center for New Performance. As her director, I was utterly blown away by her fearlessness and ferocity, and it has emboldened me and my work ever since.

Her legacy will live on in the hearts and minds and voices of the countless people she impacted. I will never forget her, and miss her terribly. May we all follow her example – and speak with honesty, grace, strength, and freedom.

Born in 1937, in Malvern, Ark., Bennett earned a BS and an MA from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Her acting career spanned several decades over stages and screens, beginning on the daytime drama Guiding Light in 1965. Her extensive television credits included Quantum LeapIn the Heat of the Night, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Book of Daniel and Scandal. In 2019, Bennett starred in Live in Front of a Studio Audience, which reprised Norman Lear’s classic sitcoms, All In The Family and The Jeffersons. She starred as Mother Olivia Jefferson on The Jeffersons episode. Her last film, The Manor, will be released in October as part of Welcome to the Blumhouse’s horror/thriller slate for Amazon Studios.

Bennett also had a significant impact on theater in Los Angeles and beyond. A member of the classical theater company Antaeus, she was also a founding member of Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company’s (LAWSC), an organization that produces professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays with an all-female ensemble. For playing both the Duke of Venice and the Prince of Morocco in LAWSCs The Merchant of Venice, Bennett received the LA Stage Alliance Ovation Award for Featured Actress in a Play. 

In addition to receiving an NAACP Theatre Award, Bennett was the first recipient of an AEA/SAG/AFTRA Diversity Honor Award. She was named to the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, joining poet Maya Angelou and President Bill Clinton, among others. Aug. 7, 2005, was named Fran Bennett Day by the mayor of Malvern, Arkansas.

On social media, former colleagues and students are reminiscing and paying tribute to the actor, teacher, and mentor.

If you’d like to share your stories and memories about Fran Bennett, please add them to the comments section below, or email them to

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  1. Lucy Griffin // //

    I graduated from the CalArts school of theater in acting 2005. I came back to work here in 2019. Roaming the halls rediscovering corners, walking past C108 and I could almost hear her grand voice echoing from many memories ago, “Darling breathe through your coccyx!” She was a legend and an icon. Never to be forgotten.

  2. Whitney Chapman // //

    What a loss. She was one of the most pow-her-full women I have ever known. She pulled no punches, expected nothing but the deepest of truth and honesty from you as an actor and a human being. She demanded respect and I felt I had to EARN it from her…but she gave it readily if you were doing your best. I have never had a teacher “scare me” more by her presence, her power and her strength of character while encouraging me to be brave and honest…AND support me more in my journey to finding my voice. I was honored to have been chosen to teach the voice class for Stage Manager under her tutelage and was lucky to have her as my mentor as well.
    I use her phrase, (in various forms) and always hearing her voice in my head, “Breathe from your Sex (or Coccyx) , darling.”
    Thank you for blessing me with your presences, your teaching and your wisdom. You will be missed.

  3. Ryan Vincent Anderson // //

    I graduated in 2007. My memories of Calarts are so fond and full of emotion. Fran Bennett was a MAJOR part of why I loved my experience at Calarts. She was like nobody I had ever met. She had a way of being domineeringly warm and gracefully strong. Because of this and because of her absolutely apparent sureness in who she was and what she stood for, many, including myself, felt a bit frightened by her. But to speak for myself, it wasn’t a fright of who she was. It was a fright of who I might not become. Fran was a clear example of someone who boldly showed up in life and told people “Here I am. This is me. Deal with it.” And at a time when society showed little to no support for QUEER BLACK WOMEN, let alone women in general, she determined her own destiny and identity and proudly paved the way for others to determine theirs as well.
    I will never forget her teachings. I will never forget her.

  4. Diana McGuigan Guerrero // //

    I was PADT ‘89, and as a lighting designer, my “hey, point that Fresnel over here” to the electricians left a lot to be desired. So I followed faculty advice to take voice class with the acting students. It was a great experience, and as such, I remembered Fran fondly and loved to see her in tv and film over the years. Thank you for letting us know of her passing; she will be missed!

  5. Morgan Brown // //

    Well I graduated BFA dance 1989, then again MFA dance 1998. So I knew Fran bc you did not go to Cal/arts and not know her. Although I never took her class, I knew a lot of theatre students who did.

    Her presence was super strong and I remember being a little scared of her, but I can’t imagine if I was one of her students.

    I am honored to have known her, if even from a distance. That is really something to leave that kind of presence in my soul, even if she was not my teacher.. That speaks volumes about Her.
    May God bless her family for their loss as well as our Cal/arts community..