The Heartbreaking Death Of Nomadland Actress Melissa Yandell Smith

Actor and American Conservancy Theater (A.C.T) director Melissa Yandell Smith has died at the age of 64, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Smith died on September 7, 2021 at her home in San Francisco. The cause of death was cancer, according to an obituary published in the The New York Times.

People confirmed the news, and A.C.T. issued a statement on Smith's passing on September 23, 2021 writing, "It is with great sorrow that we share that Melissa Smith, longtime director of the Conservatory, passed away on September 7, 2021. Melissa's impact on A.C.T and on the American theater is immense. So many have been touched by her talent, generosity, intellect, grace, and wonderful sense of humor. She will be greatly missed."

Smith led A.C.T for 25 years where she served as director and is credited with "redesigning and invigorating" the school's Master of Fine Arts Program, while also maintaining a busy acting schedule, according to The New York Times. The actress most recently starred in the Best Picture Oscar winner, "Nomadland," alongside her longtime friend, Frances McDormand. Smith played McDormand's sister, Dolly (via NME).

Reflecting on their friendship, McDormand told the San Francisco Chronicle, "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." 

Melissa Yandell Smith had a successful teaching career

Born in Louisville, Kentucky on June 8, 1957, Melissa Yandell Smith excelled at a young age both as a student and a storyteller, according to an obituary published in The New York Times. She pursued her passion for acting at the Yale School of Drama, and later moved to New York after obtaining an MFA. She landed acting roles and began her career as a teacher at the Honolulu Youth Theater in Hawaii and Purchase Youth Theater at Purchase College, SUNY, according to the outlet.

Prior to accepting the position at the American Conservancy Theater (A.C.T.) in 1995, Smith directed Princeton University's Program in Theater and Dance from 1989 to 1993, before moving back to New York to instruct actors at Caymichael Patten Studio. During her tenure at A.C.T, Smith maintained an acting career, starring in theater productions including "Continental Divide," Celebration," and "Blithe Spirit," per The New York Times.

But it was her work with students that she was most proud of, according to Smith's husband, Warren David Keith. In a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle, he said, "What was most important to her was connecting with those students and seeing them open up and change and realize what they were capable of. She really lived for that."

Per The Hollywood Reporter, the teacher and actor is survived by her husband, and son, Owen.

A celebration of life will be held by A.C.T. at a date and time to be determined.