The Tragic Death Of Nomadland Actor Melissa Yandell Smith

Melissa Yandell Smith, who delivered one of the most poignant lines in the Oscar-nominated film "Nomadland," has died at age 64. Smith only starred in the one film, opposite Frances McDormand, but made an "impact" on theater and acting students while working as a teacher. For the past 25 years, Smith was the Conservatory Director at the prestigious American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where she "redesigned, invigorated and maintained the Master of Fine Arts program at the highest level," according to The New York Times. The A.C.T announced her death in a press release on September 23, saying Smith "will be greatly missed."

"It is with great sorrow that we share that Melissa Smith, longtime Director of the Conservatory, passed away on September 7, 2021," the statement began. "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." While the A.C.T. did not confirm a cause of death, The Times wrote in an obituary piece that she died from colon cancer "at her home in San Francisco surrounded by her husband, son, brothers and friends." The publication not only said the A.C.T. Master of Arts program, under her leadership, was "internationally recognized," but that Smith had a "passion" and "deep devotion" for her craft.

Melissa Yandell Smith and Frances McDormand developed their 'lifelong friendship' in college

Melissa Yandell Smith may have played a fictional character in "Nomadland," but Dolly's values almost mirrored her own. The New York Times said Smith had a "magical gift of perception," which allowed her students to feel "seen." In one particularly moving scene with her onscreen sister Frances McDormand in "Nomadland," Smith symbolically echoes that sentiment. As Dolly, she said, "You could see me when I was hiding from everybody else. Sometimes you could see me before I saw myself. I needed that in my life." 

Smith was born in Louisville, Kentucky and graduated from Yale University in 1979, where she met her husband, actor Warren David Keith and McDormand. At the Yale School of Drama, Smith befriended McDormand and even co-starred with Glenn Close in a Yale production. Despite Smith and McDormand's differing career paths, Deadline says the pair continued a "lifelong friendship." Prior to her posting at the American Conservatory Theater in 1995, Smith also taught at the Honolulu Youth Theater, the SUNY Purchase Youth Theater in New York ,and Princeton. She also had a few stints in Italy at the New York University's La Pietra Campus in Florence, Italy, and at the Primo del Teatro in San Miniato, Italy. While her role as Dolly in Chloe Zhao's "Nomadland" was her only film, she proved her perseverance and passion as she filmed it despite her "declining health," according to The Times. McDormand has yet to publicly offer her condolences.