‘Nomadland’ Actor Melissa Yandell Smith Succumbs to Cancer, Dies at 64

by Matthew Memrick

“Nomadland” actor Melissa Yandell Smith’s former employer, the American Conservatory Theatre, announced on Sept. 23 that the actress died of cancer in early September at age 64.

Smith was the Conservatory Director at the San Francisco theater for 25 years until 2020. The theater named its library in honor of her and a fund set up after her death.

In a statement, the theater shared its sorrow over the “Nomadland” actress’s death and praised her impact on the institution. 

“So many have been touched by her talent, generosity, intellect, grace, and wonderful sense of humor,” the statement read. “She will be greatly missed.”

In her The New York Times obituary, the woman’s family revealed that she had died from cancer at her San Francisco home on Sept. 7. Cancer was the cause of her death. 

Smith’s Legacy

Melissa Smith “redesigned, invigorated and maintained the Master of Fine Arts Program at the highest level,” according to her obituary. 

Born in Kentucky in 1957, she went on to graduate from Yale University in 1979. She met her husband, actor Warren Keith and the couple had a son, Owen.

Smith acted in many theater productions, including “Uncle Vanya,” “Marie and Bruce,” “Continental Divide,” and “Blithe Spirit.” She performed at the Hangar Theatre, the California Shakespeare Festival, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Primary Stages, and Soho Repertoire Theater. Other acting stops came at the Barbican Theater in London and Birmingham Repertoire Theater in Birmingham.  

Before she worked with the American Conservatory Theatre, MelissaSmith was the director of the theatre and dance program at Princeton University. She taught at the Mid Pacific Institute in Hawaii, NYU’s La Pietra campus in Florence, and the Teatro di Pisa in San Miniato, Italy.

Smith’s ’Nomadland’ Role

Smith and her longtime friend, Francis McDormand, acted together in last year’s Oscar-winning movie “Nomadland.” The two women were former Yale classmates and played sisters in the film. 

The film follows McDormand, who loses everything after the Great Recession. In her sixties, she heads through the American West on a journey while living in a van. Reportedly, film producers made the film during the fall of 2018. The film found locations in several midwest and western parts of the United States.

When the film came out, it focused on parts of America rarely seen and thought about by mainstream Americans, and a refugee way of life lived by many Americans.

The film won three Oscars, including Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for McDormand.

Smith filmed the movie while fighting cancer.

In one scene, Smith tells McDormand about what she needed in her life.

She said, “you could see me when I was hiding from everybody else. Sometimes you could see me before I saw myself.”