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. Smith was a Yale School of Drama friend and co-starred in Yale’s production of Glenn Close. 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. Additionally, she spent a few months in Italy, at La Pietra Campus, New York University, in Florence, Italy, as well as at Primo del Teatro, San Miniato in 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 not yet publicly offered her condolences.