Sandra Dale Dennis (April 27, 1937 – March 2, 1992) was an American theater and film actress. At the height of her career in the 1960s she won two Tony Awards, as well as an Oscar for her performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Dennis was a well-renowned animal activist. She rescued stray cats from the bowels of Grand Central Terminal. At the time of her death in Westport, CT, she lived with more than 20 cats, who were adopted out by longtime friends to new homes.
Dennis was born in Hastings, Nebraska, the daughter of Yvonne (née Hudson), a secretary, and Jack Dennis, a postal clerk. She had a brother, Frank. Dennis grew up in Kenesaw, Nebraska, and Lincoln, Nebraska, graduating from Lincoln High School in 1955. She attended Nebraska Wesleyan University and the University of Nebraska, appearing in the Lincoln Community Theater Group before moving to New York City at the age of 19. She studied acting at HB Studio in New York City.
Dennis made her television debut in 1956 in the soap opera The Guiding Light.
She had an early break when cast as an understudy in the Broadway production of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957) by William Inge directed by Elia Kazan. Kazan cast Dennis in her first feature film, a small part in Splendor in the Grass (1961), which starred Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty.
Dennis was cast in Face of a Hero (1960) on Broadway alongside Jack Lemmon. It had only a short run, but she made a good impression. The Complaisant Lover (1961–62) by Graham Greene was more successful, running for 101 performances; Michael Redgrave and Googie Withers were also in the cast.
Dennis achieved Broadway fame with her leading role in Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns (1962–63), for which she won a Tony award for her performance alongside Jason Robards. The show ran for 428 performances.
Around this time, she guest-starred on episodes of the TV series Naked City ("Carrier", 1963), The Fugitive ("The Other Side of the Mountain", 1963), Arrest and Trial ("Somewhat Lower Than the Angels" 1964), and Mr. Broadway ("Don't Mention My Name in Sheboygan", 1964).
Dennis was the lead of the Broadway comedy Any Wednesday (1964–66), which ran for 983 performances and won her a second Tony.
Dennis's second film role was as Honey, the fragile, neurotic young wife of George Segal's character, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Directed by Mike Nichols and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the film was a huge critical and commercial success and Dennis won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role.
Dennis's first lead role in a movie was in Up the Down Staircase (1967), directed by Robert Mulligan which was a box office success. So too was The Fox (1967), directed by Mark Rydell, in spite of the controversial subject matter. In 1967 Dennis was voted the 18th biggest star in the US.
Dennis briefly returned to Broadway to star in Daphne in Cottage D (1967), which only had a short run.
She starred in Sweet November (1968), as a terminally ill woman who takes multiple lovers, and made a TV version of the play A Hatful of Rain (1968).
Dennis went to London to star in A Touch of Love (1969), which flopped at the box office. So too did That Cold Day in the Park (1969) despite being directed by Robert Altman. However, The Out-of-Towners (1970), a Neil Simon comedy with Jack Lemmon, was a hit.
TV movies and film support roles
Dennis made a TV movie with Stuart Whitman, Only Way Out Is Dead (1970). She went back to Broadway for How the Other Half Loves (1971) by Alan Ayckbourn which ran for over 100 performances, then did another TV movie Something Evil (1972) directed by Steven Spielberg, which drew a mixed reception.
Let Me Hear You Smile (1973) on Broadway only lasted one performance, but Absurd Person Singular (1974–76) was a big hit, running 591 performances.
Dennis was in Mr. Sycamore (1975) with Jason Robards and had a small role in the low-budget horror film God Told Me To (1976) from Larry Cohen. Dennis's performance in the British comedy Nasty Habits (1977) drew harsh criticism from Vincent Canby in the New York Times.
Dennis guest starred in Police Story ("Day of Terror... Night of Fear", 1978), and starred in the TV movies Perfect Gentlemen (1979) (written by Nora Ephron), and Wilson's Reward (1981). On Broadway she briefly joined the cast of the long running Same Time, Next Year.
She had a well-received part in Alan Alda's The Four Seasons (1981) and was in The Supporting Cast (1981) on Broadway for Gene Saks. She was in the stage production and film version of Robert Altman's Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982).
In the mid and late 1980s, Dennis cut back on her career due to growing health problems. She appeared on television in Young People's Specials ("The Trouble with Mother", 1985), The Love Boat ("Roommates/Heartbreaker/Out of the Blue", 1985), Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("Arthur, or the Gigolo", 1985) and The Equalizer ("Out of the Past", 1986). In motion pictures, she had supporting roles in a 1986 remake of Laughter in the Dark, which was never completed, Woody Allen's Another Woman (1988), and the horror films 976-EVIL (1989) and Parents (1989).
In 1991, she played her final role in the crime drama The Indian Runner, which marked Sean Penn's debut as a film director.
Sandy Dennis died from ovarian cancer on March 2, 1992, at her home in Westport, Connecticut, at age 54.
Dennis lived with prominent jazz musician Gerry Mulligan from 1965 until they split up in 1974. She lived with actor Eric Roberts from 1980 to 1985. In an interview with People magazine in 1989, Dennis revealed she and Gerry Mulligan had suffered a miscarriage in 1965 and went on to say, "If I'd been a mother, I would have loved the child, but I just didn't have any connection with it when I was pregnant ... I never, ever wanted children. It would have been like having an elephant."
After Dennis's death, she was identified as bisexual by Hollywood historians. According to Dennis's biographer, Peter Shelley, Eric Roberts, upon being asked if Dennis was bisexual, spoke of her telling him about her many lesbian relationships and said that she "appreciated the beauty of women. But Sandy also liked and appreciated what a very, very young man could do to a woman, I suppose." This was published more than twenty years after her death.
During Dennis's lifetime, in-depth published interviews with her, such as one with The Christian Science Monitor during her stint performing in an ensemble cast at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1981, made no mention of a close relationship with a female. That interview included the following exchange about her marital status:
At one point I say, "When you were married to Gerry Mulligan ..." but she breaks in, tersely: "I was never married to anybody." I point out that "Who's Who" says she was married to Mulligan.
She says, "It's not – I'm not fussy about that – the truth is I was never married. We had a long association but we never married ...."
But there it is in Current Biography: "In June, 1965, after a three-week courtship, Sandy Dennis was married to Gerry Mulligan, the jazz saxophonist and composer."
She sits bolt upright and repeats: "I've never been married. And I'm not fussy about it. It's just the truth is, that I was never married. It isn't true that I was ever married, which means that I never got a divorce. The newspapers jumped to that conclusion. It's so hard to get to somebody and say ... Oh, they're so funny about it."
A life member of The Actors Studio and an advocate of method acting, Dennis was often described as neurotic and mannered in her performances; her signature style included running words together and oddly stopping and starting sentences, suddenly going up and down octaves as she spoke, and fluttering her hands. Walter Kerr famously remarked that she treated sentences as "weak, injured things" that needed to be slowly helped "across the street"; Pauline Kael said that she "has made an acting style of postnasal drip." Nonetheless, William Goldman, in his book The Season, referred to her as a quintessential "critics' darling" who got rave reviews no matter how unusual her acting and questionable her choice of material. During her stint in Any Wednesday, Kerr said the following: "Let me tell you about Sandy Dennis. There should be one in every home."
|1961||Splendor in the Grass||Kay|
|1966||Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?||Honey||Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress|
Laurel Award for Top Female Supporting Performance
Laurel Award for Top Female New Face
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture
|The Three Sisters||Irina|
|1967||Up the Down Staircase||Sylvia Barrett||Moscow International Film Festival Best Actress Award|
|The Fox||Jill Banford|
|1968||Sweet November||Sara Deever|
|1969||A Touch of Love||Rosamund Stacey|
|That Cold Day in the Park||Frances Austen|
|1970||The Out of Towners||Gwen Kellerman||Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy|
Nominated—Laurel Award for Top Female Comedic Performance
|1975||Mr. Sycamore||Jane Gwilt|
|1976||God Told Me To||Martha Nicholas|
|1977||Nasty Habits||Sister Winifred|
|1981||The Four Seasons||Anne Callan|
|1982||Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean||Mona|
|1986||Laughter in the Dark|
|1991||The Indian Runner||Mrs. Roberts||(final film role)|
|1956||Guiding Light||Alice Holden||TV series|
|1962||Naked City||Eleanor Ann Hubber||episode: Idylls of a Running Back|
|1963||Naked City||Lorraine||episode: Carrier|
|The Fugitive||Cassie Bolin||episode: The Other Side of the Mountain|
|1964||Arrest and Trial||Molly White||episode: Somewhat Lower Than the Angels|
|Mr. Broadway||Patricia Kelsey||episode: Don't Mention My Name in Sheboygan|
|1968||A Hatful of Rain||Celia Pope||(TV film)|
|1970||Only Way Out Is Dead||Dr. Enid Bingham||(TV film)|
|1972||Something Evil||Marjorie Worden||(TV film)|
|1978||Police Story||Sharon Bristol||episode: Day of Terror... Night of Fear|
|Perfect Gentlemen||Sophie Rosenman||(TV film)|
|1980||Wilson's Reward||Martha James||(TV film)|
|1985||The Execution||Elsa Spahn||(TV film)|
|The Love Boat||Gina Caldwell||episode: Roommates/Heartbreakers/Out of the Blue|
|Alfred Hitchcock Presents||Helen||episode: Arthur, or the Gigolo|
|Young People's Specials||Patricia Benson||episode: The Trouble with Mother|
|1986||The Equalizer||Kay Wesley||episode: Out of the Past|
|Dec. 5, 1957 – Jan. 17, 1959||The Dark at the Top of the Stairs||Reenie Flood
|Oct. 20, 1960 – Nov. 19, 1960||Face of a Hero||Millicent Bishop||Theatre World Award|
|Nov. 1, 1961 − Jan. 27, 1962||The Complaisant Lover||Ann Howard|
|Apr. 5, 1962 − Apr. 13, 1963||A Thousand Clowns||Sandra Markowitz||Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play|
|Feb. 18, 1964 − Jun. 26, 1966||Any Wednesday||Ellen Gordon||Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play|
|Oct. 15, 1967 – Nov. 18, 1967||Daphne in Cottage D||Daphne|
|Mar. 29, 1971 – Jun. 26, 1971||How the Other Half Loves||Teresa Phillips|
|Jan. 16, 1973||Let Me Hear You Smile||Hannah Heywood|
|Oct. 8, 1974 − Mar. 6, 1976||Absurd Person Singular||Eva|
|Mar. 14, 1975 – Sept. 3, 1978||Same Time, Next Year||Doris||Replacement|
|Aug. 6, 1981 – Sept. 5, 1981||The Supporting Cast||Sally|
|Feb. 18, 1982 – Apr. 4, 1982||Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean||Mona|