Honorable mention April 27th birthdays are Ulysses S. Grant and Samuel Morse, who both called NYC home for a time. Today’s choice goes to someone who has gotten little attention compared with these two major historic figures.
Sandy Dennis was one of the most eccentric stars of stage and screen. She was featured in 19 films; a dozen plays and a variety of TV series appearances. She made quirkiness and eccentricity into an art. She won two Tony Awards and an Academy Award. 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. Dennis won her second Tony for her lead role in the Broadway comedy Any Wednesday (1964–66), which ran for 983 performances. Her Oscar is for her performance in the movie version of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (1966). Coincidentally her first acting teacher UTA Hagen won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in the stage version in 1963.
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.” 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."
The film industry was miffed in 1967, when Dennis—nominated for her role in Virginia Woolf—refused to attend the Academy Awards. (She watched them from a New York restaurant.) “The Oscars are just not the kind of thing I’d get some clothes and go to,” she says. “I never dress up if I can help it.” She continued her solid career often playing offbeat characters that interested her. She has been a lesbian in D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox, a photographer fixated on vegetables in Alan Alda’s Four Seasons and a memorable would-be suicide in the play Absurd Person Singular.
Sandy Dennis was born on April 27, 1937 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 initially studied acting at HB Studio in Greenwich Village.
· In 1956, under the tutelage of ‘HB Studio’s famed acting teacher, Uta Hagen, Sandy Dennis made her debut on the New York theatre scene with the play ‘The Lady from the Sea’. That year, she also made her television debut with the series ‘Guiding Light’.
· In 1957, she made her Broadway debut with the production ‘The Dark at the Top of the Stairs’, for which she was first an understudy and later the replacement actor for two roles.
· From 1959-62, while she toured with that production, she dabbled in regional plays like ‘Bus Stop’ and ‘Motel’ too. She also continued to grow her presence on the New York theatre circuit with plays like ‘Face of a Hero’, that won her the ‘Theatre World Award’, ‘The Complaisant Lover’, among others.
· Sandy Dennis soon became devoted to method acting and became a life member of ‘The Actors Studio’. She developed a signature performance style that suited her eccentricities very well and brought the characters that she played to life.
· In 1961, her neurotic tendencies and unique style of acting enabled her to make her film debut with ‘Splendor in the Grass’. Though praised by the film community, she did not land any other film roles for almost five years.
· From 1962-66, she focused on developing her acting skills in theatre, and did ‘Tony Award’-winning comic roles in plays like ‘A Thousand Clowns’ and ‘Any Wednesday’. She also featured in television series like ‘Naked City’, ‘The Fugitive’, ‘Arrest and Trial’ and ‘Mr. Broadway’.
· In 1966, she returned to films with the smash-hit, emotionally charged, and Oscar-winning performance of the timid young wife ‘Honey’ in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
· In 1967, she gave memorable lead actress performances in films like ‘Up the Down Staircase’ and the controversial homosexuality themed ‘The Fox’. That year, she also played a lead role in the play ‘Daphne in Cottage D’.
· From 1968-69, she continued playing unusual characters in films like ‘Sweet November’, ‘A Hatful of Rain’, ‘A Touch of Love’, and ‘That Cold Day in the Park’.
· In 1970, she teamed up with veteran actor, Jack Lemmon, in the hit comedy film ‘The Out of Towners’, that won her a ‘Golden Globe’ nomination and a TV film ‘Only Way Out is Dead’.
· From 1971-78, she trained her sights on theatre again and delivered hard-hitting performances in ‘How the Other Half Loves’, ‘Let Me Hear You Smile’, ‘Absurd Person Singular’, ‘Same Time, Next Year’, etc. In 1974 she played Joan of Arc in the pilot of Witness to Yesterday, Canadian Patrick Watson's series of interviews with great figures out of the past. She also did a few film and television roles like ‘Mr. Sycamore’, ‘Police Story’, etc. during this time.
· From 1981-82, she played notable parts in ensemble films like ‘The Four Seasons’ and ‘Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’, and gave a noted performance in the play ‘The Supporting Cast’.
· From 1985-89, her declining health forced her to slow down, but she managed to appear in television series like ‘The Love Boat’, ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’, and films like ‘Another Woman’, ‘976-EVIL’ and ‘Parents’.
· In 1991, while undergoing chemotherapy, she completed filming for her last movie ‘The Indian Runner’. The movie marked Sean Penn's debut as a film director.
Dennis had two long-term romantic attachments—a 10-year affair with jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan that ended in 1975, and then five years with actor Eric Roberts, who was almost 20 years her junior.
According to a 1989 People Magazine interview, Sandy inherited a love of cats from her mother, Yvonne, 78, who was divorced from her father, Jack, 22 years ago and left Lincoln, Nebr., for the East Coast. Eight years ago, she moved in with her daughter. “My mother brought home this stray cat once, and the doctor told her that because of my allergies either the cat or I would have to go. When my mother turned to me and said, ‘You know who goes first,’ I knew I better learn to cope.” Yvonne also contributed to Sandy’s early reputation for being a bit odd. After Sandy’s first day in kindergarten, the teacher called home to report that Sandy was dyslexic—she had recited the alphabet backward. “Well, that’s the way I taught her to say it,” says Yvonne. “We played the ouija board backward too.”
Regarding her cats, Dennis went through 12 one-pound cans of wet food and three boxes of dry daily, along with 25 pounds of cat-box filler and seven loads of laundry. Her vet bills have run as high as $4,000 a month. “It’s like having kids,” says Sandy, who picked up most of her strays while on performing jaunts. “You come downstairs and someone has thrown up, another has pissed on the rug, and you have to clean after them.” For Dennis, that is no hardship. “Cleaning gives me more pleasure than anything in the world,” she says. “I’d clean all day long if I could. I used to wake up in the middle of the night and start waxing the floor. Then I’d lie on it and wait for the shine to rise. I just don’t want anyone to say my house smells or looks dirty.”