Sandy Dennis
Sandra Dale Dennis

(1937-04-27)April 27, 1937
DiedMarch 2, 1992(1992-03-02) (aged 54)
Years active1956–1991

Sandra Dale Dennis (April 27, 1937 – March 2, 1992) was an American actress. She made her film debut in the drama Splendor in the Grass (1961). For her performance in the comedy-drama film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), she received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Dennis appeared in the films Up the Down Staircase (1967), The Fox (1967), Sweet November (1968), That Cold Day in the Park (1969), The Out-of-Towners (1970), God Told Me To (1976), The Four Seasons (1981), Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), and Another Woman (1988). Her final film appearance came in the crime drama film The Indian Runner (1991).

Dennis had a successful career on stage, appearing in the original stage production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. For her performance in the play A Thousand Clowns, she received the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play. For her performance in the play Any Wednesday, she received the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.

Dennis was a renowned animal activist. She rescued stray cats from the bowels of Grand Central Terminal. At the time of her death in Westport, Connecticut, she lived with more than 20 cats, who were adopted out by longtime friends to new homes.

Early life

Dennis was born in Hastings, Nebraska, the daughter of Yvonne (née Hudson), a secretary, and Jack Dennis, a postal clerk.[1][2] Her parents divorced in 1966 after 38 years of marriage.[3] She had one brother, Frank, who was eight years older. Dennis grew up in Kenesaw, Nebraska, and Lincoln, Nebraska, graduating from Lincoln High School in 1955; one of her classmates was writer and comedian Dick Cavett.[4] She attended Nebraska Wesleyan University and the University of Nebraska, appearing in the Lincoln Community Theater Group before moving to New York City at age 19.[5] She studied acting at HB Studio[6] in New York City.


Early career

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 William Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957) 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. The play had only a short run, but Dennis received good notices. 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.

Broadway stardom

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.[7] The show ran for 428 performances.[8]

Around this time, Dennis guest-starred on episodes of the TV series Naked City ("Idylls of a Running Back", 1962, "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).[9] She was the lead of the Broadway comedy Any Wednesday (1964–66), which ran for 983 performances[10] and won her a second Tony.[7]

Film stardom

Dennis' 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.[11]

Dennis in Up the Down Staircase.

Dennis returned to the stage in a production of The Three Sisters (1966) with Geraldine Page and Kim Stanley that went to London and was filmed.

Dennis' first lead role in a movie was in Up the Down Staircase (1967), directed by Robert Mulligan. In his review for The New York Times, Bosley Crowther cited her for "a vivid performance of emotional range and depth … engagingly natural, sensitive, literate and thoroughly moving."[12] The film was a box-office success, as was The Fox (1967), directed by Mark Rydell, despite its controversial subject matter. In 1967 Dennis was voted the 18th biggest star in the US.[13]

Dennis briefly returned to Broadway to star in Daphne in Cottage D (1967), which 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), alternately titled Thank You All Very Much in the USA, which flopped at the box office. That Cold Day in the Park (1969) did not fare much better, despite being directed by Robert Altman. The Out-of-Towners (1970), a Neil Simon comedy with Jack Lemmon, was a hit.[9]

Television and supporting roles

Dennis made a TV movie with Stuart Whitman, Only Way Out Is Dead (1970). She returned 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.

In 1974 she played Joan of Arc in the pilot of Witness to Yesterday, Patrick Watson's series of interviews with great figures out of the past.

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) by Larry Cohen. Her performance in the British comedy Nasty Habits (1977) drew harsh criticism from Vincent Canby in the New York Times.[14]

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).[9]

Later career

In the mid- and late 1980s, Dennis acted less, owing to growing health problems. She appeared on TV 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).

Her final role was in the crime drama The Indian Runner, filmed in 1990 and released in 1991. The movie marked Sean Penn's debut as a film director. Actor Viggo Mortensen, who played one of her two sons, wrote of the preparations for the movie and filming in the vicinity of Omaha, Nebraska:

When I first met with Sean Penn and his producer, Don Phillips, to discuss the possibility of my playing Frank, one of the first questions I asked them was who, if anyone, they had in mind to play the mother. When Sean answered that he did not want to consider anyone other than Sandy Dennis for the part, I couldn't have been happier, or more in agreement. Aside from my feelings for her as a friend, I believed she would be a great asset to the movie and would inspire us all to do our best. This proved to be true. As it turned out, most of her work was cut from the movie. This was not due to any shortcoming on her part. On the contrary, she was brilliant throughout … She was working on a level far above the rest of us. The concentration and vulnerability that she invested in the scene were remarkable. Heart-breaking. The fact that most of us knew that she was dying of ovarian cancer as she showed us the emotional disintegration of the character made the experience all the more poignant.[15]


Dennis died from ovarian cancer on March 2, 1992, at her home in Westport, Connecticut, at age 54.[16]

Personal life

Dennis lived with prominent jazz musician Gerry Mulligan from 1965 to 1974. In October 1965, her hometown newspaper, The Lincoln Star, published an Associated Press article stating she and Mulligan had married in Connecticut in June of that year.[17] In a 1989 interview with People, however, Dennis admitted that they only pretended to be married after she unintentionally became pregnant.[3] Dennis miscarried, adding, "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."[3]

From 1980 to 1985, Dennis lived with actor Eric Roberts, nineteen years her junior. On June 4, 1981, her German Shepherd was riding with Roberts when he crashed his vehicle into a tree. Roberts, who was under the influence of cocaine at the time, was in a coma for 72 hours and had to withdraw from the Broadway show Mass Appeal.[18] Dennis' dog survived the accident.[3] She and Roberts were engaged to be married in spring 1983, but the ceremony never took place.[19]

Dennis' sexual orientation was subjected to public discussion as early as 1968, when the scandal magazine Uncensored ran a story that labeled her a lesbian.[20] In an article published less than four years after Dennis' death, Eric Roberts identified her as bisexual.[21][22][23][24] According to Roberts, Dennis told him she had many lesbian relationships and that she "appreciated the beauty of women. But she also liked and appreciated what a very, very young man could do to a woman, I suppose."[25]

During Dennis' 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 close relationships with women. 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."[26]

Dennis also dated actor Gerald S. O'Loughlin.[27]



Year Title Role Notes
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 (tied with Grynet Molvig for A Time in the Sun)
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 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Mona
1986 Laughter in the Dark Unknown
1988 Another Woman Claire
976-EVIL Aunt Lucy Wilmoth
1989 Parents Millie Dew
1991 The Indian Runner Mrs. Roberts Final film role


Year Title Role Notes
1956 Guiding Light Alice Holden Unknown episodes
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 Television film
1970 Only Way Out Is Dead Dr. Enid Bingham Television film
1972 Something Evil Marjorie Worden Television film
1978 Police Story Sharon Bristol Episode: "Day of Terror... Night of Fear"
Perfect Gentlemen Sophie Rosenman Television film
1980 Wilson's Reward Martha James Television film
1985 The Execution Elsa Spahn Television 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"


Run Title Role Notes
Dec. 5, 1957–Jan. 17, 1959 The Dark at the Top of the Stairs Reenie Flood / Flirt Conroy Understudy
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


  1. ^ Peter Shelley (8 November 2013). Sandy Dennis: The Life and Films. McFarland. ISBN 978-1-4766-0589-0.
  2. ^ "The Hour - Google News Archive Search".
  3. ^ a b c d Hutchings, David. "The Queen of Artfully Oddball Roles Finds Peace as a Cat-Crazed Recluse". People Magazine. Time, Inc. Archived from the original on 2011-03-31. Retrieved 2011-08-29.
  4. ^ Lincoln High School (1955). The Links, vol. 39. Lincoln, NE: Lincoln High School. p. 38.
  5. ^ Sandy Dennis. Yahoo Movies.
  6. ^ HB Studio Alumni
  7. ^ a b "WINNERS (SANDY DENNIS)". Tony Awards. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  8. ^ "A Thousand Clowns". IBDB. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  9. ^ a b c "Sandy Dennis". IMDb. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  10. ^ "Any Wednesday". IBDB. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  11. ^ "Results". Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  12. ^ Daniels, Lee A. (March 5, 1992). "Sandy Dennis, Veteran Actress And Prize Winner, Is Dead at 54". The New York Times. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  13. ^ 'Star Glitter Is Catching' By Richard L. Coe. The Washington Post and Times-Herald (1959–1973) [Washington, D.C] 07 Jan 1968: H1.
  14. ^ Canby, Vincent (19 March 1977). "'Nasty Habits' of Nuns in Politics". New York Times. Retrieved 20 March 2015.
  15. ^ Mortensen, Viggo (August 7, 2008). "Missing Sandy Dennis".
  16. ^ Daniels, Lee A. "Sandy Dennis, Veteran Actress And Prize Winner, Is Dead at 54" The New York Times, March 5, 1992
  17. ^ "Actress Sandy Dennis, Lincoln Native, Is Wed". The Lincoln Star. 16 October 1965 – via
  18. ^ Kelly, Kevin (October 4, 1981). "Eric Roberts has 'Mass Appeal'". The Boston Globe.
  19. ^ Baker, James M. (February 5, 1984). "An actor takes on the role of a loser". The Philadelphia Inquirer.
  20. ^ Uncensored. August 1968.
  21. ^ Kroll, Gerry (February 6, 1996). "Resurrection". The Advocate. No. 700. p. 44.
  22. ^ Stern, Keith (2009). Queers in History: The Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Historical Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals. Dallas, Texas: BenBella Books. p. 138. ISBN 978-1933771878.
  23. ^ Hadleigh, Boze (1996). Hollywood Lesbians. New York City: Barricade Books. p. 246. ISBN 1569800677.
  24. ^ Zimmerman, Bonnie (1999). Lesbian Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1. New York City: Routledge. p. 375. ISBN 0815319207. Retrieved 19 March 2015.
  25. ^ Shelley, Peter (2013). Sandy Dennis: The Life and Films. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 978-0786471973. Retrieved 19 March 2015.
  26. ^ Sweeney, Louise (August 20, 1981). "Sandy Dennis; The Talent Shows, the Cats Don't". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved November 25, 2016.
  27. ^ "Family & Companions".