Sandra Dale Dennis
April 27, 1937
Hastings, Nebraska, U.S.
|Died||March 2, 1992 (aged 54)|
Westport, Connecticut, U.S.
|Partner(s)||Gerry Mulligan (1965–1974)|
Eric Roberts (1980–1985)
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 The Three Sisters (1966), Up the Down Staircase (1967), 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.
Dennis was born in Hastings, Nebraska, the daughter of Yvonne (née Hudson), a secretary, and Jack Dennis, a postal clerk. Her parents divorced in 1967, after 39 years of marriage. She had an elder brother, Frank. 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. 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. 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 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.
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, 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). She 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 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's first lead role in a movie was in Up the Down Staircase (1967), directed by Robert Mulligan, 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.
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), which flopped at the box office, as did That Cold Day in the Park (1969), despite being directed by Robert Altman. The Out-of-Towners (1970), a Neil Simon comedy with Jack Lemmon, was a hit.
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.
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 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. The bulk of her role was in an eight-page scene in which Frank is taken by [his brother] Joe to visit their parents for the first time since returning from a three-year tour in Vietnam. [The entire long scene was cut so that Frank would seem ungrateful to their parents. Sean Penn felt this improved the movie. In Dennis' short scene that remains in the movie, she is seen with her husband, played by Charles Bronson, and only one of their sons, Joe.]
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 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. In a 1989 interview with People, however, Dennis admitted that they only pretended to be married after she unintentionally became pregnant. 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."
From 1980 to 1985, Dennis lived with actor Eric Roberts. 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, fell in a coma for 72 hours and had to withdraw from the Broadway show Mass Appeal. Dennis's dog survived the accident. She and Roberts were engaged to be married in spring 1983, but the ceremony never took place.
Dennis's sexual orientation was subjected to public discussion as early as 1968, when the scandal magazine Uncensored ran a story that labeled her a lesbian. In an article published more than 20 years after Dennis' death, Eric Roberts identified her as bisexual. 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."
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 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."
|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|
|976-EVIL||Aunt Lucy Wilmoth|
|1991||The Indian Runner||Mrs. Roberts||Final film role|
|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"|
|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|