Sandy Dennis

Sandy Dennis
Born Sandra Dale Dennis
(1937-04-27)April 27, 1937[1]
Hastings, Nebraska, U.S.
Died March 2, 1992(1992-03-02) (aged 54)
Westport, Connecticut, U.S.
Cause of death ovarian cancer
Occupation Actress
Years active 1952–1991

Sandra Dale “Sandy” 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?.

Early life

Dennis was born in Hastings, Nebraska, the daughter of Yvonne (née Hudson), a secretary, and Jack Dennis, a postal clerk.[2][3] She had a brother, Frank.[4] Dennis grew up in Kenesaw, Nebraska and Lincoln, Nebraska, graduating from Lincoln High School (Lincoln, Nebraska) in 1955.[5] 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.[6]


Dennis made her television debut in 1956 in The Guiding Light. In 1963, she appeared in the The Fugitive, which starred David Janssen, in the episode "The Other Side of the Mountain." In 1964, she appeared in the television episode "Don't Mention My Name in Sheboygan" of Craig Stevens's CBS drama, Mr. Broadway. Her film debut was the role of Kay in Splendor in the Grass (1961). However, she was more committed to following a career in the theater. She won consecutive Tony Awards for her performances in A Thousand Clowns (1963) and Any Wednesday (1964). She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Honey, the fragile, neurotic young wife of George Segal's character, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). She followed this with well-received performances in Up the Down Staircase (1967), The Fox (1967), Sweet November (1968) and The Out-of-Towners (1970), although her performance in Nasty Habits (1977) drew harsh criticism from Vincent Canby in the New York Times.[7]

In 1963, she appeared in the Naked City episode "Carrier", as the bearer of a rare disease.

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.

In 1967 she was voted the 18th biggest star in the US.[8]

A life member of The Actors Studio[9] 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."

Sandy Dennis, Anne Bancroft, Zoe Caldwell, Viola Davis, Colleen Dewhurst, Maureen Stapleton, Irene Worth, and Audra McDonald are the only winners of Tony Awards for both Best Actress in a Play and Best Featured Actress in a Play.

Her last significant film roles were in Alan Alda's The Four Seasons (1981) and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982). In 1991, she played a leading role in the film The Indian Runner, which marked Sean Penn's debut as a film director.

Personal life

Dennis lived with prominent jazz musician Gerry Mulligan from 1965 until they split up in 1974. She also 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."[10]

Dennis has been identified as a lesbian by a number of Hollywood historians.[11][12][13] According to Dennis' 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."[14]

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 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."[15]


Sandy Dennis died from ovarian cancer in Westport, Connecticut, at age 54.[16]



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
Three Sisters, TheThe 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)
Fox, TheThe Fox Jill Banford
1968 Sweet November Sara Deever
1969 That Cold Day in the Park Frances Austen
Touch of Love, AA Touch of Love Rosamund Stacey
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 Four Seasons, TheThe Four Seasons Anne Callan
1982 Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Mona
1988 Another Woman Claire
976-EVIL Aunt Lucy
1989 Parents Millie Dew
1991 Indian Runner, TheThe Indian Runner Mrs. Roberts


Year Title Role Notes
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
Fugitive, TheThe 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 Hatful of Rain, AA 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 Execution, TheThe Execution Elsa Spahn (TV film)
Love Boat, TheThe 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 Equalizer, TheThe Equalizer Kay Wesley episode: Out of the Past


Run Title Role Notes
Dec. 5, 1957 – Jan. 17, 1959 Dark at the Top of the Stairs, TheThe Dark at the Top of the Stairs Reenie Flood
Flirt Conroy
Oct. 20, 1960 – Nov. 19, 1960 Face of a Hero Millicent Bishop Theatre World Award
Nov. 1, 1961 − Jan. 27, 1962 Complaisant Lover, TheThe Complaisant Lover Ann Howard
Apr. 5, 1962 − Apr. 13, 1963 Thousand Clowns, AA 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 Supporting Cast, TheThe 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. Sandy Dennis Biography (1937–1992)
  3. Sandy Dennis Foundation
  4. Lincoln High School (1955). The Links, vol. 39. Lincoln, NE: Lincoln High School. p. 38.
  5. Sandy Dennis. Yahoo Movies.
  6. Canby, Vincent (19 March 1977). "'Nasty Habits' of Nuns in Politics". New York Times. Retrieved 20 March 2015.
  7. 'Star Glitter Is Catching' By Richard L. Coe. The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959–1973) [Washington, D.C] 07 Jan 1968: H1.
  8. Garfield, David (1980). "Appendix: Life Members of The Actors Studio as of January 1980". A Player's Place: The Story of The Actors Studio. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. p. 278. ISBN 0-02-542650-8.
  9. Hutchings, David. "The Queen of Artfully Oddball Roles Finds Peace as a Cat-Crazed Recluse". People Magazine. Time, Inc. Retrieved 2011-08-29.
  10. Stern, Keith (2009). Queers in History: The Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Historical Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals. Dallas: BenBella Books. p. 138. ISBN 1933771879.
  11. Hadleigh, Boze (1996). Hollywood Lesbians. NY: Barricade Books. p. 246. ISBN 1569800677.
  12. Zimmerman, Bonnie (1999). Lesbian Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1. NY: Routledge. p. 375. ISBN 0815319207. Retrieved 19 March 2015.
  13. Shelley, Peter (2013). Sandy Dennis: The Life and Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. ISBN 0786471972. Retrieved 19 March 2015.
  14. Sweeney, Louise (August 20, 1981). "Sandy Dennis; The Talent Shows, the Cats Don't". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved November 25, 2016.
  15. Actress Sandy Dennis dies of ovarian cancer at 54
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