Dennis, Sandy (1937–1992)

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Dennis, Sandy (1937–1992)

American actress who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Born Sandra Dale Dennis in Hastings, Nebraska, on April 27, 1937; died in Westport, Connecticut, of ovarian cancer on March 2, 1992; attended Capitol Grammar School, Lincoln, Nebraska; graduated from Lincoln High School; attended Nebraska Wesleyan University and the University of Nebraska; studied acting at the HB Studio and the Actors Studio, New York.

Selected films:

Splendor in the Grass (1961); Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966); Up the Down Staircase (1967); The Fox (1968); Sweet November (1968); That Cold Day in the Park (Can.-US, 1969); A Touch of Love (Thank You All Very Much, UK, 1969); The Out-of-Towners (1970); The Only Way Out Is Dead (Can., 1971); Mr. Sycamore (1975); God Told Me To (1976); Nasty Habits (UK, 1977); Demon (1977); The Three Sisters (1977); The Four Seasons (1981); Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982); Another Woman (1988); 976-EVIL (1988); Parents (1989).

Distinguished by her waif-like demeanor, nervous mannerisms, and a speech pattern once likened to that of an early Katharine Hepburn , actress Sandy Dennis distinguished herself playing emotionally uncertain and vulnerable women. She grew up in Nebraska and worked in community theater and summer stock before making her way to New York, where, while window shopping in Greenwich Village, she was noticed by a Hungarian producer who cast her in a revival of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea. After understudying Tuesday Weld in Elia Kazan's production The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, she emerged as a Broadway star in the 1960s, winning back-to-back Tony Awards for roles as a young social worker in A Thousand Clowns (1963), with Jason Robards, Jr., and as the mistress

of a married businessman in the comedy Any Wednesday (1964). Although some critics found her acting overly mannered, most were enthusiastic in their praise. "Let me tell you about Sandy Dennis," Walter Kerr of the New York Herald Tribune began one review. "There should be one in every home." Cue magazine's Emory Lewis called her a top-ranked Broadway clown, "unquestionably a new star. Her timing is far too brilliant in one so young."

Although she preferred the stage to movies, Dennis went on to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her first substantial film role in Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). As Honey, the fragile bride in the younger of two faculty couples who engage in an all-night drinking spree, she held her own with heavyweights Elizabeth Taylor , Richard Burton, and George Segal. A reviewer for the National Observer felt she portrayed "the most viable character in the film." Dennis described working with Nichols as the happiest experience of her life. "He let you do the outrageous things you're capable of," she said. "He let you do the crazy things." A number of interesting film performances followed, notably Up the Down Staircase (1967), for which she received the Moscow Film Festival's best-actress award, and in Robert Altman's That Cold Day in the Park. In 1968, she portrayed Celia, the confused wife of a drug addict, in an American television production of "A Hatful of Rain." Later films included The Four Seasons (1981), Another Woman (1988), and her last, Parents (1989).

Offstage, Dennis was known as unpretentious, uninhibited, and compulsively candid. An animal lover since childhood, she reputedly kept at least eight cats and two dogs at her home in Westport, Connecticut. Dennis had a ten-year relationship with jazz musician Gerry Mulligan, which ended in 1976. Her later stage work included roles in How the Other Half Loves, Absurd Person Singular, Same Time Next Year, and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (she also appeared in the movie version). The actress died of ovarian cancer, at age 55, on March 2, 1992. Found among her papers was a personal memoir, which includes memories of her childhood on a farm and her battle with cancer. The book was published posthumously in 1997.


Dennis, Sandy. Sandy Dennis: A Personal Memoir. Edited by Doug Taylor and Louise Ladd. Papier-Mache, 1997.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Dennis, Sandy (1937–1992)

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