Childhood & Early Life
Sandra Dale Dennis was born on April 27, 1937, in Hastings, Nebraska, to Yvonne Dennis and Jack Dennis. His father was a clerk at the post office. She also had an elder brother, Frank.
She spent some time in Kenesaw, but returned to Hastings in 1946 where she surprised her kindergarten teacher by reciting the alphabet backwards. Her teacher informed her mother that she was dyslexic, but was told that that’s how she was taught the alphabet!
She then attended ‘Lincoln High School’ in Lincoln, Nebraska, and participated in several school plays. She had already developed a taste for acting by the time she graduated in 1955.
She spent a semester each at ‘University of Nebraska’ and ‘Nebraska Wesleyan University’, but her passion for acting led her to join a summer stock company and she made appearances at the ‘Lincoln Community Theater Group’.
At 19 years of age, she dropped out of college and moved to New York City to join HB Studio.
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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’, etc.
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’.
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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. 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’.
Family & Personal Life
From 1965-74, Sandy Dennis lived with saxophonist and jazz musician, Gerry Mulligan. She revealed in an interview later that she had suffered a miscarriage in 1965, during the shooting of her film ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
From 1980-85, she was in a relationship with actor, Eric Roberts, who was senior to her by 19 years.
She never wanted any children and maintained that she did not have any. But actor, Christopher Dennis, claims to be her son, a fact that remains unconfirmed to this day.
It was rumoured that she was bisexual, but it has never been confirmed.
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She was a cat lover; a trait she inherited from her mother, and was known to rescue strays from the Grand Central Station in New York. She reportedly had 33 cats living in her home at one point of time.
In 1990, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, around the same time that her father died.
On March 3, 1992, she passed away at her home in Westport, Connecticut, surrounded by her cats, who were then adopted by her friends. Her ashes were scattered at ‘Lincoln Memorial Park’ in Nebraska.
Eccentric by nature, she refused to attend the award ceremony to receive her ‘Academy Award’, and watched it on television in a restaurant in New York instead.
Her quirks and eccentricities included eye twitches, fluttering, hysterical flailing, nervous giggles, stuttering, etc., all of which made her performances memorable.
She loved to clean and took pride in keeping her home neat. She once stated that she would wake up in the middle of the night and start waxing the floor.
She mentioned in an interview once that she did not really like people much and couldn’t care less for them.
In 1997, her autobiography ‘Sandy Dennis: A Personal Memoir’ was released posthumously.
After her death, the ‘Sandy Dennis Foundation’ was set up in Hastings, Nebraska to honour her life, career and memories.