Sandy Dennis, Oscar-Winning Actress, Dies of Cancer at 54
WESTPORT, Conn. (AP) _ Sandy Dennis, the veteran character actress who won an Academy Award for her performance as the whimpering young faculty wife in ″Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,″ has died. She was 54.
Doris Elliott, a longtime friend, confirmed Dennis’ death late Tuesday. She said she learned of the death Monday from Dennis’ agent, Bill Treusch, but didn’t know when she died. Treusch and family members couldn’t be reached Tuesday night.
Dennis had been suffering from ovarian cancer, said another friend, speaking on condition of anonymity. The actress had lived in Westport with her mother, Yvonne, but it wasn’t immediately known where she died.
She made her debut in movies in 1961, playing a supporting role in Elia Kazan’s ″Splendor in the Grass.″
But she emerged as a star on Broadway, winning two Tony Awards in succession for ″A Thousand Clowns″ and ″Any Wednesday.″
In 1966 she won an Oscar for best supporting actress in ″Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,″ the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s scathing drama. It starred Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and George Segal.
Dennis played Honey, the wife of the younger of the two faculty couples who indulge in an all-night drinking spree in a house on an American university campus.
As the teacher in a tough New York school in ″Up the Down Staircase″ in 1967, she won the New York Film Critics’ award and the Moscow Film Festival prize for best actress.
In ″The Out of Towners″ (1970) she played the wife of a hapless visitor to New York City, portrayed by Jack Lemmon. Every time another disaster befell him, she whined, ″Oh, my gawwwwwwd.″
Some critics found her intense, almost nervous, mannerisms and her muttering speech pattern irritating. The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael once complained that Dennis ″has made an acting style of postnasal drip,″ an assessment Dennis herself said was correct and worked to change.
Others were captivated by a winsomeness coupled with a disciplined craftsmanship that conveyed spontaneity, credibility and conviction.
″Let me tell you about Sandy Dennis. There should be one in every home,″ critic Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Herald Tribune of her 1964 performance as the businessman’s tax-deductible mistress in ″Any Wednesday.″
Burton once described Dennis as ″one of the most genuine eccentrics I know of.″
Sandra Dale Dennis was born in Hastings, Neb., on April 27, 1937. She grew up in Kenesaw and Lincoln, where she went to high school with talk show host Dick Cavett.
She experienced what she called ″a moment of truth″ at age 14 while watching Kim Stanley and Joanne Woodward in ″A Young Lady of Property,″ a masterpiece of the golden days of television.
″I knew then I had to be an actress,″ Dennis said.
After brief a stint at Nebraska Wesleyan University and some experience with local stock companies, she headed at 19 for New York and the Actors Studio and soon began appearing in off-Broadway plays.
Dennis told one interviewer she never went to the theater or movies and would rather stay at home and read a good book.
And she said her favorite film wasn’t ″Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?″ but ″Thank You All Very Much,″ an obscure 1969 British film about a girl who must raise a child she had out of wedlock.
″People always think that awards are very important, and they were very nice ... but they were never anything I thought that much about,″ she said.
Her other film credits included ″Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,″ ″The Fox,″ ″The Four Seasons,″ and ″Nasty Habits.″ She returned to Nebraska in 1990 for the filming of Sean Penn’s ″The Indian Runner.″
Her other stage credits included ″A Streetcar Named Desire,″ and ″Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.″
Dennis lived for many years with jazz musician Gerry Mulligan; they separated in 1976. She was also romantically linked with actor Eric Roberts.
″I’m a solitary person,″ she told People magazine in 1989.
Actress June Havoc, best known for her role in the 1941 Broadway musical ″Pal Joey,″ said she was struck by Dennis’ love of animals during their 30-year friendship.
″She couldn’t pass a homeless animal and neither could I,″ said Havoc, who lives in nearby Stamford. ″She’d try to find homes for stray cats, dogs and birds. She was a very special person.″
Survivors include her mother and a brother, Frank Dennis of Des Moines, Iowa.