The Hamilton Spectator

Actress Sandy Dennis was a Hollywood and Broadway star

She was also known affectiona­tely as the cat woman of Westport


To tell you the truth I would never have gone to Stage West Dinner Theatre if they hadn’t booked Sandy Dennis to play Florence Unger in “The Odd Couple (Female Version).”

An actor I knew once said, “Well, you know what dinner theatre is don’t you? It’s for people who don’t like dinner and hate the theatre. Never mind.

Once I heard Sandy Dennis was on her way to Mississaug­a to play fussy Florence in Neil Simon’s hilarious comedy I was on the phone booking a ticket.

I had always loved Dennis. She was a real star. I had seen her in 1964, on Broadway in a slight little comedy called “Any Wednesday” and she was so good I wanted to hug her.

Going round to the stage door after the show, I waited for her to come out. She took ages to appear. But when she did, she was just as endearing as she was on-stage.

Smiling at me, she said, “Hello, would you like an autograph?”

I don’t remember the rest of our brief conversati­on. I didn’t even have a notebook with me to write anything down.

I met Dennis a few tears later in 1987 during her dinner theatre run at Stage West.

“I’d never even thought of doing dinner theatre,” she said. “I’ve always done plays on Broadway and at Regional Theatres. And, of course movies. This is all so new to me. I don’t really know what I think of it. Watching all those people out there eating and drinking, even after the show has started spooked me at first. I wanted to tell them to pay attention and put down their forks.”

We talked about her terrific Oscar Winning performanc­e in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and how much these great plays and movies help to shaped an actor’s career.

We also inevitably talked about cats.

“I love them,” she said. “They have such strong personalit­ies.”

Dennis had close to 50 of them in a big barn in Connecticu­t. While in Canada, she arranged to take a couple of strays back to the States with her to give them good homes.

She also gave a fair share of her acting fee at Stage West to Animal Welfare to care for stray cats.

We talked about her stunning performanc­e in the Robert Altman play “Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”

I told her when it was closing on Broadway I got on an Amtrak train with my friend, hoping we would get to New York in time to see the final performanc­e. Thankfully, we did.

“I loved doing ‘Jimmy Dean,’” Dennis told me. “It was such a beautiful play, all about loss and nostalgia for things that were past. And it was wonderful being onstage with Karen Black and Cher in Altman’s amazing work.”

Dennis’s eccentric acting style included nervous ticks, giggles, twitches and gulps that annoyed some people. It drove some folks crazy, but I always found it made the character she was playing real.

“A lot of people don’t know what slot to put me in,” Dennis said with an appropriat­e giggle and trademark twitch. “But I do have an Oscar (‘Virginia Woolf’) and two Tony Awards (‘A Thousand Clowns’ and ‘Any Wednesday’) so just maybe I’m doing something right.”

Dennis laughed when I ask her what she’s doing in a dinner theatre comedy in Mississaug­a, after so many great film and stage roles.

“Well, it isn’t that I can’t get work. Some people say, oh she’s washed up. It’s not true. I can’t tell you why I decided to do this light comedy, served up with buffet dinner. I just did. I like that it’s light not fraught with deep drama. And you know, I’ve done dinner theatre before at Stage West in Edmonton, in fact I was in this same play there. People just don’t realize it.”

Sandy Dennis was either married to musician Gerry Mulligan, or not, depending on what informatio­n site you believe. Some sources insist she was. Dennis insisted she was not.

“We lived together for some years, OK, but we were never married. I ought to know.”

Sandy Dennis died too young, from ovarian cancer. She was 54.

In case you are wondering, all the cats Dennis had at her Westport home were adopted by her friends. She made sure they were provided for before she passed away.

I’d go to see her perform anywhere. In fact, I used to get The New York Times Theatre Guide every May and search out the little summer theatres where she liked to appear. I remember one year going to Corning, New York to see her in the comedy “The Supporting Cast.” She was always terrific whatever play she appeared in, whether they served dinner with it, or not.

A lot of people don’t know what slot to put me in. But I do have an Oscar and two Tony Awards so just maybe I’m doing something right.


 ?? DICK DARRELL TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO ?? Sandy Dennis, in Toronto in 1970, filming “Heart Farm” for ABC-TV’s Movie of the Week.
DICK DARRELL TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO Sandy Dennis, in Toronto in 1970, filming “Heart Farm” for ABC-TV’s Movie of the Week.
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