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Oscar-Winning Actress Sandy Dennis Dies at 54

March 04, 1992|EDWARD J. BOYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sandy Dennis, the Academy Award-winning actress who made an art form of intense, nervous mannerisms, has died of cancer in Connecticut.

Her longtime friend, Doris Elliott, told the Associated Press that she learned of the 54-year-old actress' death from Dennis' agent, Bill Treusch. Elliott, however, said she did not know when the actress died.

Another friend, who asked not to be identified, told the wire service that Dennis had been suffering from ovarian cancer. The actress lived in Westport, Conn., with her mother.

Dennis won her supporting actress Oscar as a whimpering young faculty wife in the 1965 film version of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Her screen image was often that of a flake or a neurotic, but she also exhibited an air of innocence.

Her first major success on Broadway was in 1962, when she captured a Tony Award as a child welfare official who was bewitched, bothered and befuddled by the carefree Jason Robards in Herb Gardner's hit comedy "A Thousand Clowns."

Her second Tony came for her portrayal of a tax-deductible kept woman in "Any Wednesday" in 1964.

Dennis said her work on stage brought her the most satisfaction. "I never thought of acting in the movies ever in my life," she told an interviewer in 1990. "I went to New York to perform in theater."

She was just 19, a kid fresh from Nebraska and summer stock with the New London Players of New Hampshire when she went to New York and enrolled at the respected acting school HB Studios in Greenwich Village to study with Lee Grant and founder Herbert Berghof.

She wasn't daunted by Manhattan and its rumored threats to sanity when she arrived. "I didn't think twice about it," she said. "I don't know why. It was just one of those things."

Sandra Dale Dennis was born in Hastings, Neb., on April 27, 1937. She was raised in Kenesaw and Lincoln, where she went to high school with talk show host Dick Cavett.

As a 14-year-old watching Kim Stanley and Joanne Woodward in "A Young Lady of Property" on television, she realized that she "had to be an actress."

She briefly studied at Nebraska Wesleyan University and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln before heading to New York and her acting career.

Once in the Big Apple, her talent was quickly spotted. After seeing her in a small part in Graham Greene's comedy "The Complaisant Lover," New York Herald Tribune drama critic Walter Kerr said of her, "No home should be without one."

That same year, she landed a bit part in "Splendor in the Grass," her first film role. Her other film credits include "Up the Down Staircase," "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," "The Out of Towners," "The Four Seasons" and Sean Penn's "The Indian Runner."

Dennis lived for many years with jazz musician Gerry Mulligan, but she insisted that they were never married, as was often reported. They separated in 1976.

Survivors include her mother and a brother, Frank Dennis of Des Moines. No details of funeral services were available.

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