Denny Dillon has lived an improvised life.
Whether growing up in Cleveland, only to be thrust into high school in the
Dillon is currently exercising her comic chops as the all-knowing maid in the '60s sex farce "
Dillon, 60, is the daughter of Margaret Brew, an actress and acting teacher who worked at the Cleveland Play House.
"Me and my siblings were all shown our way into the theater, but I was the only one to pursue it," says Dillon during a break in rehearsals, "My mother expected a lot from me. She had a little 'Mama Rose' in her. She said I couldn't just be good but I must be brilliant, which was a lot to hear when you're 10. But I did enjoy it."
Dillon says growing up she was attracted to character actresses in films and on TV, especially those with a comic flair.
"My mother, who was very funny, gave me some good guidance about being economical in my comedy and to keep it clean and clear, not muddy. It was a good foundation for me."
Her sense of comedy would come in handy when, while still in high school in the late '60s, was asked by her remarried mother, "How would you like to move to the Philippines?'"
"I said I hadn't given it any thought," Dillon deadpans. Dillon soon found herself living with her family in Manila. "I knew about Imelda Marcos before the rest of the world did. It was a pretty wacky experience. Adjusting to college [Syracuse University] was a piece of cake by comparison."
After graduation, without an agent, the diminutive Dillon went to an open call and was cast as one of the young girls in Mama Rose's vaudeville act in the 1974 Broadway revival of "Gypsy,' which starred
The production was directed by Arthur Laurents who was supportive of the novice actress. "He was wonderful to me. I was fresh out of college with a lot of 'Method acting' stuff and I was doing all these things on stage with my character. He told me to pick a few things I want to do. 'I don't want you to steal the scene from yourself,' he said. It was such a magnificent direction."
Around the same time she also auditioned for the original
Dillon's comic skills also came in handy when she improvised an audition with John Travolta and got cast in the 1977 film "Saturday Night Fever" (Dillon memorably played Doreen, a smitten girl who asked Travolta if she could wipe his sweat off him.)
Other roles around that time included playing a Woolly Mammoth in "The Skin of Our Teeth" (which starred
Shortly after that musical closed, Dillon auditioned to be in the new cast for the 1980-81 season of
The audition was down to Dillon and Mercedes Ruhl. "Mercedes told me, 'I really don't want this. I really want to do 'Medea' in Denver.' I roared with laughter because it seemed so funny but she was serious. She did do 'Medea' in Denver so it worked out well. And she also went on to get
Dillon got the high-profile gig and found herself in a cast that included
"Jean let the women in the cast work a lot so it wasn't just a boy's club,' she says. During that season she created characters such as Pinky Waxman and Thelma Thunder the Leather Weather Girl and impersonated Amy Carter,
"It was like a huge playground — and very intense. There's nothing more thrilling and terrifying than live TV. Whenever I get nervous about anything now I think, 'Denny, you did 'Saturday Night Live.' "
But a writer's strike and bad ratings and reviews dogged the show and Doumanian was axed.
Though "Harold and Maude" had been a famous flop, director-actor-choreographer
But Tune was not directing the show in which he co-starred with his gal-pal Twiggy. Instead, avant garde opera director Peter Sellars was staging the show which became famously troubled when it previewed in Boston. Sellars was given the boot, "the same day he won a MacArthur 'genius' grant," says Dillon."
Of Sellars' show, Dillon says "it was heady and intellectual and it would have been a very interesting flop" Tune took over the staging, with help from director
Dillon saw her character change from a lesbian Communist to that of a lovelorn airplane mechanic who sang "Funny Face" in the second act. She received a
After the run of
In 1990, she was cast as Toby Pedalbee, "the secretary from hell" in the
After the series ended Dillon came East to return to stage work in places such as Williamstown Theatre Festival, Berkshire Theatre Festival and Hartford Stage where she performed in "Eight By Tenn" with Elizabeth Ashley,
In 2006, she was part of the ensemble cast of mostly New York stage actors in the critically acclaimed film, "United 93," about the foiled terrorist plot to crash a plane into the
"It was a very emotional experience," she says. "[Director]
Dillon also found herself drawn in the last few years to upstate New York.
"I used to hate the country but my partner lived up there and she and I rented a little cottage and I started drawing and grew to love it."
Dillon discovered new aspects of her artistic self. When they bought a 1840s restored farmhouse in Stone Ridge, N.Y., they made the front of the building an art gallery, calling it The Drawing Room.
"I found that I wasn't just an actress but I was an artistic person in the universe," says Dillon. "There were other things that made me happy. Now when I don't have a job or a play I don't feel like a zero."
But she is still connected to acting. She has an improv company near her home and also teaches improv to children. And when a great role is available — such as the recent workshop of the musical based on "James and the Giant Peach" at
BOEING-BOEING is now in previews and opens Wednesday, Jan. 18, at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St. The show runs through Feb. 5. Information: 860-527-5151 and www.hartfordstage.org.
Read Frank's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at www.courant.com/curtain and catch him talking about what's on stage on FOX/CT's 'Morning Show" on Fridays during the 9 a.m. hour. And be the first to know by following Frank on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.