Denny Dillon has lived an improvised life.
Whether growing up in Cleveland, only to be thrust into high school in the Philippines, or riffing with John Travolta, which landed her a memorable part in"Saturday Night Fever," or finding herself in an out-of-town bomb that transformed into a hit Broadway musical, the actress has found that her career — as well as her life — has been one long improv where you take whatever you're faced with and say "yes" to the moment.
Dillon is currently exercising her comic chops as the all-knowing maid in the '60s sex farce "Boeing- Boeing," now in previews and opening Wednesday at Hartford Stage.
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 Angela Lansbury.
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"Saturday Night Live"TV cast and, though she was not selected, became a guest performer in the third episode. Her skit, was about a talent night at a convent, became important later in her career.
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 Elizabeth Ashley, who remains a friend), a part in Marsha Norman's first play "Getting Out,"and a role in the 1980 musical "Harold and Maude" with elderly film star Janet Gaynor (who needed hidden elevator rigging to "climb" a tree). "So far I've never met anyone who actually paid to see it," she says of the heavily "comped" show.
Shortly after that musical closed, Dillon auditioned to be in the new cast for the 1980-81 season of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" after producer Lorne Michaels had left and his associate producer Jean Doumanian — who remembered Dillon from her guest appearance in the first season — took over.
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 an Oscar for the film "The Fisher King."
Dillon got the high-profile gig and found herself in a cast that included Gilbert Gottfried, Joe Piscopo, Gail Matthius, Charles Rocket, Ann Risley and Eddie Murphy.
"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, Yoko Ono and Jean Harris.
"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. Dick Ebersol came in as producer and cleaned house, retaining only Piscopo and Murphy for the next season. "He said he wanted to bring the 'male' back to 'Saturday Night Live'," says Dillon. "I didn't mind that I wasn't working for him."
Tommy, Twiggy And Tony
Though "Harold and Maude" had been a famous flop, director-actor-choreographer Tommy Tune remembered Dillon's performance ("When you were on stage, the show felt like a hit,' he told her.) Dillon was cast in Tune's next show which featured songs from the Gershwin catalogue, 1983's "My One and Only."
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 Mike Nichols. "We were rehearsing the new version during the day directed by Tommy and Thommie Walsh, and doing the old version at night. But bit by bit it was made into a hit."
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 Tony Award nomination.
After the run of"My One and Only"Dillon relocated to Los Angeles. She made guest spots on shows such as "Night Court," "Fame" and "Designing Women," as well as several short-lived series, including "Women in Prison" and "Dr. Science."
In 1990, she was cast as Toby Pedalbee, "the secretary from hell" in the HBO's series "Dream On," which starred Brian Benben and featuring Wendie Malick. During the series' six-year run, she had other TV projects, including playing Roseanne in a TV movie about the comedian's turbulent career.
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, Amanda Plummer and Annalee Jefferies. ("I used every acting muscle I had on that," she says.)
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 White House on 9-11.
"It was a very emotional experience," she says. "[Director] Paul Greengrass directed and felt that following scripted lines would be false. There was a timeline we followed but the whole thing was improvised."
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 Goodspeed Musicals or "Boeing-Boeing," she seizes the moment and says "yes" once again.
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.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times