Sandra Dee, the blond all-American girl-next-door whose star turns as "Gidget" and "Tammy" made her a teen idol in the 1960s, a status reinforced by her Hollywood marriage to pop singer Bobby Darin, died Sunday. She was 62.
Dee died at Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif., said nursing supervisor Cynthia Mead. The actress had been hospitalized for the last two weeks for treatment of kidney disease, and had developed pneumonia, said Steve Blauner, a spokesman for Dee's son, Dodd Mitchell Darin.
The demure yet sensual Dee tugged America's heartstrings as the girl plus midget — Gidget — in the seminal film of that name in 1959. Teens and their parents alike hoped that she would make the right coming-of-age decisions between the rough-cut surfer played by Cliff Robertson and Moondoggie, played by James Darren. Somehow they knew the boys would always treat her with proper respect. She simply inspired that.
Unlike Darren, Dee never made the "Gidget" sequels. And when the charming "teens meet surf, sand and each other" story was translated to television in 1965, it was Sally Field in the title role. Nevertheless, when members of a certain generation remember Gidget and her innocent beach bonfires, to this day, they think of Dee.
Though the actress' sparkling, perky image made America's teenage boys want to date her and teenage girls want to be her, Dee told interviewers over the years that her real life involved continuing struggles with anorexia, drug use and alcoholism.
Dee, who had been off-camera for decades, received fresh attention last year with the release of "Beyond the Sea," a biopic about her late husband, with Kevin Spacey playing Darin and Kate Bosworth portraying Dee. The real-life headline-and-limelight couple had a stormy but passionate marriage from 1960 until their divorce in 1967. Darin died of heart disease in 1973.
Spacey recently told Associated Press that Dee had approved of the film and told him she "loved it."
Dodd Darin, Dee and Darin's only child, wrote a book about his famous parents in 1994, "Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee," in which he detailed, among other things, his mother's anorexia, drug and alcohol problems. Though Dee found the book painful, she supported and approved of the project.
The perfect image of a sweet ingenue, crafted largely by Universal Studios, carried Dee through more than a dozen romantic comedy films from "The Reluctant Debutante" with Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall in 1958 to "Tammy Tell Me True" with John Gavin in 1961, "Tammy and the Doctor" with Peter Fonda in 1963, and "Take Her, She's Mine" with James Stewart as her father, also in 1963.
Dee landed youth roles in a few adult films, including "Imitation of Life" with Lana Turner and "A Summer Place" with Richard Egan and Dorothy McGuire, both in 1959; "Portrait in Black" with Turner in 1960; and "Romanoff and Juliet" with Peter Ustinoff and Gavin in 1961.
But she never found a footing as an adult actress appealing to mature audiences, despite movies including "The Dunwich Horror" opposite Dean Stockwell as a warlock in 1970, and episodes of such television series as "Love, American Style" and "Fantasy Island."
She met Darin in 1960 in Portofino, Italy, where they were both cast in "Come September" with Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida as the older romantic couple. At first sight, Darin reportedly shouted, "Will you marry me?"
"Not today," she retorted, put off by his arrogance and not much interested. But she eventually went out with him, after her mother was recruited to persuade her, and fell in love. Darin sent her 18 yellow roses each day of the four-week shoot. They eloped later that year.
The couple made one more film together during their troubled marriage, "If a Man Answers" in 1962.
The public persona of Dee, like that of Darin, belied a troubled childhood. Born Alexandra Cymboliak Zuck in Bayonne, N.J., she was abandoned by her father by age 5 and, as she revealed in a candid 1991 People magazine interview, was sexually abused by her stepfather and cowed by a domineering, overprotective mother.
Dee was enrolled in the Professional Children's School, where agent Harry Conover spotted her modeling for her Girl Scout troop. By the age of 10, she was a top New York model, and at 14 she met producer Ross Hunter, who signed her to a seven-year contract for Universal.
Sandra Dee — a stage name concocted by the studio from her habit of shortening her first name and using her stepfather's surname initial D to sign vouchers — made her film debut in 1957 in "Until They Sail," starring Joan Fontaine, Jean Simmons and Piper Laurie.
The young model and actress began a lifelong obsession with thinness at age 9, when her stepfather told her that she had eaten too many pancakes. By 11, she was so anorexic that fan magazines commented on the problem and twitted her "six-shrimp-a-day diet." She ate favorite foods, such as walnuts, then made herself vomit, once explaining in her youth: "The food was bad, I punished myself, and then I felt good."
By the time she arrived in Hollywood, the 5-foot-5 Dee weighed 90 pounds and was lunching, as described by the magazine Mirror-News, on a hard-boiled egg and half a head of lettuce "with a teaspoon of vinegar when she feels restless."
After her marriage to Darin became troubled over career demands and their respective personal problems, she added amphetamines and alcohol. "The pills, dexa-somethings, made me feel so good I zipped through the day," she said years later. "When I got home, I didn't want to take care of the baby, I wanted to go out."
She drank heavily after the divorce, and her career waned. The death of her ex-husband, with whom she had maintained a relationship, and the death of her mother in 1988 sent her into a new downward spiral.
"I couldn't function," she told People in 1991, revealing that she drank a quart of scotch a day and her weight fell to 80 pounds. She lived reclusively in Los Angeles.
Crediting her son, Dee went into therapy. In 1991, she was able to appear in a Los Angeles stage production of "Love Letters" with former co-star John Saxon.
In addition to her son, Dee is survived by two grandchildren.
Services will be private.
The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to charities that support organ donation.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times