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The Changing Scenes of Sandy Dennis

Times Staff Writer

The teacher smiles when it is mentioned that she tends to be thought of as an actress who plays flakes and neurotics.

She cites a review one of her acting-school students brought her a few months ago: “It says, ‘The school guidance counselor, played by, of all people, Sandy Dennis. . . .’ ”

The student didn’t understand the reviewer’s mock-surprise reference to her, says Sandy Dennis, who for the past 10 years has taught acting when she is not acting.

Her student had cited a review of “Parents” and her role in it as the voice of reason in that recent art-horror film about a little boy and the parents he believes are partial to human hors d’oeuvres.

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As the fates would have it, she’s in another horror venture, “976-EVIL,” which opens Friday in Los Angeles, New York and four other cities. In this one, she plays a religious fanatic, the mother of a teen-ager (Stephen Geoffreys) who finds a “horrorscope” phone number that proves a direct line to Hell.

It should be noted that Dennis does not always play weird women--although, early in her career, critics would sometimes describe her as possessed of a certain fragility and intense, almost nervous mannerisms that suggested she was was about to go bonkers.

It is true, though, that the actress seems to march to a different drummer. She is a free spirit who, in speaking of her favorite stage role, can say:

“It was in ‘Eccentricities of a Nightingale,’ and I did it in Long Beach--which is outside of L.A., isn’t it?”

She scored her first major success on Broadway in 1962 as a child welfare official who gets bewitched, bothered and befuddled by the carefree Jason Robards in Herb Gardner’s hit comedy “A Thousand Clowns.”

She won the first of her two Tony Awards for that. The other was for “Any Wednesday” in 1964. She won an Oscar three years later for the film version of Edward Albee’s scathing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

One must listen carefully to Dennis. She speaks briskly, in spurts, and her words sometimes bump into each other or set out on a digression in which the point may not put in a guest appearance.

For example, when asked how she happened to be in “Parents,” Dennis, referring to the director, says this: “Bob Balaban called me. I read it and wasn’t crazy about doing it when I talked to him. I thought a lot of the film was pretty obvious to me . . . but he talked to me a long time about what he was going to do. I liked him, so I said, ‘Yes.’ ”

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Or, in generally discussing horror movies, including the upcoming “976-EVIL,” she says this:

“I haven’t seen a lot of them. Somebody asked me the other day--the man at the liquor store when I went to buy a bottle of wine--'Why did you do these two horror films?’

“I said, ‘For the money.’ But I really did enjoy both of them.”

She has a wonderful part in the new film, she adds: “It’s sort of a cross between Joan Crawford and Blanche Dubois.”

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Cheerful, wearing no makeup, and munching on bread, she discusses these and other matters in a nouveau-cuisine cafe around the corner from the respected HB Studios on the western side of Greenwich Village. She had just finished teaching a class at the school, which she once attended.

Dennis, who says her HB classmates way back when included Anne Bancroft and Gene Wilder, teaches there on Wednesdays and Fridays. She marvels at her young charges, almost wistfully.

“When I see these people get up, I really wish I were in a position to get them acting jobs. Because some are so good. There are so many good people. It seems like so many more than when I was young.

“But maybe that’s because I was in the class then, and you don’t look at it the same way that I now look at the kids.”

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Now 52, she was just 19, a kid fresh in from Nebraska and summer stock with the New London Players of New Hampshire, when she came here and enrolled at HB to study with Lee Grant and founder Herbert Berghof.

She wasn’t daunted by the Big Apple and its rumored threats to sanity when she arrived, she says. “I didn’t think twice about it. I don’t know why. It was just one of those things. . . .

“Now, when I come in from Connecticut, I think, ‘God, I hate this town.’ ”

She speaks in jest. Truth is, it is Los Angeles that she does not find very nifty. Her explanation of why she has never lived there:

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“I don’t like the weather. I don’t like sunshine. Drives me crazy.”

Once married to Gerry Mulligan, the jazz baritone sax player and composer, she loves the music of the late Alec Wilder, loves to read, and lives quietly in a farmhouse in Westport, Conn.

Dennis was last seen on Broadway a few years ago, with Cher and Karen Black, in “Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” directed by Robert Altman. The three reprised their roles for the film version.

She has nothing afoot currently in stage or film, she says, not at all self-conscious about it. “I’m waiting for someone to ask me to do something.”

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