Endearing, Inspiring, and Still Persevering ~
Maybe Sandy Duncan holds our hearts because, after thousands of performances on TV, in movies, in commercials — and especially on stage, her greatest love — she has always exuded delight.
“No doubt about it, I like performing in front of a live audience,” Sandy said. She’s been nominated three times for a Tony Award and twice for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
“It’s the communication of people sitting there collectively — all different kinds of people,” she continued. “And when the show works right, you bring all these people to one mind, together. They feel things they don’t get to otherwise feel in their lives. It’s kind of like church, or like sitting around a campfire in caveman days.”
Or maybe she endears herself to us because, after more than 60 years of performing, she still feels anxious before the curtain lifts.
And who among us cannot relate to an occasional case of the jitters?
“Am I excited? Nervous? All of the above,” Sandy said. At the time of this interview, she was scheduled to star in Middletown at the Eisemann Center in February, though the show was canceled due to the resurgence of the Covid-19 pandemic. “I think it’s scary to be onstage, period. I get stage anxiety before every show: I hope it’s good. I hope they like it. I hope I don’t screw up.”
She continued: “Then I breathe. I make myself sit quietly. I’m high energy; I buzz around, talking backstage a mile a minute. Then I center myself and focus.”
Or maybe we’re comfortably transfixed because Sandy Duncan feels like our sister, our mom, our daughter, a trusted friend.
Who wouldn’t feel an affinity with Peter Pan, the role she played 1,000 times on stage?
Who couldn’t connect with her as Sandy Hogan in The Hogan Family? Who couldn’t smile at her guest appearances in The Love Boat or Hollywood Squares or any number of TV shows, or wouldn’t want to wave at her during any of the dozens of musicals in which she performed?
Sandy has been performing since her preteen years in East Texas. Her father ran a gas station in Tyler, where she grew up. She recalled her mother was extremely artistic and was committed to ensuring Sandy “would go places and not stay put.” Her mother drove her to Dallas for dance classes every weekend.
Summers, Sandy was part of Dallas Summer Musicals. Her first performance was at age 12 in The King and I.
“Gene Kelly would come there,” she said. “I worked with Donald O’Connor, with Ginger Rogers, with Carol Burnett. We were learning from the top people in the industry. They’d do a show and cast the ensemble locally.”
She was dancing in The Music Man when talent scouts from New York saw her and asked if she’d be interested in doing the same role 1,500 miles away. So, at 19 — with a $350 gift from her parents, 30 shows under her belt, and a job awaiting — she left Texas.
“I moved into a place called the Rehearsal Club,” Sandy said. “All kinds of famous young actresses were living there. We had a place to stay, a roommate, a housemother. We got all of that, plus breakfast and lunch, for $32 a week.”
One role led to another. When she left New York for Los Angeles at age 21, her resume included four shows at New York City Center and Tony nominations for Canterbury Tales and The Boyfriend. She moved to California to star in the Walt Disney film Million Dollar Duck; shortly after, she was cast in the TV show Funny Face.
Twelve episodes in, the excruciating headaches she’d felt were attributed to a brain tumor attached to the orbit of her left eye. After surgery, she lost sight in that eye. But she persevered. And though Funny Face eventually didn’t make it — “I was happy when it was over,” Sandy said — she was rarely without work.
“I was blessed early on,” she said. “Someone would see me perform and I’d go from one thing to another.”
Which, according to Sandy has worked out well.
“I don’t audition well,” she said. “If I get a job, it’s by word of mouth or because someone has seen me work. I’ve had only 15 auditions. Some people are brilliant at auditions, but not so good at performances. But I’m awkward; I turn into this 14-year-old adolescent.”
Sandy spoke with me from her home on the beach in Connecticut, which she shares with her family: Don Correia, her husband of over41 years, and Jessie, their 16-year-old Morkie.
“Don is very, very funny,” Sandy said, “and I love to laugh. He’s responsible. He takes things to heart. He’s kind of a perfect human being as far as I’m concerned. Our friends kid me all the time: ‘Do you know how lucky you are?’ I say, ‘Yes, I do.’”
The two met during a variety show over 43 years ago.
“It seemed that every show I’d do, he’d be hired to be my dance partner,” Sandy said. “I was going through a divorce, but I thought, ‘He’s cute!’”
After doing an Emmy-winning Richard Rodgers TV special, Don asked if she’d like to go to lunch.
“‘I’m not completely divorced yet, but sure,’” Sandy responded. “We went to lunch, and neither of us had a clue what to say to each other. It was completely awkward.”
But they kept dancing and performing together.
“It went from ‘he’s cute’ to marrying a year later,” Sandy said.
They raised their two sons in New York, and Sandy kept working. In all her years of performing, she said, she never missed a single show. For her, her most fun was with Chicago. In it, she played Roxie Hart — and met Ruthie Henshell, a fellow actress who became her best friend.
What Sandy’s Doing, Today
Years later, the actual city Chicago is where she performed in Middletown.
“This is a memory play, a play about somebody remembering,” she said. “It’s telling stories that hit a nerve with people, sharing experiences that are common to everyone.”
The Covid pandemic closed the production in Chicago — as it has also done so in Dallas. Of the Chicago closure, Sandy said she missed working. Though she never likes being away from Don and Jessie, she’s excited about being on stage again.
She won’t, though, be dancing.
“Don and I were in the kitchen one day,” she said, “and as much as I danced and had worked out, I said to Don, ‘Do you think we could still jump in the air?’ We couldn’t. I don’t exercise; I don’t do anything. I do miss dancing; I miss the feeling of dance. I just miss the sheer joy of being able to do things with my body.”
But Sandy being Sandy — endearing, inspiring, persevering Sandy — she keeps exuding delight about what she does, and gratitude to be doing it.
“The energy you give the audience and they give you is magic,” she said. “It’s magic.”