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Sandra Dickinson speaks to The American
The much loved American discusses expat life, her new play The Unbuilt City at the King's Head Theatre in London, and being David Tennant's Mom in Law!
Sandra is an archetypal reader of The American – a long-term expat who came to the UK for a short while and ended up staying forever. So what was the attraction?
I've been a 'dual' national [she says, slipping into broad Bronx and pronouncing it 'dooal'] for eight years or so, but I've been here for about 50. I'm bi-continental! I came for one year and married a Brit [Hugh Dickinson] at university. We planned to stay for one year then go back and live in America but then we very amicably split up and went our separate ways. I was just too young to get married. He's lovely and we're still great friends.
You seem to make a habit of marrying Brits!
Yes! My father said to me, not long before he died, "If you get married again, Sandra, could you please marry an American?" To which I replied "If I get married again, I'll marry you," which he loved ...he was a famous psychoanalyst, Harold F. Searles [who pioneered the psychoanalytic treatment of schizophrenia – ed].
I bet that gave him something to work on! Was there acting in the family?
No, but when I grew up in the '50s, it was the heyday of America. Everybody was very positive after the war, and I was brought up to feel that anything was possible, and that I could be or do whatever I wanted. And I wanted to be a movie star! I got the bug very young, about seven, in class plays. From a very young age I was bullied. Everyone used to call me an albino because I'm naturally platinum blonde and I have white eyebrows and eyelashes, and one way of getting through that was being funny. It worked. That carried on through my life.
My father really should have been an actor, he was had an unbelievably dry sense of humor. When I married my now-husband of nearly 15 years, my baby brother filmed my mother and father wishing us every happiness – they were too old to travel – and we showed it at the wedding. It was like George Burns and Gracie Allen – they were hilarious. If it's in your blood, you can't escape it.
Did you study acting in London?
I studied it at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for a couple of years, then I transferred to Boston University because they had a very good theater department. Then I got married and came to England. When I came over I phoned around to get acting jobs, but I couldn't work without an Equity card, and you couldn't an Equity card without a job! So I'd been working as a telephonist-typist for an American commercial production company. I confided in a woman there that I wasn't really a telephonist-typist, I was an actress. She said, if I ever left that job she would help me. Shortly after, I left the job and went to Central [The Royal Central School of Speech & Drama] to continue my studies. Then I ran after her coat tails, and she did help me. At the same time I got into Central she got me my first commercial, for Alan Parker. It was for Bird's Eye Beefburgers and I was a dumb blonde – and I was typecast immediately. I went on to do about 50 commercials, and because I got well known at the same time as going to acting school, when I came out I was offered lead roles in theater instead of 'spear carriers'. I've been very lucky. I don't know that I've always made enough to pay the bills, but I've always kept working.
When I got too old to play the dumb blonde, I went to a new agent who said he only wanted to take me on if I changed my voice. I said [adopts a husky Lauren Bacall drawl] 'Well strangely I've been thinking of doing the same thing myself.' I got a part in Peter Hall's production of A Streetcar Named Desire and started changing my image. There's nothing more sad than an old dumb blonde – unless you're Betty White who's still doing very well out of it. It was fine on shows like What's On Next, a sketch show [kind of a British Laugh-In – ed], but when I was on Blankety Blank and they started scripting my responses I began to feel like I'd slept with someone I shouldn't have! I wasn't being true to myself, giving myself room to breathe. I just needed more variety.
They talked in the early days about my voice being something that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop could have produced. My first husband said it was so high that only dogs could hear it. Dave Clark, of The Dave Clark Five, was at Central with me, and he said to me, 'please don't let them ruin your voice', and I think in later years he thought that they had. But doing lots of theater over the years means the muscles are worked and your voice gets richer. It's lovely because I now have a big enough range that I get lots of voiceover work, which I love.
And without that deeper register you couldn't have played Lucille Ball in I Loved Lucy – she was different from you in many ways.
She was quite a heavy smoker, so I was down in my depths for that, but it was a joy to play her. It's a very moving play, written by Lee Tannen who was a dear friend of hers for the last ten years of her life. One doesn't see her at her most youthfully comedic, but there was a great deal of humor in it, and pathos, and love. Also we had gone through similar life experiences, although hers were even more in the public eye than mine because she was world-famous and I've been mainly UK-based.
But you must be known in the States, from the movies you've made?
I don't know how well known I am there. I don't ever ask. [Adopts posh English accent] I beg your pardon, how well known am I? Have you any idea who I am?
Have you worked much in the US?
Yes and I want to work there more, I really do. I went over when my daughter was about three, to 'have a go' in Hollywood. I had been headhunted by Ed Weinberger, who did Cheers, and I was offered a part in Dear John. But just before that I'd done a pilot which was written and directed by Charlotte Brown, who'd done Rhoda and Mary Tyler Moore. I didn't do Dear John, which went on to series, but I did the pilot which didn't. But I did work there, and was doing well, then I was offered The Two Ronnies back in England, so I came back and I really loved working with them. Then I got involved in a ten year divorce with my most recent ex-husband [actor Peter Davidson], which was pretty gruesome. But the thing is, if I hadn't done that my daughter would not be married to a lovely actor called David Tennant, she wouldn't be a writer and an actress and a producer now, I wouldn't have the four grandchildren, so it's jolly good I didn't continue in Hollywood back then ...but I'd love to now.
Of course, that makes you the ex-wife of one Doctor Who, and the mother in law of another.
Indeed, and my daughter is a Time Lady! I guess I've done a lot of sci-fi – The Tomorrow People, Superman III, Supergirl. Even the first movie I did, The Final Programme, was sci-fi in feel.
And to many you were the definitive Trillian, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
There's a great deal of argument about that, because I didn't do the radio, I came to it in the TV version, and the purists don't consider me a Trillian. But Douglas [Adams, Hitchiker's writer] and I were very dear friends – in fact we might have dated, my marriage was on the rocks at the time when he was single and we talked about dating. But I just couldn't reach him – he was so tall, at six feet five. There would have been a lot of squeaking somewhere down near his feet.
Bringing things up to date, you're now in a new play, The Unbuilt City by Keith Bunin. It's a European premiere – a world premiere apart from workshops in New York – tell us about it.
It's really, really good. It's a delight working with Jonathan [Chambers, Sandra's co-star in the two-hander]. It's beautifully written, I read it once and liked it. I read it again and loved it. Then I read it again and I thought, Oh my God, I'm starting to revere this – that's not good! You can't revere a play and do it well. My grandson Ty told me I should watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the TV comedy, and I realized that we needed to bring out the humor in our script. Although we haven't changed the words at all. It's quite educated and poetic, dense and rich, but very real and pertinent to what's going on in the world today. It's a love letter to New York.
Finally, what's the best thing about being Sandra Dickinson?
I'm still alive and breathing, after all these years!
Sandra appeared in The Unbuilt City at the King's Head Theatre, in London (Islington), until June 30, 2018. www.kingsheadtheatre.com