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People Top 5
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- September 03, 1979
- Vol. 12
- No. 10
After a Brain Tumor and Two Failed Marriages, Sandy Duncan Is Flying High Again
Peter Pan is chafed raw from his flying harness, bruised from crash landings and underweight (down to a scrawny 98 pounds) from overwork. Wouldn't growing up be more fun? Never, never, says Sandy Duncan, the latest to tackle the title role in Sir James Barrie's children's classic. The revival opens on Broadway next week after a sold-out run at Washington's Kennedy Center—but the box office will undoubtedly be critic-proof. After all, there were a few reservations about the Mary Martin production.
The part symbolizes where Duncan is these days at 33: She's flying high and feeling no pain after a very bumpy decade in which she had two failed marriages and lost sight in her left eye because of a brain tumor. Even her career wasn't as cheery as she appeared. "I was locked into being cute, pert and dumb," she complains. At her cutest, she had her own TV series, Funny Face, and at her pertest won a Tony nomination for the Broadway revival of The Boy Friend. Her dumbest moment is still most visible: walking through the TV fields hyping Wheat Thins. But now Duncan will take no wheat—or chaff either. "I'm not a little flibbertygibbet: I won't accept the labels I've been given anymore. I know now I'm a very career-oriented, aggressive, self-centered person."
That self-realization was a long time coming. The daughter of a half-Cherokee gas station owner and his artist wife, Sandy grew up in the Texas Bible Belt town of Tyler (the "Rose Capital"). At 12 she turned pro as one of the Siamese kids in a Dallas summer theater production of The King and I. She spent a year at Texas' Lon Morris Junior College, then got her first real shot: the female dance lead in The Music Man at Manhattan's City Center.
Then came the big push to light up her name on Broadway—and neither Duncan nor Broadway has quite recovered. "It was 1965, the height of the hippie scene, and here I showed up right out of the woods. I went to an audition of Hair and they asked me to do a rock tune. Coming from where I did, my idea of a rock song was Sunshine, Lollipops & Rainbows," she recalls with a shudder. "They called me back, I think just to see, 'Is she for real?' " (She didn't get the part.)
Four years and various roles later, she was out of the woods enough to marry her co-star in Your Own Thing, hippie Bruce Scott. "I thought, 'Oh, wow. Here I am, hanging out,' " she says, noting that she wouldn't just live with a man then. "It was legalized 'doing it,' but an impossible marriage."
Then, as she won raves for The Boy Friend on Broadway and landed a part in Neil Simon's film Star Spangled Girl, she recalls, "It was very threatening to Bruce." After the divorce, Duncan began dating Tom Calcaterra, a consulting surgeon on her tumor. They married in 1973 and Sandy made a stab at being the doctor's wife. But conflicts arose over her career—he wanted her home. Strengthened by several years of analysis, she defiantly cranked up a nightclub act in 1978 and went on tour. The show was a solid hit, but the marriage closed out of town. Her divorce isn't final, so Duncan is proceeding cautiously with her new love: dancer Don Correia, currently in Broadway's A Chorus Line. She'd consider marriage again, but mostly because she wants children.
For the moment Duncan is exhilarated with her show and the single scene in a rented Manhattan apartment. "I went through a lot of life—I think most women do, most people do—doing things that aren't really me." As with the hippie period, Sandy Duncan has come a little late to the "Me Decade," but she's earned admittance.
January 31, 2015
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