03/16/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
LAUGHING, SOBBING AND HICCUPING, Sandy Dennis bloomed in the perverse counterculture of the '60s like some preternatural flower. With a mouthful of buck teeth and a bagful of tics, she captivated audiences with her winsome stage and screen portrayals of life's forlorn caretakers: the befuddled child-welfare worker in Broadway's A Thousand Clowns (1962), the frazzled victim in the 1970 film The Out-of-Towners and, of course, the hapless hausfrau amid academia's snarling wolf pack (Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and George Segal) in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
Everyone seemed to fall in love with her at once. For Woolf, Dennis won an Oscar in 1967 to go with her two Tonys for Clowns and Any Wednesday, and TIME magazine put her on the cover that year as THE STAR IN THE $7 DRESS—a paean to her breezy, offbeat allure. But Dennis, born and bred in Nebraska, moved to Westport, Conn., and eventually fashioned a household that included her mother, three dogs and 33 cats. Last week she died there, at 54, of ovarian cancer. Yet baby-boomers will remember her as a hysterical symbol of muddled good will, back in the days of their disenchantment.
Indeed, Dennis's moony act was doomed to wane in the narcissistic '70s. She had already got herself on Hollywood's wrong side by declining to appear at the Oscar ceremonies the year she won her award, and she frankly refused to maintain her fresh-scrubbed looks for starring roles. "I should have kept myself blonder and thinner," she once admitted, "but I just didn't care enough." She never married but had two long-term relationships, with jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and actor Eric Roberts.
Yet Dennis did work now and again, even during chemotherapy, appearing last year as a broken-down mother in director Sean Penn's The Indian Runner. She admitted in interviews that she was willing to accept most any part but added that she was not the least concerned about her lost career. "I just think," she said, " 'What would all those cats do without me?' "