Denny Dillon has lived an improvised life.
Whether growing up in Cleveland, only to be thrust into high school in the Philippines, or riffing with John Travolta, which landed her a memorable part in"Saturday Night Fever," or finding herself in an out-of-town bomb that transformed into a hit Broadway musical, the actress has found that her career — as well as her life — has been one long improv where you take whatever you're faced with and say "yes" to the moment.
Dillon, 60, is the daughter of Margaret Brew, an actress and acting teacher who worked at the Cleveland Play House.
"Me and my siblings were all shown our way into the theater, but I was the only one to pursue it," says Dillon during a break in rehearsals, "My mother expected a lot from me. She had a little 'Mama Rose' in her. She said I couldn't just be good but I must be brilliant, which was a lot to hear when you're 10. But I did enjoy it."
Dillon says growing up she was attracted to character actresses in films and on TV, especially those with a comic flair.
"My mother, who was very funny, gave me some good guidance about being economical in my comedy and to keep it clean and clear, not muddy. It was a good foundation for me."
Her sense of comedy would come in handy when, while still in high school in the late '60s, was asked by her remarried mother, "How would you like to move to the Philippines?'"
"I said I hadn't given it any thought," Dillon deadpans. Dillon soon found herself living with her family in Manila. "I knew about Imelda Marcos before the rest of the world did. It was a pretty wacky experience. Adjusting to college [Syracuse University] was a piece of cake by comparison."
After graduation, without an agent, the diminutive Dillon went to an open call and was cast as one of the young girls in Mama Rose's vaudeville act in the 1974 Broadway revival of "Gypsy,' which starred Angela Lansbury.
The production was directed by Arthur Laurents who was supportive of the novice actress. "He was wonderful to me. I was fresh out of college with a lot of 'Method acting' stuff and I was doing all these things on stage with my character. He told me to pick a few things I want to do. 'I don't want you to steal the scene from yourself,' he said. It was such a magnificent direction."
Around the same time she also auditioned for the original"Saturday Night Live"TV cast and, though she was not selected, became a guest performer in the third episode. Her skit, was about a talent night at a convent, became important later in her career.
Dillon's comic skills also came in handy when she improvised an audition with John Travolta and got cast in the 1977 film "Saturday Night Fever" (Dillon memorably played Doreen, a smitten girl who asked Travolta if she could wipe his sweat off him.)
Other roles around that time included playing a Woolly Mammoth in "The Skin of Our Teeth" (which starred Elizabeth Ashley, who remains a friend), a part in Marsha Norman's first play "Getting Out,"and a role in the 1980 musical "Harold and Maude" with elderly film star Janet Gaynor (who needed hidden elevator rigging to "climb" a tree). "So far I've never met anyone who actually paid to see it," she says of the heavily "comped" show.
Shortly after that musical closed, Dillon auditioned to be in the new cast for the 1980-81 season of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" after producer Lorne Michaels had left and his associate producer Jean Doumanian — who remembered Dillon from her guest appearance in the first season — took over.
The audition was down to Dillon and Mercedes Ruhl. "Mercedes told me, 'I really don't want this. I really want to do 'Medea' in Denver.' I roared with laughter because it seemed so funny but she was serious. She did do 'Medea' in Denver so it worked out well. And she also went on to get an Oscar for the film "The Fisher King."
"Jean let the women in the cast work a lot so it wasn't just a boy's club,' she says. During that season she created characters such as Pinky Waxman and Thelma Thunder the Leather Weather Girl and impersonated Amy Carter, Yoko Ono and Jean Harris.