Connie Sawyer, 105, Hollywood’s oldest working actress
NEW YORK — Connie Sawyer, who began performing in vaudeville and nightclubs more than eight decades ago and continued to appear on stages and screens until she became known as the oldest working actress in Hollywood, died Jan. 21 in Los Angeles. She was 105.
Her death, at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s retirement home in Woodland Hills, where she had lived for a decade, was confirmed by her daughter Lisa Dudley.
Miss Sawyer, as she liked to be known, was billed as the oldest member of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) who was still working.
Her memoir, self-published last year, was titled “I Never Wanted to Be a Star — And I Wasn’t.”
Still, since her Broadway debut in 1948, she had accumulated about 140 acting credits in theatrical, movie, and television productions.
She appeared on dozens of television shows, including “Dynasty,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Seinfeld,” and “Will & Grace.” More recently, she played the mother of a Boston thug in hiding (James Woods) in the Showtime dramatic series “Ray Donovan.”
“I loved working on ‘Donovan’ — my son was a hit man, and I really got to cuss,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015.
Typically cast as wry and gossipy, Sawyer appeared in three dozen films, ranging from the John Wayne western “True Grit” (1969), as a long-winded witness to a hanging, to the comedy “Dumb & Dumber” (1994), as a scooter-riding pickpocket who steals Jim Carrey’s wallet.
The daughter of Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Romania, the Colorado-born Sawyer was nudged by her mother toward a show business career.
She won a talent contest award when she was 8, moved to New York a decade later, and was nurtured by vaudeville star Sophie Tucker after Sawyer had flopped at Grossinger’s hotel in the Catskills and fled the stage.
She subsequently prospered as a touring stand-up comic in vaudeville houses and nightclubs.
Sawyer debuted on Broadway in 1948 in “Hilarities,” a short-lived and largely panned variety revue starring Morey Amsterdam, in which she was billed as “great new talent.”
Her break came in 1957, when her improvised performance as a tipsy society lady in “A Hole in the Head,” a Broadway comedy about a hapless hotelier in Miami Beach, captivated an agent for Frank Sinatra. Sinatra bought the film rights and ordered his agent to “hire the drunk” for a 1959 adaptation directed by Frank Capra.
Sawyer reprised the role in the movie, her screen debut, appearing alongside Sinatra, Edward G. Robinson, Eleanor Parker, and Thelma Ritter. She was the only credited member of the original Broadway cast to appear in the film.
“I never really wanted to be a star,” Sawyer declared in 2012. “It’s a business with me. I like to keep workin’. Just keep me workin’ — and let me get the residuals.”
She was born Rosie Cohen on Nov. 17, 1912, in Pueblo, Colo., to Samuel Cohen and the former Dora Inger. Although her parents had come from the same Romanian village, her mother arrived in the United States first. Her father had immigrated to Colorado after Dora’s brothers agreed to pay his passage if he would marry one of their sisters.
When Rosie was 7, the family moved to Oakland, Calif., where her father opened an army-navy store. Rosie took dance lessons as a child.
“My mother loved showbiz,” Sawyer told The Jewish Journal in 2012. “She would enter me into those amateur contests like they have today — what do they call them? ‘Idol’? They think it’s new. It’s not new.”
After she graduated from high school, a first-place finish in a talent show led to an appearance on the “Al Pearce and His Gang” radio program in San Francisco. (A talent scout in New York encouraged her to take a name that sounded less Jewish.)
Her marriage to Marshall Schacker, a film distributor, ended in divorce. In addition to her daughter Lisa, Sawyer is survived by another daughter, Julie Watkins; four grandchildren, including Sam Dudley, an actor and director; and three great-grandchildren.
Sawyer appeared on dozens of television shows, one of the most recent being Fox’s “New Girl,” with Zooey Deschanel, in 2014. Her film credits also include “Ada” (1961), “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) and the stoner comedy “Pineapple Express,” in which she played James Franco’s grandmother.
She said she was proudest of her performance as a trial witness in Arthur Hiller’s “The Man in the Glass Booth,” a 1975 film about an Israeli war-crimes trial of a Jewish Manhattan industrialist (Maximilian Schell).
But she found comedy the most challenging, she said.
“Comics and comediennes make good actors because it’s very hard to do comedy,” she said. “It comes out of your gut. It’s the sadness of life: If you don’t laugh all the time . . . you know what I mean?”