Connie Sawyer: The world’s eldest working actress

February 15, 2012

It's matzah ball soup and brisket for lunch the afternoon I meet Connie Sawyer, likely the world’s oldest working actress, at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills. Sawyer, who was born in November 1912, is soaring into her 100th year with youthful enthusiasm. She is already planning her big centennial party and has no plans to retire. The most recent of Sawyer’s 126 acting credits on imdb.com is for playing a shopper in the 2011 NBC pilot “Up All Night” starring Christina Applegate. Other recent parts include old lady, Grandma Ruth and Nana.

Minor, modest roles have littered her diverse career — from “A Hole in the Head” with Frank Sinatra to the dishy TV series “Dynasty” to the stoner film “Pineapple Express” — though they hardly disappoint her.

“I never really wanted to be a star,” Sawyer says. “It’s a business with me. I like to keep workin’. Just keep me workin’ — and let me get the residuals.”

Sawyer comes across as one of those old-school broads who talks tough about the way it was “in those days.” She often speaks in epigrams, describing her respect for propriety and politeness (then), as well as her disdain for profanity and porn (now). Since she’s been acting in dialect for almost her entire career, she tends to use inflection and drop suffixes.

“You’re jumpin’ me!” she exclaims, when my scattershot questions interrupt the flow of her narrative. Her personality is as colorful as her dress — which, on this day, is a red-and-white floral print blouse topped with an even flashier red-and-white cottony scarf, literally labeled “Cat in the Hat.”

“Are you gonna eat?” she asks, pressing all parties present to partake of her tuna sandwich.

Born in Pueblo, Colo., to an Orthodox Jewish family, Sawyer moved to Oakland, Calif., when she was 7. Her father had emigrated from Romania to Denver to marry her mother, a union arranged by her uncle. He ran a small Army/Navy store that profited just enough for them to get by. But it was her mother, who had wanted to be an actress, who introduced Sawyer to her professional future in entertainment.

“My mother loved show biz,” Sawyer says. “She would enter me into those amateur contests like they have today — what do they call them? ‘Idol’? They think it’s new,” she says, rolling her eyes. “It’s not new.”

As a kid, Sawyer learned to sing and dance for small-time talent contests — winning third place in her first competition. Unlike today, the prize was no record contract, but, to her great dismay, a stack of pies. After graduating from high school, she got her first paid gig, performing in a San Francisco variety show titled “Al Pearce and His Gang,” which enabled her to develop her own comedy act — then referred to as “a single,” but today called “stand-up.”

“I always was crazy about Fanny Brice, so I became the poor man’s Fanny Brice,” she says.

Connie Sawyer now

At 19, Sawyer (whose legal name was actually Rosie Cohen) moved with some friends to New York, where she began performing her act in nightclubs and vaudeville theaters. A talent scout from the William Morris Agency saw her perform and recognized her potential, but there was just one problem: “He said, ‘You gotta get rid of that act. It’s too corny, and it’s Jewish. And your name is Jewish,’ ” Sawyer recalls with residual scorn. “And these were all Jewish guys — but in 1940, it was kinda hush-hush to be Jewish.”

“Like it changed. It’s never changed,” she adds wryly.

Her first break came at Grossinger’s, the famous resort in the Catskills, where she opened for red-hot mama Sophie Tucker, but Sawyer bombed on her first night. Humiliated, she was about to quit show business altogether when Tucker came to her dressing room and offered to help. Tucker found Sawyer a new joke writer, Sawyer took her act on the road, and, “My career went sailing,” she says.

But her career turning point came in the late 1950s, when agent Lillian Small saw her in the Broadway show “A Hole in the Head.” Sinatra optioned the rights for a film version and hired Sawyer to reprise her role — the only original cast member to also appear in the film, according to Sawyer’s recollection. Sinatra even arranged for Sawyer to bring her two daughters and a caretaker from New York to the California production, though he never let her forget it. By now, Sawyer had already been divorced from her husband of 10 years, the producer and film distributor Marshall Schacker.

She never remarried. And she was not too keen to discuss why. Her daughter, Lisa Dudley, said that to her knowledge, her mother never entered another significant relationship. Any loss or loneliness she felt she converted into professional fuel.

“Comics and comediennes make good actors because it’s very hard to do comedy,” she says. “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?”

In addition to film icons like Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward and Dean Martin, Sawyer has worked with almost every major comedian in the business: Milton Berle, Jack Carter, Jackie Gleason. “And Billy Crystal,” she declared. “What was the movie?” she wonders aloud, looking to her daughter to help jog her memory.

Just a little flick called “When Harry Met Sally …,” in which Sawyer is credited as “documentary couple” — it was, nevertheless, a memorable appearance, as she figures in one of the film’s opening interviews. Her resume is full of such significant cultural snapshots: “The Way West” (1967), “The Andy Griffith Show” (1968), “Welcome Back, Kotter” (1978), “Laverne & Shirley” (1983), “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990), “Dumb & Dumber” (1994), “Seinfeld” (1997), “Out of Sight” (1998) and “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003).

She is, quite literally, a walking history of Hollywood— except, of course, when she’s dashing around the Motion Picture Home on her scooter. The film she’s most proud of? The Oscar-nominated “The Man in the Glass Booth” (1975) starring Maximilian Schell, about a rich Jewish industrialist accused by Israel of Nazi war crimes. Not as beloved is “Pineapple Express” (“I don’t want to say what I think of that movie”), though she has much affection for one of its stars (“My boyfriend [James] Franco!” she squeals, then, in an odd switch to motherly pride, adds, “He went back to Columbia to get his Ph.D.!”).

Sawyer in a scene from the 1994 comedy, “Dumb and Dumber.”

It’s not so often anymore that she gets close enough to fall for a co-worker. “The business stinks today,” she says. “There’s no comradeship. There’s no warmth. It’s too fast — you go on the set, and an actor’s like a puppet on the screen. We had respect in those days!”

Despite her well-earned right to kvetch, there’s nothing she loves more than working. She takes great pride in her continuing status as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and, when I met her several months ago, was diligently making her way through the season’s slate of screeners. “I see everything twice,” she says studiously. “I take notes. I’m very serious about it. It’s an honor.

“Most people don’t know the difference between good acting, mediocre acting and bad acting,” she adds. “They go by names and status, and that’s bulls—-. I vote for the work.”

Her biggest regret is having appeared in the HBO series “Tell Me You Love Me,” with Jane Alexander. She was never sent the full script, so when she saw the final cut, she panicked. “It’s a porno!”

Her prudishness may also be what makes her naive about her own attractiveness. At first she denied that her youthful good looks had anything to do with her success, then she changed her mind. “In reviews, they used to write, ‘Not only is she funny, she’s pretty.’ ” She admits she readily played the part in the early days: “I would wear gorgeous gowns, blond hair. I dressed pretty. I didn’t dress shlubbish.”

The most exquisite truths she knows come from her tradition. I ask her if she thinks most Jews in Hollywood are as proud of their background as she is. To which she replies:

“I don’t want to answer that. Why get into religion?”

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