Approaching 104, Connie Sawyer still eyeing roles
—by Nick Thomas
While she never achieved the box office-busting stardom of big celebrities, Connie Sawyer worked alongside many including Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and, more recently, a slew of today’s hottest actors.
In 1994, she taught Jim Carrey a lesson in “Dumb and Dumber.” She shared an elevator with George Clooney in “Out of Sight” in 1998, and a decade later appeared in “Pineapple Express” with James Franco. Two years ago, the year she turned 102, she played Matt LeBlanc’s grandma in “Lovesick.”
“I call those young guys my boyfriends and have pictures of them on the door when you come into my little cottage,” said Ms. Sawyer from her home at the Motion Picture & Television retirement facility in Woodland Hills, California.
“They were all just so lovely to me,” recalled Sawyer who turns 104 in November. “We were on location for ‘Lovesick’ in a rugged mountain area not far from where I live. My dressing room was next to Matt’s and whenever he heard me getting ready to come down the stairs he’d race out of his room to help me before an assistant could even get there. He was such a gentleman and gave me a goodbye kiss on the cheek when I left.”
Despite her age, Sawyer’s film career only dates back to the late 1950s.
“I started out in the 30s in vaudeville and later in nightclubs all over the country doing a comedy act – little routines telling stories and doing parodies rather than just jokes,” said Sawyer, who is originally from Pueblo, Colorado. “In the 1950s I was an understudy on Broadway, and then got a part in ‘A Hole in the Head.’ Frank Sinatra liked the play and bought the rights for the movie.”
As executive producer, Sinatra wanted Sawyer to revive her small role for the big screen.
“I played an elegant lady who goes out on the town each night and comes back to her hotel a little loaded!” she explained.
Arriving a day early to size up the set layout for shooting, Sawyer bumped into a little guy in a baseball cap roaming the set.
“I figured he was cleaning up the place,” she laughed. “I told him I just wanted to see where I’d be doing my shtick. He suggested on the staircase which I said sounded fine, then asked why he cared. He turned out to be Frank Capra, the director!”
As she left for her cousins’ home, the director offered Connie a ride which she gladly accepted.
“On the way, I told him how my cousins were star crazy but they didn’t think much of me as an actress because I’d been mostly an understudy. So I asked him to walk me up to the door. Cousin Doris screamed to her sister, Annie, when I introduced Capra. They asked him in for a drink, but he had to get home. However, from then on, my cousins considered me quite the star!”
Modest roles continued to come her way, including bit parts with John Denver in “Oh, God!” (1977), and in the hanging scene of Wayne’s “True Grit” (1969).
“We didn’t have a scene together, but he was a pistol,” she says of Wayne. “He was a staunch Republican and I’m a loyal Democrat. He used to call me ‘Momma’ and would say ‘Hey Momma, come over and have lunch with me – I’m going to make you into a Republican.’ I’d say ‘No, you’re not!’ and we’d laugh. I was only on the set for a week, but it was a thrill to meet him.”
Despite never reaching that big star status, Sawyer happily still receives residuals from her roles with no regrets about her career.
“On the whole, it’s been a good one considering I began in nightclub dumps,” she said. “Frankie (Sinatra) told me ‘Never give up and you’ll always find a good part somewhere, sometime.’ And I did.”
And if an offer came her way today, would she take it?
“Oh sure, I’d consider it,” she responded. “I go on auditions, but I don’t get as many as I used to!”
Although she suffers from a little hearing loss and is slowed with mobility issues, she remains remarkably alert and charmingly feisty. And when pressed for the secret of long life, she responds with characteristic candor:
“Just get off your tuchus and keep moving.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers. See www.tinseltowntalks.com