Television and Movie Star
Some of the best known actresses, in the world of American entertainment are dramatic beauties, well known for a few great films or stage performances. Yet there are so many others who may not be quite as well known but who are consistently popular. And one of these is a perky strawberry blonde dancer/singer/actress whose appearances on screen and stage have assured her continued popularity. This is Sandy Duncan, winner/nominee for several entertainment awards such as the Emmy and the Tony.
Sandra Kay Duncan was born in February, 1946 in New London, Texas, a community that was possibly still recovering from its 1937 school explosion that killed over 200 individuals. Her father owned a service station. Sandy’s interest in entertaining came early as she began dance lessons and appeared in her first recital at age five. Several years later her family moved to the nearby city of Tyler, where she continued her interest in performing, and where at age 12 she appeared in a professional company of ”The King and I for $150 a week.
After attending Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, she eventually left Texas to begin the next step in her career and once in New York she appeared on stage. This was followed by an appearance in a jazzy version of Canterbury Tales—a role that brought a Tony Award nomination. Another part was in The Boy Friend, which brought a second Tony nomination. Her popularity and success were evident when Tim Magazine in 1970 named her “the most promising face of tomorrow.“
This popularity brought her to her next project—a Disney movie titled The Million Dollar Duck with co-star Dean Jones in 1971. She appeared in television commercials as well as another film where she played the title role in the movie version of Neil Simon’s comedy Star Spangled Girl. However, ratings were disappointing.
Though untried on prime-time television CBS believed Sandy had enough promise and the right appeal to appear in her own series. Originally intended for recording artist Melba Moore, plans for the show changed and Sandy then became the star of the Funny Face program. As “Sandy Stockton,” she portrayed a Midwestern girl who headed to Los Angeles where in the story line she appeared in TV commercials while attending college. The show was popular and earned good ratings, but production had to be halted when Sandy began to suffer from headaches, caused by a tumor on her optic nerve. She had surgery that left her blind in her left eye. Because her right eye was fine and her eyes tracked normally, the eye was not removed—though rumors about her having prosthesis were prevalent in the next months.
A year later the show Funny Face was remodeled and re-titled to become The Sandy Duncan Show with “Sandy Stockton” now working in an ad agency. However, this version did not attract the same previous popularity, and it was canceled shortly thereafter.
Sandy then decided to concentrate on her talent for musical comedy and began to appear as a guest artist on variety programs of the time. She appeared with Sonny and Cher, and Flip Wilson on their programs, also on Laugh-In, as well as appearances as a panelist on game shows. In 1979 she returned to Broadway in the title role Peter Pan, and this brought her a third Tony Award nomination.
She took a role in her second Disney movie appearing with Ken Berry for The Cat from Outer Space (1978) and also provided the voice of the fox in Disney’s animated feature film The Fox and the Hound. A more serious role came in 1977 in the popular television miniseries Roots, which brought her a Emmy nomination. She also lent her vocal talents to animated television, playing herself for a Saturday morning cartoon program, and other animated shows. In the 1970s she also had guest star roles in The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman episodes.
In the 1980s Sandy became nationally known as the television spokesperson in commercials for Wheat Thin crackers. She often appeared with her two sons from her 1980 marriage to choreographer/dancer Don Correia.
Then in 1987 she returned to television but not in a series designed with her in mind—but as a successor for another actress. The series was Valerie, a show created originally for Valerie Harper as the mother of three sons raising her family with the frequent absence of a pilot husband. However, Harper left the series and Sandy was brought in. In the revised format she played a family member who became the “mother” figure when the character “Valerie” died, and the show was later re-titled The Hogan Family. Harper had appeared for two seasons before leaving, and Sandy stayed with the series for the rest of the run.
All through these years, Sandy was busy with hosting Thanksgiving Day parades, dance competitions and other programs. She also appeared on Broadway again, in touring shows and in 1980 appeared in the revival production of No No, Nanette. Then in 2016 it was announced that Sandy would be absent for a while due to a family obligation.
Duncan’s first marriage was in 1968 when she married a singer-actor she’d met after they both appeared in a production. However, the marriage ended in 1968 as Sandy’s popularity and professional achievements caused tensions. As she told a magazine in 1979, her success was very threatening to her husband.
In 1973 she married a surgeon who had been involved in her tumor surgery but that union failed. Her third marriage, in 1980 was to Don Correia and their sons later appeared in the Wheat Thin cracker
Over the years Sandy has also been a volunteer, for a nonprofit organization that provides recording for the blind and dyslexic, and she also received the National Rehabilitation Hospital Victory Award. This is given to those who “exhibit exceptional courage and strength in the face of adversity,” as one source put it.
Versatility, talent and appeal in personality and performance—all are characteristic of many successful and long-lived performers—and particularly Sandy Duncan.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.