Sandra Dee Dies: 'Gidget' Star

Sandra DeeSandra Dee, 'Grease Era' icon, dies

Sandra Dee, a top teen star in the late '50s and early '60s, died today of complications from kidney disease in the Los Angeles suburb of Thousand Oaks. According to a friend, Dee, who was 63, had been on dialysis for about four years.

Born Alexandra Zuck on April 23, 1944 (according to her son, though several sources have 1942), in Bayonne, New Jersey, Sandra Dee started modeling while in grade school. By the time she was 12 – her mother reportedly inflated her age by a couple of years – Dee had become a successful Conover model.

After being featured in TV shows and commercials, Dee began landing film roles in the late '50s. In her 1957 film debut, she supported Paul Newman and Jean Simmons in Until They Sail at MGM. The following year, she had her first lead at that same studio in the prestigious – if vapid – The Reluctant Debutante, directed by Vincente Minnelli, and co-starring Rex Harrison, Kay Kendall, and John Saxon.

Imitation of Life Sandra Dee Lana TurnerImitation of Life, Gidget, Tammy, and Hollywood stardom

Sandra Dee's movie career soared in 1959, with the release of two major hits: Imitation of Life and Gidget. (Image: Imitation of Life Lana Turner, Sandra Dee.)

Universal producer Ross Hunter had reportedly been looking for a newcomer after balking at paying Warner Bros. $200,000 to borrow Natalie Wood for the role of Lana Turner's willful daughter in Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959). Dee was cast, and the film became one of the decade's biggest blockbusters. Besides this gaudy but highly enjoyable sudser, Sandra Dee would be featured in eight other Ross Hunter productions.

Dee hit teen superstardom with the Columbia release Gidget, cast in the title role as the bubbly beach-going adolescent who must not only learn to surf but also choose between Cliff Robertson and James Darren.

Universal then used Dee's skyrocketing popularity to propel their Tammy franchise, which had started with Debbie Reynolds singing in the bayous in 1957. Thus, Dee was cast in Tammy Tell Me True (1961) and Tammy and the Doctor (1963).

Other Sandra Dee movies of the period include Delmer Daves' soap-opera blockbuster A Summer Place (1959), as hunky Troy Donahue's romantic interest; Michael Gordon's murder-melo Portrait in Black (1960), once again as Lana Turner's daughter; and Peter Ustinov's Cold War comedy Romanoff and Juliet (1961), with John Gavin.

For two years in a row (1960-61), U.S. exhibitors voted Sandra Dee one of the top ten box office stars in the country.

Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin

In 1960, Dee married pop singer Bobby Darin after a one-month courtship. They were cast as juveniles in the Rock Hudson / Gina Lollobrigida hit Come September (1961), but two Dee-Darin follow-ups, If a Man Answers (1962) and That Funny Feeling (1965), were commercial disappointments.

As a result of Dee's rapidly fading box office allure, Universal let her go after the 1966 thriller A Man Could Get Killed. The former teen star had become a has-been at the age of 22.

“I thought they were my friends,” Dee would later tell The Associated Press. “But I found out on the last picture that I was simply a piece of property to them. I begged them not to make me do the picture, but they insisted.”

In 1967, Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin were divorced. Darin died at age 37 in 1973, following open-heart surgery.

In 2004, Kate Bosworth played Dee in Kevin Spacey's Beyond the Sea, which offered the 45-year-old Spacey as the twenty- and thirty-something Bobby Darin. The film was received coolly by critics and audiences alike.

Sandra Dee: Later years

After Ross Hunter's Rosie! (1967), with Rosalind Russell, Dee mostly dropped out of sight. In the following decades, she made sporadic appearances on television (including the 1977 Fantasy Island pilot), and did some stage work. In 1978, her name resurfaced via the song “Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee” from the dreary – but immensely successful – musical Grease.

In a March 1991 interview with People magazine, Dee stated that her stepfather sexually abused her as a child. The former actress was then recovering from a serious alcohol problem. “I couldn't function,” she told People, adding that she had been drinking more than a quart of scotch every day. She credited her son with Darin for her psychological recovery.

Imitation of Life Lana Turner, Sandra Dee photo: Universal Pictures.

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1 Comment to Sandra Dee Dies: 'Gidget' Star

  1. rizzo

    sandra was always one of the freshest young faces of the early 60's. Her stunning, simplistic beauty never failed to lure me in. Grew into quite a foxy young lady as well. A true heartbreaker!