In Remembrance: Sandra Dee

     Sandra Dee, the blonde beauty famous for her lead role in the teen comedy Gidget and marriage to pop singer Bobby Darin, died Sunday February 20, 2005 in Los Angeles. She was 62.

     Born Alexandra Zuck on April 23, 1942 (some sources say 1944) in Bayonne, New Jersey, her parents divorced shortly after her birth and her mother primed her for a career in show business. In fact, her mother constantly lied about Dee’s age in order to give her an early start. When Dee entered second grade, at The Professional Children’s School, a school whose flexible curriculum was conducive to child performers, she was only four years of age.  Dee made her modeling debut in Girl Scouts Magazine, which enabled her to eventually sign with a modeling agency.

     By age 12, Dee was working on television commercials, when she was discovered by producer Ross Hunter. He had seen the young actress and thought she was well suited for the big-screen, so he convinced Universal Studios to give Dee a contract. When she was signed to her first film, Sandra Dee was the name the studio gave her.

     Her film debut was in a more-modern interpretation of “Little Women” in Until They Sail (1957), as the youngest of four sisters. The young actress was then signed to two more films, cast in teen movies opposite John Saxon- the Vincent Minnelli directed romantic comedy, The Reluctant Debutante (1958) and the drama, The Restless Years (1958). Dee won a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer later that year.

     Dee would experience a banner year in 1959, appearing in five different movies. The beach movie, Gidget, starred Dee as a young girl who discovers surfing and love during an adventurous summer. The movie was successful in making Dee an instant favorite of audiences everywhere. Dee would light up the screen in another sweet romance, opposite teen “hunk” Troy Donahue, A Summer Place. She also played the daughter of Lana Turner in director Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, a powerful remake of the1934 Claudette Colbert movie, centered on the trials and tribulations of race-relations and mother/daughter relationships. By the end of the year, Dee was on the minds of many a teenage boy.

     However, it was her romance in Italy, while shooting Come September (1961), which grabbed the most publicity. Most likely breaking few boys' hearts, she fell in love with one of her co-stars, teen singing icon Bobby Darin. After a one-month courtship, the couple married in Elizabeth, N.J., on December 1, 1960. The two later starred together in 1962’s If a Man Answers and 1965’s That Funny Feeling.

     Although Universal Pictures had successfully crafted Dee into the perfect teen queen, she only appeared in one film during 1960. Universal soon saw the departure of the ever-popular Debbie Reynolds from the Tammy film franchise and Dee was requested to take over the role as the cute Tammy Tyree. But Tammy Tell Me True (1961) and Tammy and the Doctor (1963) didn't fare all that well at the box-office.

     Dee was one of the top ten box-office draws during her heyday, yet she realized, ultimately, that she was not bringing the same crowds out and her contract with Universal was getting dropped. When she asked that she be released from her last picture with them, Universal refused, and she found herself in A Man Could Get Killed (1966), a silly jewel caper starring James Garner. As her film career was ending so was her marriage to Bobby Darin. The two went separate ways in March 1967, but Darin remained the love of her life after their divorce. Dee continued to work sporadically.

     Dee made an independent film Rosie! (1967), starring with Rosalind Russell, but her movie career was fading fast. In 1970 she starred with Dean Stockwell in a mediocre adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Dunwich Horror before deciding to call it quits.

     Despite Dee’s departure from film, she found it quite amusing that the 1978 movie Grease, with its song “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” which poked fun at Dee’s wholesome personality, aided in renewing her popularity among a new generation of moviegoers.

     Dee played her last film for the silver screen, in Lost (1983), but received little notoriety from critics and audiences.

     Dee’s marriage to Darin was recently chronicled in Kevin Spacey’s devoted biopic of Darin, Beyond the Sea (2004), in which she was played by Kate Bosworth.

-John L. Gibbon