Saturday Night’s Children: Denny Dillon (1980-1981)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

Between the time Lorne Michaels left in 1980 and Dick Ebersol took over as producer in 1981, SNL endured one of its most infamous periods — associate producer Jean Doumanian helmed the show through its shortened sixth season, and when Ebersol took over after 13 episodes, he fired most of her cast. Among them was Denny Dillon, a fresh Broadway star whose stage experience couldn’t save her from the impossible expectations that came with trying to follow the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, the last of whom left with Michaels.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Dillon studied drama and fine arts at Syracuse University, where she performed in several plays before graduating in 1973. She made her Broadway debut the following year in the Angela Lansbury-starring revival of Gypsy and continued with The Skin of Our Teeth, Scalpino!, and the stage production of Harold and Maude in 1980. She also had a small part in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever and appeared on the short-lived NBC Saturday morning variety show Hot Hero Sandwich, which was taped at SNL‘s own Studio 8H. (Dillon had auditioned for SNL‘s premiere season in 1975, and though she was passed over by Lorne Michaels, she got to perform her “Talent Night at the Convent” act during the show’s third episode.)

Doumanian hired Dillon as a repertory player alongside a mixed bag of newcomers that included Gilbert Godfried, Joe Piscopo, Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, and Eddie Murphy. Despite appearing in only 13 episodes, Dillon developed several recurring characters like “What’s It All About?” cohost Pinky Waxman (with Gilbert Godfried as her husband/cohost Leo), the little girl sock puppeteer Marie Louise, Debbie the Valley Girl, and Nadine the “Cut ‘n Curl” customer (with Matthius as Roweena the hairdresser). She also impersonated Walter Cronkite’s wife Betsy Maxwell, Amy Carter, convicted husband-murderer Jean Harris, and Yoko Ono. Thanks to her background in musicals and drama as well as her tiny but husky frame (at 4’11”, she holds the record of shortest SNL cast member), Dillon found ways to stand out during an otherwise lackluster season, like as the spunky dominatrix Thema Thunder in the Update segment “The Leather Weather Report” or her performance as an LSD-addled surrogate mother (below):

But none of that mattered to Ebersol, who kept only Murphy and Piscopo from Doumanian’s roster and fired the rest of the cast including Dillon at the end of the season. Dillon, however, bounced back undauntedly with a return to Broadway in 1983’s My One and Only, which earned her a Tony nomination for Featured Actress in a Musical. She continued performing in plays and musical productions as well as television roles all through the 80s and 90s, starting with Fox’s 1987 series Women in Prison and PBS’ Dr. Science as well as her role as Toby Pedalbee in the HBO series Dream On, which ran from 1990-1996 and earned her a CableACE Award for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. She also got to show off her gift for impersonation when she starred in the 1994 Fox TV movie Roseanne: An Unauthorized Biography. Most recently, Dillon voiced a role in Ice Age and appeared in the 2006 film Flight 93.

In addition to her acting work, Dillon has taught improv since 2002 through her group Improv Nation and has owned an art gallery and antique boutique called The Drawing Room since 2005, both in upstate New York. Despite her mostly unsuccessful run on SNL, Dillon recently told Green Door Magazine that she was grateful for Doumanian, whose championing for women is often overshadowed by her negative reputation: “It is every comic or funny person’s dream to be on Saturday Night Live … to have an idea manifest with costumes, lights, production. It was an artistic high.”

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

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