Sandy Duncan: Young 'Peter Pan' Actress And Wheat Thins Girl, Then And Now
Left: 'Funny Face' the situation comedy television series. Sandy Duncan portrays character Sandy Stockton, May 1, 1971. Right: Duncan flogging Wheat Thins. Sources: CBS via Getty Images; YouTube
Pixie, they name is Sandy Duncan! A constant celebrity without a real TV or movie hit, short-haired Sandy Duncan entertained audiences (and Wheat Thins snackers) in the '70s and '80s. Her greatest achievement -- legitimately a showbiz peak -- was playing Peter Pan on Broadway, for which she earned a Tony Award nomination. But you didn't need to be a New York theater-goer to know Sandy. She was a regular presence on TV, even starring in her own show, The Sandy Duncan Show (previously known as Funny Face), which was well liked but failed to get ratings in its time slot. She appeared in more Broadway productions, she voiced animated characters, she did cameo appearances and variety show guest spots -- all of it building up Sandy Duncan, the name. In the mid-'70s, she cashed in on it, taking a job as spokeswoman for Wheat Thins, a gig that lasted well into the '80s.
Sandy Duncan, most famous for her Tony-nominated role as Peter Pan on Broadway, exemplifies perseverance and hard work. Growing up in the middle of nowhere, Texas to a gas station owner doesn’t sound like the beginnings of fame and fortune. Nevertheless, Duncan knew what she wanted and went after it with relentless zeal. She got her first gig in the Dallas Theatre at the age of 12. There she rubbed elbows with the likes of Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, and Donald O'Connor who gave her a first-hand education in show business. At the age of 19, she took the plunge and moved to the bright lights and big city of New York to follow her dreams.
Finding Her Footing Fast
Obviously, just about everyone with hopes and dreams for the big stage makes their mark in New York or L.A. The vast majority don’t make it big but Duncan knew the housewife life wasn’t for her and put all her energy into her work. Her big break was a light musical comedy called ‘The Boyfriend,' which earned her a Tony nomination. That performance caught the eye of Fred Silverman of CBS who earmarked her for two movies and a television show.
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“The Million Dollar Duck” and "Star Spangled Girl" came out in ‘71 along with "Funny Face" which premiered on CBS. As you can imagine with so many projects, Duncan’s schedule was borderline insanity. "I was working until 3 every morning, only getting three hours of sleep a night, and I weighed 86 pounds ... The panic and anxiety that took hold of me at that moment were unbelievable. I started fantasizing that I was in an insane asylum. Then I got sick and the show was canceled." That “sickness” came in the form of a tumor in the back of her eye.
A Trooper Through And Through
During the procedure, doctors found damage around the tumor and asked if she ever suffered a head injury. She couldn’t recall any but a friend reminded her of an episode of “Bonanza.” In it, one of her first appearances on television, Duncan played an assistant with an aversion to the color red.
The script called for her to continually bang her head on just about everything from wooden barrels to co-stars. “We did many takes where I rammed my head into things, but I actually remember very little of the episode – perhaps with good reason! So who knows if there was any connection to the medical problem I had later." Thankfully doctors were able to save her eye but she lost the ability to see out of it. Amazingly, that hardly slowed her down.
Don’t Call It A Comeback
Right out of surgery, Duncan and executives tried to revive her hit show “Funny Face” as the "The Sandy Duncan Show" but couldn’t bring back the audience’s enthusiasm. She and Marty Feldman, known for his strangely shaped face, did enjoy working together. "Trying to get in each other's line of sight was tricky!" Duncan laughed. "But he was funny and very gracious."
Just as Duncan fans were worrying about her future, she landed the role of a lifetime. "The most gratifying experience of my career was playing Peter Pan on stage." That role required her to be suspended 20 feet in the air by piano wire but Duncan never balked. “Although it was extremely difficult physically, and probably responsible for later back trouble I had, I never missed a performance."
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While Sandy never reclaimed the heights of “Peter Pan”, she remained a successful working actress and became a mother. She became a household name again, thanks to her part in Wheat Thins commercials. As an added bonus she often appeared in the advertisements with her two sons. She also took over for Valerie Harper when the title actress had a contractual dispute with producers. The show’s title changed to "The Hogan Family" and enjoyed four extra years of success despite losing its main character.
Today, she lives in New York and occasionally takes a role if it suits her fancy. As she says, "I'm still offered a lot of projects and did a couple this year. So I don't want to say I've retired. But unless something comes along that really excites me, I usually pass. I love the peaceful home life now."
Tags: Ladies | Peter Pan | Sandy Duncan | Then And Now | What Did She Do?... | Wheat Thins
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