Before working at NBC as part of Saturday Night Live’s infamous season-six replacement cast, Denny Dillon lived under the Marcos dictatorship. Swapping her Cleveland roots for poverty-riddled Manila in the late ’60s was the first of several remarkable fly-on-the-wall moments for the Tony-nominated character actress. Witnessing firsthand the injustice and economic disparity, she says, was “eye-opening … a loss of innocence.”
Returning to the states for college, then moving to ’70s-era New York City, was far less of a culture shock. Joining SNL in the fall of 1980, Dillon quickly established herself as a spunky comedian, holding her own against the likes of Joe Piscopo and a burgeoning Eddie Murphy. Season six, also known as Saturday Night Live ’80, remains one of the most maligned seasons in the show’s history. With Lorne Michaels, the original SNL cast, and most of the original writers departing, associate producer Jean Doumanian took over the show and rebuilt it with a brand-new cast. Doumanian’s run was tumultuous; she lasted only 12 episodes at the show and was replaced with Dick Ebersol, who again retooled the cast with a few exceptions, including Dillon.
Vulture recently sat down with Dillon, who now resides in the Hudson Valley, to discuss her long career, including her stint during one of the most fascinating periods in SNL history, acting opposite John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, and how she reconciles portraying a conservative folk hero 18 months after marrying a woman.
Prior to joining SNL in the sixth season, you appeared during the first year in the third episode, hosted by Rob Reiner. Was that your first national TV experience?
Yes it was. I was doing a comedy act with my best friend, Mark Hampton, in New York. I was also in a Broadway show at the time, The Skin of Our Teeth, and Franne Lee was the costume designer. She was also going to do the costume design for this new show, Saturday Night Live. So there was this girl who came backstage at our show to get a haircut. Her name was Gilda. She was adorable, and they started telling us about it.
Some SNL writers came to see Mark and me perform. We opened for Meat Loaf and André De Shields, who were doing a night of Jim Steinman music at the Manhattan Theatre Club. At that time it was a little cabaret at 73rd and Third. Now it’s a huge Broadway institution. Anyway, the writers saw us, then Franne Lee got us an audition with Lorne Michaels. He loved the nuns and chose us as guest stars to perform “Talent Night at the Convent.”
You’re in one of the most iconic scenes of one of the most iconic movies of the ’70s, Saturday Night Fever.
I loved playing Doreen. “Tony, can I wipe off your forehead? I love to watch you dance, Tony.” My acting teacher, Mary Tarcai, helped me so much, and that’s why it stands out. And the casting director, Shirley Rich, was one of the best casting people in New York, too. I gave it a lot of depth, based on their coaching. She’s the only Irish girl in the movie, on the outside.
John Travolta was such a young man then, but a generous actor. When I was looking like I’m in love with him, and he blows smoke in my face? It was beautiful, a real gift. This was all our movie debuts, though I believe Travolta had been in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. I was there when they shot at the 2001 Odyssey in Brooklyn, that dance floor with the smoke machines. They decided to put me in the line dance too. I think it was Lester Henderson who was the choreographer; they said it was like taking our money, or a coin, in the air and putting it in a bus fare slot. [Mimics the famous disco move.] I remember feeling like I was in heaven, lifting out of my body, dancing, hearing that Bee Gees music.
On her podcast, Julie Klausner had a segment where she labels each SNL cast member as a dog or a cat. But she avoids nailing you down, the only SNLer with that distinction. So, to clarify, dog or cat?
Definitely dog. One hundred and fifty percent.
Take me through your SNL audition. Did you already know Jean Doumanian?
No, I did not. I was again with my friend, Mark Hampton. We were in the Village, and I was despondent I could not get an audition. I’d heard they were casting the new, second cast. The reason I couldn’t get seen through my agent was Jean wanted to go a different way, and didn’t want to see theater people. I’d done Broadway, and my strong suit was theater. I had a comedy act, and had all these characters, but I worked in cabarets, not comedy clubs, which is where she was looking. So I wasn’t at Catch a Rising Star, where she found Joe Piscopo and others.
But a friend of mine walked by, Eileen Meltzer, who was working for the writers at [SNL]. She brought in a picture of me the next day and showed it to the producers. They remembered me from the nuns sketch during the third episode.
I was the last woman chosen. I auditioned six times. Every time, I brought in new material. And each time I came in, more and more people joined to watch. Finally I said, “If you bring me in again, I’m going to charge you a cover.” [Laughs.]
Did I hear it was down to you and Mercedes Ruehl?
Yes. It was a bunch of women, then down to two: me and this tall, attractive woman. We started talking; she was funny. During our last audition, we went up to the Rainbow Room to have a drink. She said, “You know, I don’t even want this job. I want to play Medea in Denver.” I screamed laughing, thought it was the funniest thing I ever heard. But she was serious. Guess it worked out, since she won an Oscar a couple of years later!
Eddie Murphy quickly took off during your year, but you contributed a number of strong characters throughout the season.
My best friend became Gail Matthius, and we created a lot of characters together. Some of them [the writers] brought together — like I had Nadine, she had Roweena. She had a wonderful Valley Girl character, Vickie, and I created a character called Debbie, her sidekick. So I was hanging with Gail, who is still a close friend, and Charlie Rocket.
How did Pinky Waxman and her talk show with her husband, Leo, come about?
Leo was not originally Gilbert Gottfried; he was played by Mark Hampton. We created those characters, and the cable show, “What’s It All About, Leo?” When I did it on SNL, I had asked his permission. I auditioned with her, as well as Nadine. And I did a little British girl, Mary Louise; she had a snake puppet. I brought another character, Woodswoman, who played solitaire with bears. They did one sketch of that.
The other lucky thing when I was on: When I got the job, they asked me to write down all my characters and I owned them. People don’t own them anymore, they give them over.
So Dick Ebersol came in before the 13th episode and overhauls the cast. But you held on …
As did Gail. And Joe and Eddie. One day Charlie, Gail, and I came back from lunch and Jean Doumanian had just been fired. No ceremony. What I learned in television was an actor can be replaced in five minutes, and a producer can be replaced in a half hour. [Laughs.] So the next day, Dick Ebersol came in and everyone had to go into his office and see if you were still hired. I feel like he said, “Of course, I’m not going to get rid of you,” but I might be wrong. He was telling me how hard it was, what he was doing.
There was a little bit of a time gap, then we did one more episode with the new people who came in. It was a really, really wicked place. It was hard! I did a little short film as a homeless woman, which was cool. Then the writers strike [happened].
So, then I didn’t know. They call it “picking up your option.” Summer comes and I’m walking in New York — I think it was Ninth and 50th — and I ran into Joe Piscopo. He says, “Hey, Denny, how ya doin’? We’ll be getting back and doing it!” I said, “Oh really. I haven’t heard anything.” So that’s how I learned I wasn’t coming back to SNL.
What’s your feeling about your season’s legacy? In SNL lore, especially with Lorne’s return, season six is always put down.
I felt really happy when Rolling Stone came out and gave me a good number of the 150 [cast members] or whatever. They used to say we were the worst of the worst. It was hard.
I did a sketch, Thelma Thunder and “The Leather Weather Report.” This book [Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live] said it was, I think, the worst sketch ever. I can’t even tell you how much fan mail it got. [Laughs.] I actually think it was pretty funny.
Your role as Roseanne in the Fox biopic is the only instance, as far as I can tell, of an SNL cast member portraying a former SNL host in a movie. How do you approach playing someone like that as a performance and not an impression?
I wanted to get the essence of her, and fortunately the director was of the same mind. Because I don’t look like her. I had a dark wig. I listened to her a lot. The only thing that was bad — well, maybe not bad, I thought some of my work was good — was, since it was unauthorized biography, we could not use her comedy material. And that’s the hardest thing about being funny, is writing good material. So the jokes I had to say were not anywhere near the league of her writing.
Given her recent pivot as a Trump supporter, and all the controversy, would you ever want to do a sequel?
No. She totally trashed me in the papers. [Laughs.] I wouldn’t want to go through that again. I picked up the New York Post and she’d said something like, “That midget ain’t look nothing like me.” It was just so ghastly. I felt like I was in an old movie where you look in the paper, see your picture and a photo of her next to it, and look up to see if anyone around you is looking at you. I felt like a criminal.
So what brought you to this part of New York?
My wife. I got married about a year and a half ago. I’m with someone I’ve known for 24 years. We met in ’96. She lived up here and I was in the city. I’d come up and visit her. Her name is Barbara Smiley.
On 9/11, I was in the city. I lived on 57th Street. We came up here that night when they opened the bridges. I felt a comfort. I’d always hated the country; I loved the city. But something happened to me, something shifted.
What are you working on now?
I filmed Bruised, directed and starring Halle Berry. I did the HBO series The Outsider, the sixth episode. It’s Stephen King, so it’s pretty different.
When COVID hit, I was doing the lead in a play called The Cake in St. Louis, which was coming to Hartford. The source material was the baker who didn’t want to make the cake for the gay men. This is gay women, and the one woman is like a daughter to me. I’m the baker and this turns her life upside down.
How do you play someone who is so opposed to gay marriage, as someone married to a woman?
I just try to find the truth about her. The reason she freaks out is she loves this young woman, a surrogate daughter. She sees her genuine love and it throws her. She realizes she’s in a loveless or sexless marriage, and hasn’t seen that kind of love. I just didn’t make her a cliché. She still had a lot of depth, and hopefully you can see her confusion and the shift by seeing truth.
I remember a Pinky Waxman where she’s visiting her niece, who is out, and Gail Matthius and Debbie Harry are lovers. That’s another example of you playing someone with a different perspective, highlighting their humanity. It’s very progressive for the time.
It is. Debbie is a really wonderful actress. There’s a vulnerability about her that’s very disarming. Gail and she were good partners. I came up with a lot of the Pinky Waxman ideas, but that was the writer’s.
Were you out then? The class of gay or lesbian SNL cast members is still quite small.
I’ve been out for a long time. Me telling you I’m out, I just wasn’t ever out publicly. I’ve been gay a long, long time. But it wasn’t safe to be out in Hollywood for a long time, in the ’90s. I mean, [when] Ellen came out, that was brave.
But did Gail know, or the folks at SNL?
Oh yes, yes. Anyone who was working with me probably knew. Gail definitely knew. Charlie knew. It wasn’t safe. I’m not sure if [Jean Doumanian or Dick Ebersol] would’ve known; it was a different time. I mean, Danitra Vance was more out. What a brilliant actress. I’m sad she died so young.
This interview has been edited and condensed.