Diana Sands was born in 1934. She studied at The Actor’s Studio in NYC. And was perhaps most famous for playing Sidney Poitier‘s sister in the original stage and screen versions of A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961). She also created the role of “Doris” in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT (1964), opposite Alan Alda, for which she received her second Tony nomination. Diana died of cancer in 1973 at the age of 39.
I can only imagine that jobs must have been scarce for actresses back in the late 60’s…even for a star like Diana. And that, no doubt, led to her agreeing to reprise her role in “Pussycat” in of all places: Rockford Illinois. The production was originally to star two hometown favorites: Susan St. James (MacMillan and Wife) and Ron Hussman (a Broadway musical star). They both dropped out. I was hired. And Miss Sands was contacted. Remarkably she agreed to do one week’s rehearsal and two weeks performance. I was called in a week early to work privately with the director. In rehearsal, he assumed the role of “Doris” and spent most of the time sitting on my lap. It was humiliating and excruciating. The less said about it, the better.
When Miss Sands arrived a week later, he wanted her to see what we had accomplished. To my chagrin, he insisted on playing “Doris” ….for the benefit of Miss Sands .…who had originally created the role…. on Broadway….and had received a Tony nomination! When we finished, she congratulated us both, and then very sweetly announced that we wouldn’t be doing any of that. The next day rehearsals began in earnest, with Miss Sands working at full performance level, while I recovered from the shock of dealing with the director’s female impersonation.
Rehearsing with Diana was glorious, like being swept up in a whirlwind. Then one week to the day, we opened to rave reviews from the local critics who were, quite rightly, enthralled by her. And they even mentioned me. And how amazing it was that I could actually keep up with her. I do recall that in performance, there was an audible gasp when I kissed her on stage. Audiences were just not used to seeing an interracial relationship. Not in public. And definitely not in the Midwest.
Once the show opened, Diana and I had breakfast together every morning. We rarely talked about the show or gossiped about showbiz. We always sat at the same table and ordered the same food: “Bacon and Eggs.” I began to notice that we were a lot like Jack Sprat of nursery rhyme fame: He could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean. When Diana finished her breakfast, there were little strips of lean bacon on her plate, while on mine there were little strips of fat. So at the end of each breakfast, we would switch plates.
I am of Scottish descent and, according to my Mother, no fat has ever passed the lips of a Gray. Diana, on the other hand, came from a poor family, and all they could get was fatty cuts of meat. Later on when she was successful, and could afford to order steak, she could only get it down by including a big piece of fat with the lean.
In the middle of the run, she and I got an invitation to a party in her honor. It was to be held at the home of a wealthy couple, who were part of Rockford’s upper-middle-class black community. I told Diana, “Listen they don’t want me; they just want to see you. Why don’t you go on your own?” And she said the most remarkable thing. “Bruce, who are these people? You! I know. Cuz we’re actors. So if you don’t go, I’m not going.” I happily escorted her to the party. She never left my side the entire time, not for one minute.
One final remembrance about Diana: because of her recommendation I got a great agent in New York, which facilitated my moving down to the USA from Toronto the following year. And the rest is history…well, at least my history.