Connie Sawyer, Hollywood’s oldest working actress, just turned 105!
Known for her comedic roles in When Harry Met Sally, Dumb and Dumber, Pineapple Express and Archie Bunker’s Place, the character actress has been making audiences laugh since before the television was even invented.
“There aren’t that many people around who are 105,” Sawyer tells PEOPLE with a laugh. “I always say you have to move, you have to get off the couch. I used to swim, play golf, tap dance, line dance — I was always moving and I was lucky.”
She also credits good genes inherited from her parents, both Orthodox Jews who immigrated from Europe, for her longevity. “My parents lived a long time. Papa died at 91 and my mama was 89, so I had good genes too. That’s the reason.”
Born in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1912 (the same year the Titanic sunk!), Sawyer now resides just outside of Los Angeles at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s residential community for entertainment industry retirees.
Despite her age, the actress hasn’t called it quits on her career just yet. While she says work has been a little slow lately, she recently appeared alongside Liev Schreiber in Ray Donovan. In 2014 she acted opposite Zooey Deschanel in New Girl, in addition to working on NCIS: Los Angeles in 2013 and 2 Broke Girls in 2012.
Sawyer fell in love with acting at a young age. Her mother would take her to see movies and plays often as a child, and when she was 8, she won a dancing contest at the T&D Theatre in Oakland, California, where the family had moved. Her prize was a “stack of pies,” which her mother distributed to their neighbors.
Because the Golden Gate Bridge hadn’t been built yet, Sawyer and her mom would travel by boat to San Francisco to see special performances. “We’d go to the Curran Theatre,” she remembers. “I saw Al Jolson do his act and I saw Fannie Brice do her act, and I said to mama, ‘That’s what I’m going to be, the poor lady’s Fanny Brice.”
After winning another competition, this one hosted by a San Francisco radio show, Sawyer got her first contract. “I learned all about show business,” she says. “I played every nightclub across the United States in the ’30s, and some of them were real dumps. But that’s how I got into the biz.”
Sawyer got her first movie role in the ’50s when Frank Sinatra’s manager spotted her in a Broadway play called A Hole in the Head. Sinatra decided to adapt the play into a movie, and Sawyer was the only actor he brought on for the big screen version. “That really was fun, I loved Sinatra,” she remembers. “He could be mean if you crossed him, but he was very generous. Anyone who needed money or anything like that, he gave it to them. He was a wonderful man that way.”
Sawyer got to set early on her first day to scout the set and bumped into a man she assumed was some sort of janitor. She introduced herself as an actress in the film, and explained that she was there early to plan out her schtick. Sawyer’s character was a drunk, and the man suggested she use a prop set of stairs to accentuate her drunken walk. “When I finally asked his name, he said, ‘I’m your director, Frank Capra!’ It was adorable.”
Capra ended up giving her a ride home that day, and she was able to talk him into walking her to the door of her cousin’s house, where she was staying at the time, so she could show him off to her family. “They were so thrilled they invited him in for a drink, but he said he had to go home because his wife made dinner,” she says. “From then on, I was a big shot with my whole family. What a nice man.”
Sawyer says she remembers there being more camaraderie between performers and filmmakers back in the day. Asked about the differences between today’s Hollywood and working in the ’50s, she says, “Oh boy, what a difference. They helped you then. There was a lot of love going on, you know? Whereas today, it’s so distant. It’s cold really. And it was warm when I was trying to be somebody and learn an act. It was fun.”
Sawyer, who has well over 100 acting credits to her name, wrote a book about her experiences in Hollywood and beyond, which she proudly titled, I Never Wanted to Be a Star — and I Wasn’t.
When she isn’t working, Sawyer says she participates in all the activities at MPTF, where she’s lived for the past 12 years. “I go to exercise class, I go to all the parties that they throw, I go to all the dinners, I go to all the shows,” she says. Sawyer is also a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and votes for Oscar contenders. “Sometimes I’ll see movies twice to make sure I want to vote for them, I’m very serious about it,” she says.
As for her advice to aspiring actors — and all young people — Sawyer says, “Never, never give up. I never gave up. Hang in there, do the work and eventually it will come to you.”