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Distinguished Alumni Award: Jay Olcutt Sanders ’76

Star of stage, screen, and television, actor Jay Olcutt Sanders described as an “unsung national treasure.”

Jay Olcutt Sanders graduated from Horace Greeley High School in 1971 and earned a BFA in Theatre Arts from Purchase College in 1976.

Cast in both plays at Shakespeare in the Park his first summer out of school, Sanders has since become one of the most familiar faces at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater.


He went on to work in the acting companies of the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. and the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco, before returning to New York where he was cast in the Off-Broadway NY premiere of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child (which won the Pulitzer Prize during the run), his first feature film Starting Over with Burt Reynolds, Jill Clayburgh, and Candace Bergen, and his Broadway debut, Michael Weller’s Loose Ends at the Circle in the Square.

At the Public Theater, where he has been a regular presence for over 40 years, he played George W. Bush in David Hare’s Stuff Happens, the title role in Titus Andronicus, and a long list of leading roles in their Shakespeare in the Park productions.

Sanders also recently returned from a 2017 world tour out of the Public of Richard Nelson’s trilogy The Gabriel Family; Election Year in the Life of One Family with his wife, Maryann Plunkett. Together, they also appeared in Nelson’s four Apple Family Plays, which toured Europe to great acclaim in 2015 and have performed across the country with Bryan Doerries’ Theater of War.

This past winter, Sanders appeared at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater in the title role of a highly acclaimed production of Uncle Vanya, prompting the drama critic of the LA Times, Charles McNulty, to proclaim him “an unsung national treasure.”


Sanders has also done extensive work on film (including JFK, The Day After Tomorrow, Tumbleweeds, Edge of Darkness, and Angels in the Outfield), and television (Sneaky Pete, True Detective, Blindspot, Law&Order; C.I., and Roseanne, for example).

Audiofile Magazine designated Sanders one of their Golden Voices for the consistently high quality of his extensive narration work in audiobooks. Regularly heard on commercials, he is one of the most prominent documentary narrators for PBS, including NOVA, Nature, Wide Angle, and Secrets of the Dead.

As a writer, his play, Unexplored Interior, which explores the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, was the center of a 2014 international livestream between New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage and Rwanda’s Kigali Genocide Memorial. It was seen online in 10 different countries as part of the 20th Commemoration of the Genocide. In 2015, it was chosen to be the inaugural production of Washington D.C.’s new Mosaic Theater.

Sanders’ new book, A World In Common, made up of his diaries, photos, and reflections from the Gabriels world tour, will be published soon.

He has returned to Purchase College for over 20 years to give master classes to the drama students that explore how to make a life as an artist.