Brian Dennehy, Tony-winning stage, screen actor, dies at 81
NEW YORK (AP) — Brian Dennehy, the burly actor who started in films
as a macho heavy and later in his career won plaudits for his stage work
in plays by William Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill and
Arthur Miller, has died. He was 81.
Dennehy died Wednesday night
of natural causes in New Haven, Connecticut, according to Kate Cafaro of
ICM Partners, the actor’s representatives.
Known for his broad
frame, booming voice and ability to play good guys and bad guys with
equal aplomb, Dennehy won two Tony Awards, a Golden Globe and was
nominated for six Emmys. He was inducted into the American Theater Hall
of Fame in 2010.
Tributes came from Hollywood and Broadway,
including from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who said he saw Dennehy twice onstage
and called the actor “a colossus.” Actor Michael McKean said Dennehy
was “brilliant and versatile, a powerhouse actor and a very nice man as
well.” Dana Delany, who appeared in a movie with Dennehy, said: “They
don’t make his kind anymore.”
Among his 40-odd films, he played a
sheriff who jailed Rambo in “First Blood,” a serial killer in “To Catch a
Killer,” and a corrupt sheriff gunned down by Kevin Kline in
“Silverado.” He also had some benign roles: the bartender who consoles
Dudley Moore in “10” and the levelheaded leader of aliens in “Cocoon”
and its sequel.
Eventually Dennehy wearied of the studio life.
“Movies used to be fun,” he observed in an interview. “They took care of
you, first-class. Those days are gone.”
Dennehy had a long
connection with Chicago’s Goodman Theater, which had a reputation for
heavy drama. He appeared in Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo” in 1986 and later
Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard” at far lower salaries than he earned in
Hollywood. In 1990 he played the role of Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s “The
Iceman Cometh,” a play he reprised at the Goodman with Nathan Lane in
2012 and in Brooklyn in 2013.
In 1998, Dennehy appeared on
Broadway in the classic role of Willy Loman, the worn-out hustler in
Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and won the Tony for his performance.
this actor goes for is close to an everyman quality, with a grand
emotional expansiveness that matches his monumental physique,” wrote Ben
Brantley in his review of the play for The New York Times. “Yet these
emotions ring so unerringly true that Mr. Dennehy seems to kidnap you by
force, trapping you inside Willy’s psyche.”
He was awarded
another Tony in 2003 for his role in O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into
Night.” At the podium, after thanking his family, co-stars and producers
and complementing his competitors, he said: “The words of Eugene
O’Neill — they’ve got to be heard. They’ve got to be heard, and heard
and heard. And thank you so much for giving us the chance to enunciate
Dennehy was born July 9, 1938, in Bridgeport, Connecticut,
the first of three sons. His venture into acting began when he was 14 in
New York City and a student at a Brooklyn high school. He acted the
title role in “Macbeth.” He played football on a scholarship at Columbia
University, and he served five years in the U.S. Marines.
New York City in 1965, he pursued acting while working at side jobs. “I
learned first-hand how a truck driver lives, what a bartender does, how
a salesman thinks,” he told The New York Times in 1989. “I had to make a
life inside those jobs, not just pretend.”
His parents — Ed
Dennehy, an editor for The Associated Press in New York, and Hannah
Dennehy, a nurse — could never understand why his son chose to act.
“Anyone raised in a first or second generation immigrant family knows
that you are expected to advance the ball down the field,” Dennehy told
Columbia College Today in 1999. “Acting didn’t qualify in any way.”
6-foot-3-inch Dennehy went to Hollywood for his first movie,
“Semi-Tough” starring Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson. Dennehy was
paid $10,000 a week for 10 week’s work, which he thought “looked like it
was all the money in the world.”
Among his films: “Looking for
Mr. Goodbar,” “Foul Play,” “Little Miss Marker,” “Split Image,” “Gorky
Park,” “Legal Eagles,” “Miles from Home,” “Return to Snowy River,”
“Presumed Innocent,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Assault on Precinct 13.” He
played the father of Chris Farley’s titular character in the 1995
comedy “Tommy Boy.”
He played serial murderer John Wayne Gacy in
the 1991 TV movie “To Catch a Killer” and union leader Jackie Presser in
the HBO special “Teamster Boss” a year later. “I try to play villains
as if they’re good guys and good guys as if they’re villains,” he said
He worked deep into his 70s, in such projects as
SundanceTV’s “Hap and Leonard,” the film “The Seagull” with Elisabeth
Moss and Annette Bening and the play “Endgame” by Samuel Beckett at the
Long Wharf Theatre. His last foray on Broadway was in “Love Letters”
opposite Mia Farrow in 2014.
He is survived by his second wife,
costume designer Jennifer Arnott and their two children, Cormac and
Sarah. He also is survived by three daughters — Elizabeth, Kathleen and
Deirdre — from a previous marriage to Judith Scheff.