(July 9, 1938 – April 15, 2020)
Brian Dennehy left behind a large and impressive body of TV, movie, and stage work. And to those of us who were lucky enough to have worked with him, he left behind fond memories of a warm and caring man of great talent.
Dennehy had turned 81 in July. Kenny Rogers, singer/actor, who died recently, turned 81 in August. And a little aside…And I turned 81 a couple days after Rogers. Three of the natal class of the late summer of ‘38 who became old vets of show business.
Brian was an actor who always made the TV or movie better for him being in it. He seldom had the lead in film, usually playing as a major costar on one side of the law or the other. He was one of those actors that people recognize right away but always seem to forget his name. ‘I think it is Brain Keith…No. No. Can’t think of it right now but I really liked him in…’
His obituary says he is best remembered playing a sadistic sheriff in the Rambo movies. I would not know because I tried to watch a Rambo movie on TV years ago. I don’t remember if I even finished it. I was not impressed. But there was so many shows he was in that I enjoyed. I guess the two FX’s are my favorites. Or maybe in Presumed Innocent, or maybe Gorky Park, or…Like I said he was a fine actor who brought so much to the work.
His most ambitious body of work was in the 6 TV movies where he played the lead, Jack Reed, a Chicago homicide officer. The first he just played the lead in a two parter based on a popular true crime novel. The next came about because he of his persistence to get out another Jack Reed TV movie. In the last 5 he wore many hats, lead actor, writer, producer. They were all low budget fictional films, but they showed the true picture of Brian Dennehy as he was in real life, a man-left-of-center who stood up for his beliefs.
They also showed the pain Dennehy worked with, the result of his old football injuries. This pain is shown in the details of his blocking especially in A Search For Justice. Every chance he gets he is leaning on something. He seldom is seen walking more than a few feet. Sometimes when he is standing you can see how tightly he is holding on a piece of furniture.
He must have really suffered when he was on stage for a lengthy time.
His film work was overlooked for awards, but he received 6 Emmy nominations for his TV work. His biggest award in TV was a Golden Globe win for his Willy Loman in a taped presentation of his Broadway hit, Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman.’
This performance on Broadway earned him his first Tony Award as Best Actor In A Play. He took it to London where he was awarded the Olivier Award. His second Tony for Best Actor in a Play came a few years later for his James Tyrone Sr. in Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece, A Long Day’s Journey To Night. Both plays were initiated at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, which was home base for Dennehy’s regional theater work. Other regional theaters benefited from his love for the stage. And many of them bestowed awards on him for his work.
Dennehy performed at the Abbey Theater in Dublin playing Hickey in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. He played a full season at The Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada’s leading theater. He played in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, and a double bill of one acts, Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape, and O’Neill’s almost monologue Huey.
A few years later he returned to Stratford to play Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night and the lead in Pinter’s The Homecoming, the first Pinter play ever done at Stratford.
He was dubbed by the theater world as the foremost living O’Neill actor. And in 2010 he was inducted in the American Theater Hall of Fame.
His first love was theater, and his income from TV and movies provided the monetary means to work in theater in plays written by the great playwrights. When asked what was his secret in doing such fine work in theater, he replied that walking with giants brought out the best in him.
Dennehy was prolific in his charity work. He contributed both money and time to what he considered to be worthwhile causes.
I worked with him at the Minneapolis Pantages when he played a shortened week’s engagement in the play Trumbo. From the time he walked into the building until he left, he was open, friendly, and went out of his way to show his appreciation of the crew. It was as if we were old friends.
(I have much more to tell about both working the play with him and the play itself; but I will hold off and relate it in the next post: DENNEHY/TRUMBO.)
Working in show business, it is amazing how many people I met. There was always new crews, casts, designers, etc., I came in contact with. For the most part, outside of the area of the business, I had little in common with most of them. Not so with Brian Dennehy.
I knew a little about him before I worked with him. I learned more about him when I worked his short engagement in Minneapolis. But it wasn’t until I did research for this post that I found out how much the two of us have in common outside of show business.
There is the close proximity in age, six weeks difference, and in physical stature; and our lives are filled with so many similarities…
Brian was raised in an East Coast Irish strict Catholic family. Mine family was Midwest German/French strict Catholics.
Nuns were involved in our elementary schooling, Catholic teaching Brothers in our high schools. Reading books of all kinds was a major part of our lives from early on. In college we pursued Liberal Art degrees, Brian…History. Mine… American Studies.
We both enrolled in Catholic colleges that recruited us for their football programs, with the same result, knee injuries in our freshmen year that came back to make our older years a real pain trying to walk. Disgusted, we both dropped out of college our first year.
It was in the Cold War times, and the draft was in place. Not waiting to be called we volunteered Draft. He went in the Marines. I was a paratrooper. Both of us in esprit de corps outfits. When we got out we continued our college pursuits.
Marrying young was something Catholics did in those days. Dennehy married is first wife, he had two, in April of 60. I married my one-and-only in April of 61. We both have five children and have remained very close to all of them. Both of us are proud grandfathers.
Wild in our early years, we had a drinking problem and when we matured we quit drinking…Cold turkey. Not an easy thing to do in show business. We also both avoided drugs which were prevalent in the business.
Brian was a stock broker in the New York office of Merrill Lynch. I started out as a teletype operator in the St. Paul office of Merrill Lynch. I switched to another firm and got my stock broker’s license. We both hated that work and got out of the business – for good.
We went back to blue collar work, truck driver, laborer, etc., to support our families. Eventually we both got into show business. I became a stagehand, quite by accident, when I was almost 30. Dennehy became a professional actor, after years of amateur acting, when he was almost 40.
Once in the business, neither of us was content to be pigeon-holed. Brian Dennehy expanded into producing, directing, writing, in TV. I was a stagehand in live events and a gaffer in film, as well as a lighting designer, a union officer, and even had a one-act play published in a national magazine and performed in several places. We both preferred working on stage over TV or movies. Especially the works of Shakespeare, O’Neill, Miller, Beckett and other giants.
Like I said, Brian Dennehy and I had a great many things in common over our lifetimes.
Movie goers and TV viewers have lost a fine actor. Theater lovers have lost a great actor. His world has lost someone who made it better for having been born in it. And all of us who had the pleasure of his company, albeit for a short time, are left with fond memories.
Thank You, Mr. Brian Dennehy
And that’s a wrap.
Coming soon: Dennehy/Trumbo