There are few celebrities I can proudly claim to have met in my lifetime, but I was lucky enough to meet Bryan Dennehy in person and share a conversation with the Tony Award winning actor of the stage and big and small screens. Few actors have gained a reputation of exploring diverse acting mediums like Dennehy did and since 1977 he has been a staple of television and film. Sadly, Dennehy passed away on April 15, 2020 due to natural causes at 81-years-old at his home in New Haven, Connecticut. I met Dennehy several years ago while working for a local newspaper where he owned property in Woodstock, CT. While interviewing him for a story that simple exchange evolved into a half-hour conversation about life and advice for my own career aspirations, never devolving into a lecture of everything he had done in his own life but more focused on his interest in who I was and a town he called a second home. This was the man Dennehy was away from the screen. While my In Memoriam segment has been a staple of this blog for a few years, it’s never been as personal a dedication as it is today remembering the man many considered one of the best character actors of his time. This is In Memoriam: Brian Dennehy.
Dennehy was a longtime resident of my home state of Connecticut. Born in Bridgeport in 1938, his father Edward Dennehy was the wire service editor for the Associated Press. Dennehy and his two brothers were raised Catholic and eventually relocated to Long Island, New York where he attended Chaminade High School. There he was a star athlete, earning a football scholarship to Columbia University where he not only played football and rugby but also earned a BA in history eventually studying dramatic arts as a graduate student at Yale. Before his acting career took off in the late seventies, he spent the first part of that decade as a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch in Manhattan and eventually broke into acting in 1977 with three film roles in “Bumpers”, “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” and “Semi-Tough” (which saw him portray a football player) as well as single-episode stints on numerous TV programs including “Kojak”, “Serpico” and “M*A*S*H” and two TV movies, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye” and “It Happened at Lakewood Manor” all that same year. It was just the start for Dennehy’s who appeared in numerous other programs and films throughout the next few years before making his big break in the 1980s
Starting off the 80s Dennehy appeared in numerous high-profile TV films like “Skokie”, “Split Image” and “A Rumor of War” with a few big-screen appearances in between. In 1982 he broke through to the masses as Sheriff Will Teasle, the antagonist of “First Blood”, the first movie in the “Rambo” franchise. His career in film blossomed from there with the 80s being one of his busiest decades. He appeared in at least one film a year throughout that time including “Cocoon”, “Silverado”, “Twice in a Lifetime”, “Finders Keepers”, “Gorky Park”, “Best Seller”, “F/X”, “Legal Eagles” and “Indio” earning a reputation as a solid supporting actor and character actor although he also earned credit as a leading man in several cases. His 1987 film “Belly of an Architect” was considered among his favorites from the decade which he famously called “the first film I’ve made” despite a long list of “movies” he had been a part of. He also continued his television success throughout the 80s with a total of twelve TV movies and appearances on shows like “Dynasty”, “Cagney & Lacey”, “Hunter”, “Miami Vice” and “The Last Place on Earth”.
The 1990s were a slower time for Dennehy on the big screen, but his small screen ventures expanded. He provided performances in “Birdland”, “Dead Man’s Walk”, “Nostromo” and the 90s and 2000s series “Just Shoot Me” and appeared in at least one TV movie a year throughout the decade earning Dennehy his first major industry award nominations. In 1990 he scored his first Primetime Emmy nomination as a supporting actor in “A Killing in a Small Town” and earned two more nominations as a lead a supporting actor for “To Catch a Killer: and “The Burden of Proof” respectively in 1992. His third and final Emmy nomination of the decade came in 1993 for his supporting role in “Murder in the Heartland”. In 1994 he won the award for Best Actor in a Miniseries at the CableACE Awards for “Foreign Affairs” and earned a Satellite Award nomination in 1997 for his role in “As Season of Purgatory”. The 90s saw Dennehy take on more prominent film roles bringing one of his most popular characters, Big Tom Callahan II, to the big screen in “Tommy Boy” and appearing as Ted Montague in the modernized take of “Romeo + Juliet”. He also became a prominent stage actor during this decade. He made his Broadway debut in 1995’s “Translations” and in 1999 earned his first Tony Award for his performance in the stage production of “Death of a Salesman” as well as a Laurence Olivier Award for the production’s run in London. It was one of several productions Dennehy took part in for producers Goodman Theatre Company in Chicago, a city where Dennehy became a popular staple of the stage and the company’s plays during his lifetime.
Moving to the 2000s, Dennehy was as active as ever appearing in seventeen films, eleven TV movies and eight TV shows during that time. Among his big screen roles were the remake of “Assault on Precinct 13” (one of my personal favorite movies of his), “Righteous Kill” and his first big screen voice performances in the animated films “Everybody’s Hero” and “Ratatouille”. On the small screen Dennehy translated his stage success in “Death of a Salesman” to a television movie based on the play earning him his one and only Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Miniseries or Television Film as well as a Producers Guild Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Primetime Emmy nomination. He would go on to earn more nominations for his small screen work in 2005 amassing nods at the Primetime Emmys and Satellite Awards for his performance in “Our Fathers”. He added to his television resume with roles in shows like “The West Wing”, “The 4400”, “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”, “30 Rock”, “Rules of Engagement” and more. Dennehy continued to shine on stage as well appearing in numerous productions including “Inherit the Wind” opposite Christopher Plummer and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” which earned him a Drama Desk Awards nomination in 2003 and his second and final Tony Award win that same year.
In his final decade of acting Brian Dennehy remained active on stage, screen and television, albeit in smaller roles. His started the decade with the big screen film “Alleged” and a single episode appearance on the TV show “Rizzoli & Isles”. He added eight more feature length big-screen films to his resume throughout the rest of the decade including “The Big Year”, “The Seagull” and an uncredited appearance in the 2018 comedy “Tag”. As of his death Dennehy had completed two more movies slated for release in 2020 and beyond: “Son of the South” and “Long Day Journey” which will be his final big screen appearance. On the small screen Dennehy added only two movies to his filmography in the 2010s, “The Challenger” and “A Very Merry Toy Store”, while his television show appearances consisted of “The Good Wife”, “The Big C”, “Public Morals” and “The Blacklist” which hosted his final small-screen performance in 2019. His final decade on stage saw him perform in a production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2011 and in Eugene O’Neill’s play “The Iceman Cometh” the following year at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. In 2010 Dennehy was honored as an inductee into the American Theatre Hall of Fame for his work on the stage.
Outside of fame Dennehy was a veteran of the United States Marine Corp. He served from 1958 through 1963 with a brief stint in Okinawa. His military career was also said to include time in Vietnam, something Dennehy spoke in detail about in interviews. However, the actor came under fire for embellishing his military service later admitting he misrepresented his service in Vietnam in 1999. Dennehy was married twice, first to Judith Scheff from 1959 until 1974 and then to Jennifer Arnott who he wed in 1988 and remained with until his passing. He had five children including Elizabeth Dennehy who followed in her father’s footsteps and became an actress. Dennehy’s late life saw him return to his birth state of Connecticut with homes in New Haven and Woodstock among other locations.
Considered by many to be one of the most prolific character actors and stage performers of his time, Brian Dennehy might have not always been the biggest name in his movies, but he was always someone to be reckoned with. His talent and dedicated to the art made him a respected individual in nearly every medium of acting and I can tell you from my personal experience that he was a humble gentleman when dealing with fans and those in his community. His approach to the art of performing made him a mentor and respected idol to many. Brian Dennehy leaves a legacy most can only dream of and he accomplished it all with an undying sense of respect and generosity towards his peers and the world around him. From the bottom of my heart I can truly say he is a talent and personality that will sorely be missed.