Howard Sherman remembers Brian Dennehy, who passed away last week at the age of 81.
On screen, Brian Dennehy – who died last week at the age of 81 – was a valuable featured player. On stage, Dennehy was a towering star.
Every so often he was top-billed on a film. He starred in a pair of entertaining thrillers with Bryan Brown – F/X and F/X2 – and Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect.
But he was much more frequently known for scene-stealing turns where his name appeared towards the end of the credits – in films such as Gorky Park, Cocoon, Presumed Innocent and even Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
But on stage he was something else. Willy Loman, James Tyrone, Matthew Harrison Brady, Hickey, Krapp, Pozzo, Galileo – a pantheon of roles that only a master actor would dare to play and he did so with great success, earning two best actor Tony awards in only six Broadway appearances.
In almost everything he did, Dennehy exuded strength in some form. Whether as a genuine hero, a relentless villain or perhaps what he did best: a man who showed a bravura façade to the world only to reveal the fears and weaknesses hidden behind.
’He was a good guy. A bloke. A crony.’
His expertise was due in no small part to his physique, standing over six feet with a figure for which the term barrel-chested could have been invented. He used his broad face, growl, sheer bulk and a seemingly constant menace in the service of playing flawed men. He showed the epitome of the nuanced and idiosyncratic qualities we associate with great character actors.
There was nothing precious about Dennehy, in performance or in person. He was always up for a gig that would intrigue him – or the audience. It’s telling that his most sustained and rewarding creative work was rooted not in New York, Los Angeles or London, but in Chicago, at the Goodman Theatre.
There, in partnership with the company’s artistic director Robert Falls, Dennehy appeared in a series of major plays over more than three decades – Galileo, The Iceman Cometh (twice, playing different roles, in 1990 and 2012), A Touch of the Poet, Death of a Salesman, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Desire Under the Elms, Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape.
While he excelled in Miller and Beckett, he was certainly one of America’s greatest interpreters of the Eugene O’Neill canon, on a par with Jason Robards.
But Dennehy could also be found at the Stratford Festival playing in Shakespeare, Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in Richard Nelson’s Conversations in Tusculum, at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven in The Front Page and at the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles in The Steward of Christendom.
Long after he became instantly recognizable on the street, he was drawn less to the trappings of fame than to the challenge of great work. He was also happy to have a lark on stage, most notably – and unexpectedly – when he played Alfred Doolittle in a 2007 semi-staged concert presentation of My Fair Lady, where he appeared to be having the time of his life.
’In almost everything he did, Dennehy exuded strength in some form.’
We often get an impression, after seeing an actor a few times in movies, TV, or on stage, of what they must be like in person. The remarkable thing about Brian Dennehy is that the man was exactly who you would expect – daunting, forbidding, solid, decent and possessed of a wicked sense of humor.
He lacked pretence – except when he wanted to tease with the danger that he knew he could deploy with ease. But fundamentally he was just a guy who loved theatre and was happy to spend hours talking about it, sitting with a drink nearby, much like the O’Neill characters he embodied so well.
Having had conversations with Brian both as a colleague and as an interviewer, he unfailingly showed how steeped he was in the history and literature of acting. Often when asked a question about art or technique, he wouldn’t presume to hold forth on his own theories. Instead he would relate something he read, said by another actor, or a director or playwright, in many cases someone from before his own time. He wasn’t deflecting or avoiding, he was sharing his deep knowledge, and in doing so, teaching whoever was fortunate enough to be in hearing range.
He was a good guy. A bloke. A crony. The sort of pal you wanted working or fighting or playing alongside you, even if you’d just met him. And he was, with almost no perceptible shifting of gears, a great actor.