Obituary: Brian Dennehy, award-winning American stage and screen actor

Brian Dennehy, actor. Born: 9 July, 1938 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, United States. Died: 15 April, 2020 in New Haven, Connecticut, aged 81.

Brian Dennehy accepts the Best Leading Actor In a Play prize for Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Tony Awards in 2003 (Picture: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

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 at the age of 81.

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, a Laurence Olivier Award and was nominated for six Emmys. He was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2010.

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Tributes came from Hollywood and Broadway, including from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who said he saw Dennehy twice onstage and called the actor “a colossus”.

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 barman who consoles Dudley Moore in 10 and the level-headed leader of aliens in Cocoon and its sequel.

“The world has lost a great artist,” Sylvester Stallone wrote in tribute, saying Dennehy helped him build the character of Rambo.

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 2015.

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.

“What 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, opposite Vanessa Redgrave, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Sean Leonard.

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 them.”

Dennehy was born on 9 July , 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 served five years in the US Marines.

Back in 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 said 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 their 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 said in 1999. “Acting didn’t qualify in any way.”

The 6ft 3in Dennehy went to Hollywood for his first movie, Semi-Tough starring Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson. Dennehy was paid $10,000 a week for ten week’s work, which he thought “looked like it was all the money in the world.” He became a professional actor at the ag e of 38.

His film credits include 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 in 1992

He worked deep into his 70s, in such projects as Sundance TV’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.

MARK KENNEDY