Brian Dennehy, ‘Tommy Boy’ and ‘First Blood’ Star, Dies at 81
Art and Experience: Brian Dennehy, the winner of two Tonys in a career that also spanned films including “Tommy Boy,” “First Blood” and “Cocoon,” and television roles including “Dynasty” and “Death of a Salesman,” died on Wednesday night in New Haven, Conn. He was 81.
“It is with heavy hearts we announce that our father, Brian, passed away last night from natural causes, not Covid-related. Larger than life, generous to a fault, a proud and devoted father and grandfather, he will be missed by his wife, Jennifer, family and many friends,” his daughter, actress Elizabeth Dennehy, tweeted on Thursday.
His agency ICM also confirmed the news.
In the 1995 comedy “Tommy Boy,” Dennehy was Big Tom, the father of Chris Farley’s character Tom, who takes over the family’s auto parts business with David Spade after his father dies. In Ron Howard’s 1985 hit “Cocoon,” Dennehy played the leader of the alien Antareans who leave lifeforce-giving cocoons in a a swimming pool near a retirement home.
The imposingly tall, barrel-chested Dennehy won his first Tony for his performance as Willy Loman in a revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in 1999 and his second Tony for his turn as James Tyrone in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in 2003.
The actor made his TV and feature debut in 1977 — a year in which he made appearances in at least 10 series or telepics, including “Kojak,” “MASH” and “”Lou Grant,” and the films “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” and “Semi-Tough.” From that point he maintained a heavy work load for decades.
In 1982 his profile increased significantly thanks to his effective performance in the role of Teasle, the sadistic small-town police chief who is Sylvester Stallone’s lead adversary in “First Blood.”
In addition to “Cocoon,” he had significant roles in the 1983 thriller “Gorky Park” and in “Silverado.” He was second-billed, after Bryan Brown, in the well-constructed 1986 thriller “F/X,” in which he played a cop not part of the conspiracy, and in the 1991 sequel. He was fourth-billed in “Legal Eagles,” after the star trio of Robert Redford, Debra Winger and Daryl Hannah.
In 1987, in the flawed thriller “Best Seller,” he sparred ably with James Woods, who played a conman who approaches Dennehy’s policeman-successful writer with a deal that ought not to be trusted. Dennehy also starred in the 1990 crime drama “The Last of the Finest.” Amid a sea of work in TV movies, Dennehy appeared in the 1995 indie “The Stars Fell on Henrietta,” starring Robert Duvall; the next year he played Ted Montague, leader of the clan, in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet.”
One of Dennehy’s most memorable film roles came in Alan J. Pakula’s 1990 adaptation of Turow’s bestselling novel “Presumed Innocent,” starring Harrison Ford as the Chicago assistant district attorney on trial for the murder of a co-worker with whom he had an affair. Dennehy played his boss, who’s up for re-election and has multiple divided loyalties, with a subtlety that was absolutely necessary. Another signal moment was auteur Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film “The Belly of an Architect,” in which the actor starred as the title character.
The actor was perhaps the foremost living interpreter of O’Neill’s works. In 2009 Dennehy starred on Broadway as Ephraim Cabot in a revival of the playwright’s “Desire Under the Elms,” and in 2012 he played Larry Slade, the former lefty seeking to drink himself to death, in O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, reprising the role in 2015 when the production, also starring Nathan Lane, was revived at the BAM Harvey Theater in New York City.
Underscoring his adeptness with the physical business of being an actor, a scene in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in which a drunken Tyrone gets onto a table to unscrew many of the bulbs in a lit chandelier left many in the audience with the fear that the actor would tumble off the stage even though they knew Dennehy was not really drunk.
Dennehy had a decades-long association with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where most of his explorations of O’Neill originated. He first appeared at the Goodman in 1986 in the title role of Brecht’s “Galileo” and first paired with the theater on O’Neill with a 1990 revival of “The Iceman Cometh” in which he played Hickey. In 1996 he starred there in O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet,” playing the tyrannical, Falstaff-like Con Melody.
After his Tony-winning performance in 2003 in O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” he took on the playwright’s obscure, posthumously published one-act “Hughie” at the Goodman in 2004, revisiting the show again in 2010 in repertory with Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.”
Dennehy headlined the Goodman’s 2009 “A Global Exploration: Eugene O’Neill in the 21st Century” festival in the revival of “Desire Under the Elms” that subsequently transferred to Broadway.
The production of “Death of a Salesman” that won Dennehy his first Tony originated at the Goodman, later went to the West End and was brought to the small screen on Showtime in 2000, resulting in an Emmy nomination for Dennehy as well as a SAG Award and a Golden Globe. The New York Times called it “the performance of his career.”
In the early to mid-’90s Dennehy starred as a Chicago police detective in the “Jack Reed” series of TV movies, several of which he also wrote and directed.
Brian Manion Dennehy was born in Bridgeport, Conn. He served in the Marines from 1959-63, after which he studied history at Columbia, attending the university on a football scholarship. He subsequently earned his MFA in dramatic arts from Yale.
Dennehy made his Broadway debut in 1995 in Brian Friel’s “Translations” opposite Dana Delany. After “Death of a Salesman” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” the actor played Matthew Harrison Brady in a 2007 revival of “Inherit the Wind” opposite Christopher Plummer as Henry Drummond. And in 2014 he starred opposite Carol Burnett and Mia Farrow in a revival of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters.”
Dennehy also received Emmy nominations in 1990 for his role as a defense attorney in the telepic “A Killing in a Small Town”; in 1992 both for his role in the Scott Turow-based miniseries “The Burden of Proof” and for his role as serial killer John Wayne Gacy in the TV movie “To Catch a Killer”; in 1993 for his role in the miniseries “Murder in the Heartland”; and in 2005 for his role in Showtime’s “Our Fathers,” about the Catholic church’s conspiracy, centering on Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, to conceal sexual abuse.
Reviewing “Our Fathers,” Variety lauded “the ever-brilliant Brian Dennehy in a knockout perf as an outspoken priest who uses the pulpit to denounce Law’s leadership.”
In 1981 he recurred on “Dynasty” as D.A. Jake Dunham; the next year Dennehy starred as a fire chief in the brief-running ABC sitcom “Star of the Family.” He tried series television again in 1994 with ABC’s brief-running “Birdland,” in which he played a hospital’s chief of psychiatry, and in NBC’s 2001 sitcom “The Fighting Fitzgeralds,” in which he starred as the reluctant paterfamilias of an unruly Irish clan.
In the highly regarded 1989 TV movie “Day One,” the actor played Gen. Leslie Groves, who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb. In 2000 he starred as Gen. Bogan in the Stephen Frears-directed TV adaptation of nuclear armageddon thriller “Fail Safe.”
Dennehy was married twice, the first time to Judith Scheff. He is survived by second wife Jennifer Arnott, a costume designer, whom he married in 1988; three daughters by Scheff, actresses Elizabeth and Kathleen, and Deirdre; as well as son Cormac and daughter Sarah with Arnott.