Brian Dennehy, the brawny actor who started in films as a macho heavy and later won plaudits for his work on stage, has died. He was 81.
Dennehy passed away on Wednesday night (local time) of natural causes in New Haven, Connecticut.
Known for his towering frame, booming voice and ability to play good guys and bad guys with 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 Theatre Hall of Fame in 2010.
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 bartender 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 on Twitter, saying Dennehy helped him build the character of Rambo.
The great actor Brian Dennehy has passed away. He simply was a great actor … He also was a Vietnam vet that helped me very much building the character of RAMBO The world has lost a great artist. #First Blood https://t.co/knL4rROymL
— Sylvester Stallone (@TheSlyStallone) April 16, 2020
Dennehy had a long connection with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, 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.
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.
Dennehy was born July 9, 1938, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the first of three sons. His venture into acting began when he was 14 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 he served five years in the US Marines.
Back in New York City in 1965, he pursued acting while working at side jobs.
The 6-foot-3-inch Dennehy went to Hollywood for his first movie, Semi-Tough starring Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson. Dennehy was paid $10,000 a week for 10 week’s work, which he thought “looked like it was all the money in the world.” He became a professional actor at the age of 38.
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 SundanceTV’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.
“Just devastated to learn that the magnificent Brian Dennehy has died. There is no one I enjoyed working with more. And there are few friends as valued in my life,” Farrow wrote Thursday.
He is survived by his second wife, costume designer Jennifer Arnott and their two children, Cormac and Sarah. He is also survived by three daughters – Elizabeth, Kathleen and Deirdre – from a previous marriage to Judith Scheff.