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.
Dennehy was one of those truly great actors—like Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, or any of the others from this list—who is easily recognizable by pretty much everybody…most of whom couldn’t tell you his name. The gifted character actor submerges himself so completely into his role that the viewer submerges himself right along with them, without the slightest conscious awareness of having done so. Good character actors usually drive most any film they’re in; they’re the guys who can make an otherwise crappy movie at least watchable. You’ll see such an actor play a huge gamut of disparate characters over his (usually long and distinguished) career, and he’ll inhabit every one of those characters to perfection without ever seeming to break a sweat. To wit:
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.
That’s but a brief summation of Dennehy’s amazing career, but my all-time favorite is probably his turn as Cobb in the greatest Western ever filmed: Lawrence Kasdan’s brilliantly conceived and executed Silverado. His death scene after the classic showdown with onetime friend and partner Kevin Kline at the end is archetypical Dennehy, made all the more powerful and dramatic for its stark, understated simplicity. Compared to the kind of cliched thrashing, gargling, screaming, and writhing about we’re all used to, it’s a pluperfect example of the character actor’s art at its very highest pinnacle:
If you’ve never seen Silverado, I really can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s beautifully staged and shot, brimming over with well-crafted dialogue and star-turn performances from pretty much the entire cast. From what I recall reading when it came out, it was basically Kasdan’s intention to do an updated but respectful version of the classic Hollywood Westerns of yore, including all the hoary old plot elements and cinematique stylistic licks he could fit in. His own affection for the genre is in evidence from start to finish. I think he succeeded brilliantly, although some critics of the time disagreed. In the end, though, it’s a fun movie to watch, a well-made bit of old-school Saturday-matinee escapism of a kind we don’t see near enough of anymore. I’ve seen it a thousand times, have pretty much every line memorized, and will still watch it through to the very end any time I run across it flipping through the channels.
Fare thee well, Mr Dennehy. You were one of the greats of your art, and your place in Valhalla is assured.