A 2015 photo shows Dennehy (left) with Nathan Lane (centre) and director Robert Falls in Chicago, where they were staging a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh
A 2015 photo shows Dennehy (left) with Nathan Lane (centre) and director Robert Falls in Chicago, where they were staging a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

Brian Dennehy, a versatile actor known for his work on film and the stage, spanning 50 years, action movies, comedies and Shakespeare, died on April 15. He was 81.

Dennehy died in New Haven, Connecticut, with his wife, Jennifer, and son, Cormac, by his side, according to a statement from a spokeswoman for ICM Partners, the agency that represented him.

Over his five-decade career, Dennehy won two Tony Awards (for his stage performances). His first came in 1999 for best actor in Death of a Salesman, and he earned his second in 2003 for best actor in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Dennehy also received a Laurence Olivier Award, a Golden Globe and a SAG [Screen Actors Guild] Award, and he received six Primetime Emmy Award nominations.

He was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 2011.

Best known as the sheriff who jailed Rambo, Brian Dennehy did a series of odd jobs before he pursued acting, which he later called “the best possible apprenticeship” for being an actor

Burly and gregarious, Dennehy was often called on to play an everyman or an authority figure: athletes and sheriffs, bartenders, salesmen and fathers. He returned to the stage again and again, performing plays by Samuel Beckett and Anton Chekhov.

He was probably best known for his prominent roles in blockbuster films, including First Blood (1982) as the sheriff who jailed Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone.

Dennehy also played Big Tom in the 1995 film Tommy Boy, starring Chris Farley, and Ted Montague the following year in Romeo + Juliet.

Years later, he played a superior officer to Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in the 2008 drama Righteous Kill and played Russell Crowe’s father in the 2018 film The Next Three Days.

Dennehy was born on July 9, 1938, Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Hannah Manion Dennehy and Edward J. Dennehy, both of Derby, Connecticut. He was raised largely in New York.

He came to acting late, telling The New York Times in 1989 that he had grown up “a big, totally uncoordinated, hopeless football player” who ended up “just good enough to get a scholarship to Columbia.”

After serving in the Marines, he found work driving a meat truck and doing whatever odd jobs he could find — a period of about a decade that he later called “the best possible apprenticeship” for being an actor.

“I learned firsthand how a truck driver lives, what a bartender does, how a salesman thinks,” he said. “I had to make a life in those jobs, not just pretend.”

While juggling day jobs, Dennehy managed to act in plays across Long Island. He eventually quit those jobs and moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting at 38. His first movie role was as a football player in Semi-Tough, for which he was paid 1,000 dollars a week for 10 weeks. He said his only goal at the time was to make enough money to put his children through college.

“They had made too many sacrifices over the years,” he said.

Dennehy is survived by his wife, Jennifer Arnott, and his married daughters Elizabeth, Kathleen and Deirdre. — By arrangement with The Straits Times, Singapore

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 26th, 2020