The Reel Dad remembers the late Brian Dennehy
At times, he looked so comfortable on screen that it almost seemed that he might not be an actor. It all looked so natural. His easy-going presence, and appealing personality, made him such an accessible performer that he never let the craft show.
When Brian Dennehy died last week, he left a remarkable legacy in the theater, winning Tony awards for his breathtaking performances playing two classic dramatic characters on Broadway, Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” and Edmund Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” And, while those performances were not recorded on film, Dennehy’s movie portrayals form a strong catalog of cinema characters.
Here are some of my favorites.
Donald in “10” (1979)
Blake Edwards’ hysterical examination of middle age plants Dudley Moore at a Mexican resort where he tries to find himself while pursuing his fantasies. When Moore needs someone to talk with, Dennehy, as the hotel bartender, becomes the perfect partner in conversation. As Donald, Dennehy is so calm, so reasonable, that he makes Moore feel quite comfortable to reveal his secrets. And, after a few minor movie appearances, this movie put Dennehy on the map.
Teasle in “First Blood” (1982)
Leave it to Sylvester Stallone to show that Dennehy could be more on screen than a friendly voice in a bar. Playing a sheriff with more on his mind than truth and justice, Dennehy reveals a sinister layer in his ability to capture the nuance of a negative character. The actor sets a pattern for his screen performances, to make a strong first impression, and to never let the importance of the work be dictated by the size of the role.
Cobb in “Silverado” (1985)
Dennehy continues his mean streak at the movies as another angry sheriff in this Western from Lawrence Kasdan. Working with an all-star cast, including Kevin Costner in his breakout role, Dennehy fills the screen with fear as a man of law committed to make certain the law only works in his own favor. Kasdan perfectly captures the sense of ruthless unrest that is such a staple in the Western movie genre. And Dennehy chews a lot of scenery.
Walter in “Cocoon” (1985)
Dennehy, the actor, is too strategic in his early career to get type cast in any one type of role. The same year he frightens the horses in “Silverado” he also soothes the elderly in this gentle film from director Ron Howard. As senior citizens ponder the possibilities of eternal life with extraterrestrials, Dennehy helps them see what life could be if they free themselves from the expectations of earth. Again, the actor makes the most of a few strong scenes.
Dennis in “Best Seller” (1987)
After primarily playing supporting roles in movies, Dennehy gets his first opportunity for a leading role in a crime thriller that recalls the film noir classics of the 1940s. The actor shines as a detective who becomes a best-selling author. But life can be tough for anyone who writes for living, even this policeman with a rich past, when Dennis starts to experience writer’s block. Fortunately, because it’s a movie, there’s always a new crime for the author to explore.
Stourley in “The Belly of an Architect” (1987)
Although Dennehy was never nominated for an Academy Award, he delivered many award-worthy performances, especially this portrayal of an architect who becomes trapped by his own fears. Dennehy reaches beneath the surface of the script to explore the dark layers of a man so consumed by his work that he lets his professional insecurities define his personal relationships. The film was a nominee for the Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Raymond in “Presumed Innocent” (1990)
Scott Turow’s best-selling novel about a mysterious murder became a blockbuster film under the direction of Alan J. Pakula. Opposite Harrison Ford as Rusty, a prosecutor, Dennehy shines as a tough-minded district attorney who doesn’t put up with much foolishness. And, because the movie focuses on foolishness, there’s a lot for this DA to dislike. Pakula effectively converts the tension from the page into a thriller for the screen. And Dennehy helps.
To theater fans, the magic of Dennehy’s work on Broadway, and with the Goodman Theater in Chicago, will live on. And, for those of us who love movies, the actor always brings a rich character to life.
Rest in peace.