Numerous sources are reporting the death of Eileen Brennan, the Oscar-nominated actress who excelled at playing tough, world-weary women—often with a heart of gold and a real mouth on ‘em—in movies such as The Last Picture Show, The Sting, Private Benjamin, and Clue. Brennan, who had survived both a debilitating car accident and breast cancer over a life and career beset by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, died of bladder cancer, according to her publicist. She was 80.
Brennan first received acclaim on the stage, starring in the original Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! and in the title role of Little Mary Sunshine. It was in the latter that director Peter Bogdanovich first saw her, casting Brennan in 1971’s Last Picture Show as Genevieve, the waitress who inherits the town’s greasy spoon café. Saddled, yet fully at peace, with her life’s many burdens, Genevieve offers wise, tart counsel even as she laments amusedly that everyone is up in everybody’s business in tiny Anarene. (“A person can’t sneeze in this town without somebody offering them a handkerchief,” she muses at one point.) Her performance earned her a BAFTA nomination, and kicked off a long collaboration with Bogdanovich, who would cast her again in Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love, and his Last Picture Show sequel, Texasville.
The 1970s proved to be a prolific time for Brennan: She turned up in George Roy Hill’s The Sting, as Paul Newman’s brothel madam pal Billie; the Al Pacino/Gene Hackman road movie Scarecrow; the seedy Burt Reynolds cop thriller Hustle; two of Neil Simon and Robert Moore’s whodunit spoofs, Murder By Death and The Cheap Detective, opposite Peter Falk; and the quintessentially ‘70s comedy FM, as the soothingly whiskey-and-cigarette-voiced nighttime DJ “Mother.” She was also seen quite often on TV, having parlayed her feature film debut in the Norman Lear-produced, Dick Van Dyke comedy Divorce American Style into a brief stint on Laugh-In, as well as a memorable role in an episode of Lear’s All In The Family, where she’s trapped on an elevator with Archie Bunker.
In 1980, Brennan had what would prove to be her biggest role as Captain Lewis, the caustic commanding officer who has no time for Goldie Hawn’s privileged princess recruit. Brennan received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her part, then went on to reprise it in the TV adaptation (with Lorna Patterson swapped in for Hawn), where she picked up both a Golden Globe and an Emmy—her first after being nominated for a guest-starring turn on Taxi, as the cab company owner who tries to seduce Danny DeVito’s Louie.
During the filming of Private Benjamin’s second season, Brennan had just finished having dinner with Hawn when she was hit by a car, on a street temporarily darkened by a blackout. The damage was severe: Brennan was left with shattered legs and a broken nose, a fractured jaw, an eye torn from its socket, and all the bones in the left side of her face smashed. Recovery took well over a year, during which time Private Benjamin—which had unsuccessfully tried replacing her character—was canceled.
‘Despite still having no feeling in her face and struggling physically, Brennan signed on to the ABC sitcom Off The Rack, but admitted soon after its premiere that she’d developed a troublesome addiction to painkillers. As Brennan later recounted to People, following a stay in the Betty Ford Center, “Everyone hits bottom their own way. Mine came through my accident, which led to my pill addiction, which led to my birth. I say birth rather than rebirth because I feel born new. I reestablished a spiritual connection that is lost when you are taking any kind of drug. Strangely enough I wouldn't have missed my accident. It just knocks me out to say that, but I mean it."
That rebirth—or birth—began in earnest with her appearance in 1985’s Clue, a comedy adaptation of the board game that reteamed her with her At Long Last Love and Cheap Detective co-star Madeline Kahn, and found her playing the brassy, talkative Mrs. Peacock, a Senator’s wife who’s determined to enjoy herself, even amid murder. In addition to supporting roles in somewhat-forgettable dramas like Stella (opposite the equally brassy Bette Midler) and White Palace—and a definitely best forgotten, Razzie-nominated turn in The New Adventures Of Pippi Longstocking—Clue reestablished Brennan as a comedic force, and soon enough she was popping up all over television and movies in roles that made similar use of Brennan as an eccentric old bird.
She co-starred as Blossom’s crabby neighbor Agnes, and the obstinate Mrs. Bink on 7th Heaven. She had Emmy-nominated guest appearances on Newhart, as an artist who’s also an unstable pyromaniac; on thirtysomething, playing the difficult mother to Timothy Busfield’s Elliott; and on Will & Grace, as a chain-smoking, faded Hollywood star turned bitter acting coach. She also appeared twice on Murder She Wrote and in two episodes of ER, popped up on Mad About You, Nash Bridges, Walker Texas Ranger, and Lizzie McGuire, and voiced various characters on the animated All-New Dennis The Menace. She also had a memorable episode of Tales From The Crypt, starring as a deadly mob boss who becomes jealous when her kept gigolo, played by John Stamos, begins seeing a younger woman.
Brennan’s final film roles included a cut sequence in the Steve Martin-starring Cheaper By The Dozen remake (available on the DVD), an appearance in the horror movie Jeepers Creepers as “The Cat Lady,” and a small role in Miss Congeniality 2: Armed And Fabulous. She leaves behind a legacy of being the sort of woman you’d affectionately describe as a “tough old broad,” both on-screen and off.
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