Like the rest of the world, The A.V. Club was greatly saddened to hear of the passing of veteran actor Brian Dennehy, who died today at the age of 81. Dennehy’s career really kicked off in the ’70s, and he appeared in memorable movies like First Blood, F/X, and Romeo + Juliet to TV shows like from Kojack to M*A*S*H* to 30 Rock over his decades-long career. He also had a distinguished stage career, winning Tonys for Death Of A Salesman and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It’s a long list to choose from, but below various A.V. Club staffers highlight their own favorite Brian Dennehy performances. (And feel free to add your own in the comments.) We’ve also included some excerpts of Dennehy’s own memories from his 2018 Random Roles interview.
Brian Dennehy so often played the tough-guy cop or heavy, that one of my favorite performances of his is the polar opposite of those types: the lovable, lighthearted Big Tom, Chris Farley’s dad, in 1995’s Tommy Boy. As he told us in his Random Roles interview a few years ago, “We did this Ray Charles number, and I just went up and belted it out as hard as I could. So now [Chris Farley] feels it necessary that he’s going to top me, right? And he gave it the best shot, but afterward he comes down and says, ‘I just couldn’t get there to where you were. I feel really bad.’ I said, ‘Hey, hey. I’m your old man. I’m supposed to be bigger than you.’ It was that kind of picture where everybody was having fun. And of course, it became a huge hit. Not because of me, because of him.” Still, the kind of guy who could even out-showcase Chris Farley in a showstopper number? There wasn’t anything Brian Dennehy couldn’t do.
When you’re little, the idea of a “character actor” doesn’t mean anything to you—everyone onscreen is just a person you know as the character they’re portraying. But Brian Dennehy was one of the first actors who I took notice of, as a guy in more than one movie. He came to my attention when I was a young kid, maybe 8 or 9 years old, and I was watching a cable broadcast of the 1986 thriller F/X, about a special-effects guy (Bryan Brown) who uses his particular set of skills to fake a real-life murder, only to then have his own life put in danger. Dennehy plays the freewheeling police detective who gets involved with the case and slowly befriends the hero, the kind of relatively thankless role that involves exposition and some hoary wisecracks. But Dennehy was so charming, I made a mental note that I liked “that guy who played the cop person,” and told my dad. He introduced me to a world of great Dennehy films—Cocoon, Presumed Innocent, and of course First Blood—and I discovered the world of cool character actors that existed in cinema at a weirdly young age. Thanks, Brian Dennehy, for being so likable and charismatic that you made this pre-adolescent film buff a fan of Gorky Park, of all things. And yes, you were the best part of F/X 2.
“The funny thing about First Blood is—people forget this now—but Stallone, who had been a sensation of course in Rocky, his career had begun to dim a little bit when we did First Blood. Rocky was so huge, and I don’t know whether he had done the second one by that time. I think he had done it, but it hadn’t come out, and so he was looking for something else. He had done some other pictures, but his career had faded a little bit.
We went up in the winter time to frickin’ British Columbia and shot an exterior picture in the woods freezing our asses off in this beautiful little town up there. Nobody really knew what the hell we had. [Stallone] did it for short money for him, and the guys who made the picture were Canadian. The money guys were from Canada, and an old friend of mine, Ted Kotcheff, directed.
I should have known, because Ted is one of those guys who is a real, old pro. He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew exactly what could happen with that project, and he got it, and we shot it. It took a long time to shoot because of the weather, but when it came out, it exploded. Blew up. It was huge. It was a huge success for Stallone and it was a big success for Ted, because it was obviously a difficult picture to make. People wanted to see the goddamn movie.”
Brian Dennehy was the consummate character actor—something he even touched on in a moment retold on Patton Oswalt’s Werewolves & Lollipops record. I had the pleasure of talking to him for a Random Roles interview a few years ago, and doing research for that, I went deep on some of his more bit parts. It gave me a new appreciation for the breadth of his work, which runs the gamut from comedic to heartbreaking, over-the-top to incredibly subtle. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed whenever he popped up in something small, but meaty. I loved him as a grizzled teamster in 30 Rock’s “Sandwich Day.” I liked him, weirdly enough, in the four episodes of Just Shoot Me in which he played “Red Finch,” much-larger father to David Spade’s Dennis Finch. I think I liked him best of all, though, in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, in which he plays Ted Montague, father to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo. The role’s kind of a small one, but theater veteran Dennehy was really able to sink his teeth into Shakespeare’s dialogue, bringing all the passion and intensity required for the role. It seems like the movie is streaming now on Amazon Prime as part of the company’s Starz deal, so maybe I’ll dive back into that, along with Tommy Boy, this weekend in celebration of one of the great character actors of the last 30 years.
I grew up in an NBC household. If it aired on the Peacock Network, my mom and I probably watched it as I did my homework. One of those shows was Just Shoot Me, a workplace comedy with a season two episode I still distinctly remember: Finch (David Spade) gets a visit from his firefighter father, Red (guest star Brian Dennehy), who reveals he thinks Finch is gay. “Pass The Salt” aired in January 1998, about eight months before Will & Grace hit the air. As a kid privately coming to terms with his own sexuality, I secretly found comfort in Dennehy’s anti-hate speech rant when he thinks a coworker has called Finch a “fruit.” At the time, I’m sure some (if not many) actors have shied away from taking a part requiring a speech like that, but Dennehy performed it with the passion of someone who believed what he was saying. Of course the moment is perfectly buttoned as Red innocently notices the basket of apples and bananas on the nearby counter: “Hey, fruit.” [Patrick Gomez]
Dennehy has a long history with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, and I was lucky enough to work there when he performed in Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms and Hughie, as well as Samuel Beckett’s one-man show, Krapp’s Last Tape, all of which rank among my favorite theatergoing experiences. Not only could he deftly wrap his mouth around some of the densest, most emotionally volatile language in modern theater, but onstage he also had this way of growing and shrinking, physically oscillating between statures imposing and pathetic. Krapp’s Last Tape, specifically, was a stunner, and its themes of memory and aging are swirling in my head again now that the man I saw perform it is gone. [Randall Colburn]
“It’s one of the most extraordinary plays… probably the great American play about our country, and the way we are in our personality. I was lucky enough to hit it at the right time in my life and have a great director, Bob Falls. We started in Chicago, came to New York, and then we went to London. We did a whole bunch of different places. Had a wonderful time for two or three years, whatever it was. I became good friends with Arthur Miller, who was the playwright, of course. He and I had some wonderful times together. That was one of the best things about it.
It kind of opened a lot of doors for me. That show, that play, and the fact that it was successful, and my interpretation was accepted as valid. People enjoyed it. I have nothing but good memories about Salesman and gratitude for it.”