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O’Neill, not Hollywood, made Brian Dennehy a Chicago star

Actor Brian Dennehy, who died at 81, was a cherished pillar of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.

Brian Dennehy (center, as Hickey) is pictured alongside actor Jerome Kilty (as Harry Hope) in the Goodman Theatre’s 1990 production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” directed by Robert Falls.
Liz Lauren

Brian Dennehy would have laughed.

“He would have found ‘ “Tommy Boy” actor dead at 81’ hilarious,” said Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, of the headline that raced around social media Thursday. “I find it pathetic. The guy lived such a rich and full life, in the grandest sense.”

The Tony Award-winning actor died Wednesday.

While the world might have known Dennehy as a movie star, from Chris Farley’s popular, cringeworthy comedy or from “First Blood” — he was the sheriff giving Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo a hard time — or other Hollywood tripe, Chicagoans knew better.

“This was one of the great actors of our generation,” said Falls, who directed Dennehy in nine productions, including such classics as Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and Arthur Miller’s timeless tragedy “Death of a Salesman,” which Dennehy starred in at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1998, then took to Broadway and performed 450 times, winning a Tony.

Brian Dennehy (Willy Loman) in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, directed by Robert Falls at Goodman Theatre (September 18 – November 7, 1998).
Brian Dennehy (as Willy Loman) in the Goodman Theatre’s 1998 production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”
Liz Lauren

The two met in the mid-1980s when the old 121-seat Wisdom Bridge Theater on Howard Street presented Ron Hutchinson’s drama “Rat in the Skull.”

“Brian wanted to play this Northern Irish cop,” said Falls. “He just wanted to do this play. He was thrilled to come to Chicago. It was love at first sight.”

James Lancaster (left) and Brian Dennehy in a scene from the Wisdom Bridge Theatre production of Ron Hutchinson’s “Rat in the Skull” in 1985.
James Lancaster (left) and Brian Dennehy in a scene from the Wisdom Bridge Theatre production of Ron Hutchinson’s “Rat in the Skull” in 1985.
File

The two men became friends and frequent collaborators.

“We bonded over Irish Catholicism, alcoholism running through our family, and a love of Eugene O’Neill,” said Falls. “From the beginning, and I know this sounds crazy, but Brian said: ‘We’re going to do a lot of plays together. We’re going to do the big ones, the really difficult ones.’ I said ‘OK.’ ”

Falls kicked off his artistic directorship with Dennehy in Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo.”

“He wanted to be challenged,” Falls said. “He wanted to take on monsters. We wanted to wrestle with these plays. Our careers were intertwined all these years.”

Pamela Payton-Wright (Mary Cavan Tyrone) and Brian Dennehy (James Tyrone) in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night directed by Robert Falls at Goodman Theatre (February 22 – April 6, 2002).  
Pamela Payton-Wright (as Mary Cavan Tyrone) and Brian Dennehy (as James Tyrone) in a scene from Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” directed by Robert Falls at Goodman Theatre in 2002.

For Dennehy, the movies were the day job, what he did between performing across the world.

In a statement following Dennehy’s death, Falls said the actor “became my most valued artistic collaborator, my muse, and my close friend. Brian’s interpretations of the great tragic figures of 20th century drama — Hickey in ‘The Iceman Cometh,’ Brecht’s ‘Galileo,’ James Tyrone in ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night,’ Willy Loman in ‘Death of a Salesman,’ and a host of others — won him critical acclaim, a raft of awards, and recognition as one of the finest stage actors of his generation.”

And while he ranged the world, there was never any question where his dramatic home was, and he brought to these classic American roles a unique muscular physicality.

Chicago actor-director David Cromer, who starred opposite Dennehy in the 2002 Goodman Theatre’s production of “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” remembered the actor as one of the most giving and generous he has worked with. Cromer described Dennehy as a “tower,” when asked to sum up the actor in one word.

“There was this titanic American stage actor who could just manage these performances of scale and depth that we’re not even really used to anymore, and he did them all in Chicago,” Cromer said. “That was where he wanted to go. He worked lots of other places but all of those [iconic performances] were always him and Bob [Falls] saying ‘I’m gonna do this and then I’m gonna go to [Chicago blues club] Kingston Mines afterwards.’ [Laughing] He’d go to Kingston Mines every night [after the show]. I think they stayed open until Brian was ready to leave.”

Dennehy, who lived in Connecticut, returned the affection that Chicago feels for him.

“I love Chicago,” he told the Sun-Times in 2002. “People are very enthusiastic. Chicagoans work and play hard, and they like their lives. Those are the type of people you want in an audience. They want to see you succeed. They’re not waiting to take your kidneys out and munch on them during intermission. ... I’ve said this for years: Chicago is the best city in America. Chicagoans are very lucky to live here.”

As for the Falls-Dennehy magic, Cromer recalled something the legendary director told him during the run of “Long Day’s Journey”: “Bob once said, ‘I always thought as a young director that I was going to one day find a muse who was probably some fascinating, strange, mysterious woman. [Laughs] I didn’t know it was going to be this 300-pound, grizzled, furious linebacker.’”

Falls said that Dennehy did not die from COVID-19. His daughter Kathleen asked that anybody who wants to honor his life consider making a donation in his name to Feeding America.

Contributing: Miriam Di Nunzio