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Brian Dennehy, Tony-winning stage, screen actor, dies at 81

Known for his broad frame, booming voice and ability to play good guys and bad guys with equal aplomb, Dennehy won two Tony Awards, a Golden Globe and was nominated for six Emmys.

The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center Honors Nathan Lane With 15th Annual Monte Cristo Award - Inside
Actor Brian Dennehy speaks onstage during The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center Honors Nathan Lane With 15th Annual Monte Cristo Award - Inside on April 13, 2015 in New York City.
Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center

NEW YORK — Brian Dennehy, the burly actor who started in films as a macho heavy and later in his career won plaudits for his stage work in plays by William Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, has died. He was 81.

Dennehy died Wednesday night of natural causes in New Haven, Connecticut, according to Kate Cafaro of ICM Partners, the actor’s representatives.

Known for his broad frame, booming voice and ability to play good guys and bad guys with equal aplomb, Dennehy won two Tony Awards, a Golden Globe and was nominated for six Emmys. He was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2010.

Tributes came from Hollywood and Broadway, including from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who said he saw Dennehy twice onstage and called the actor “a colossus.” Actor Michael McKean said Dennehy was “brilliant and versatile, a powerhouse actor and a very nice man as well.” Dana Delany, who appeared in a movie with Dennehy, said: “They don’t make his kind anymore.”

Among his 40-odd films, he played a sheriff who jailed Rambo in “First Blood,” a serial killer in “To Catch a Killer,” and a corrupt sheriff gunned down by Kevin Kline in “Silverado.” He also had some benign roles: an auto parts exec in “Tommy Boy,” the bartender who consoles Dudley Moore in “10” and the levelheaded leader of aliens in “Cocoon” and its sequel.

Brian Dennehy co-starred in “Silverado” (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Eventually Dennehy wearied of the studio life. “Movies used to be fun,” he observed in an interview. “They took care of you, first-class. Those days are gone.”

Dennehy had a long connection with Chicago’s Goodman Theater, which had a reputation for heavy drama. He appeared in Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo” in 1986 and later Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard” at far lower salaries than he earned in Hollywood. In 1990 he played the role of Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” a play he reprised at the Goodman with Nathan Lane in 2012 and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2013.

“Brian Dennehy was a great actor and a great friend to me for over 30 years,” Lane said in a statement Thursday. “Never more so than when we acted together in ‘The Iceman Cometh’ for [director] Bob Falls in Chicago and then later at BAM. He was my biggest supporter and a loving mentor through that whole experience and I will always love him and never forget him for that, as well as his fierce brilliance, wit, and that wild Irish twinkle in his eye.”

Brian Dennehy (left) portrayed onetime syndicalist-anarchist Larry Slade opposite Nathan Lane as Theodore “Hickey” Hickman in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” at the Goodman Theatre.
Liz Lauren

In 1998, Dennehy appeared on Broadway in the classic role of Willy Loman, the worn-out hustler in Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and won the Tony for his performance.

“What this actor goes for is close to an everyman quality, with a grand emotional expansiveness that matches his monumental physique,” wrote Ben Brantley in his review of the play for The New York Times. “Yet these emotions ring so unerringly true that Mr. Dennehy seems to kidnap you by force, trapping you inside Willy’s psyche.”

He was awarded another Tony in 2003 for his role in O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” At the podium, after thanking his family, co-stars and producers and complementing his competitors, he said: “The words of Eugene O’Neill — they’ve got to be heard. They’ve got to be heard, and heard and heard. And thank you so much for giving us the chance to enunciate them.”

Dennehy was born July 9, 1938, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the first of three sons. His venture into acting began when he was 14 in New York City and a student at a Brooklyn high school. He acted the title role in “Macbeth.” He played football on a scholarship at Columbia University, and he served five years in the U.S. Marines.

Back in New York City in 1965, he pursued acting while working at side jobs. “I learned first-hand how a truck driver lives, what a bartender does, how a salesman thinks,” he told The New York Times in 1989. “I had to make a life inside those jobs, not just pretend.”

His parents — Ed Dennehy, an editor for The Associated Press in New York, and Hannah Dennehy, a nurse — could never understand why his son chose to act. “Anyone raised in a first or second generation immigrant family knows that you are expected to advance the ball down the field,” Dennehy told Columbia College Today in 1999. “Acting didn’t qualify in any way.”

The 6-foot-3-inch Dennehy went to Hollywood for his first movie, “Semi-Tough” starring Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson. Dennehy was paid $10,000 a week for 10 weeks’ work, which he thought “looked like it was all the money in the world.”

Among his films: “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” “Foul Play,” “Little Miss Marker,” “Split Image,” “Gorky Park,” “Legal Eagles,” “Miles from Home,” “Return to Snowy River,” “Presumed Innocent,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Assault on Precinct 13.” He played the father of Chris Farley’s titular character in the 1995 comedy “Tommy Boy.”

Brian Dennehy played children’s entertainer and serial killer John Wayne Gacy in the 1991 TV movie “To Catch a Killer.”
Tribune Entertainment

He played serial murderer John Wayne Gacy in the 1991 TV movie “To Catch a Killer” and union leader Jackie Presser in the HBO special “Teamster Boss” a year later. “I try to play villains as if they’re good guys and good guys as if they’re villains,” he said in 1992

He worked deep into his 70s, in such projects as SundanceTV’s “Hap and Leonard,” the film “The Seagull” with Elisabeth Moss and Annette Bening and the play “Endgame” by Samuel Beckett at the Long Wharf Theatre. His last foray on Broadway was in “Love Letters” opposite Mia Farrow in 2014.

“Just devastated to learn that the magnificent Brian Dennehy has died. There is no one I enjoyed working with more. And there are few friends as valued in my life,” Farrow wrote Thursday.

He is survived by his second wife, costume designer Jennifer Arnott and their two children, Cormac and Sarah. He also is survived by three daughters — Elizabeth, Kathleen and Deirdre — from a previous marriage to Judith Scheff.