Brian Dennehy, tough-guy character actor who found fame in the Rambo film First Blood – obituary
Brian Dennehy, who has died aged 81, was a hulking character actor and former US Marine who seemed to play every tough-cookie supporting role in American film in the 1980s, before belatedly proving himself to be an outstanding stage performer.
Dennehy frequently played cops, most notably in the inaugural Rambo film, First Blood (1982). As the small-town sheriff pursuing the soldier-turned-drifter John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), Dennehy was the reactionary villain of the piece, but he also managed to convey the character’s fundamental decency.
He brought similar nuances to his portrayals of dogged police detectives in the thrillers Gorky Park (1983) and F/X (1986); the corrupt Sheriff Cobb in the Western Silverado (1985); and the blustering and possibly homicidal district attorney in Presumed Innocent (1990).
He proved his versatility, too, when cast against type as a genial alien befriending a group of Florida pensioners in the popular comedy Cocoon (1985). He based his performance on the ingenuous children’s entertainer, Mr Rogers.
Having made enough money to put his children through college, Dennehy began to pursue more challenging parts, and had a rare lead role as the obese, cuckolded Kracklite in Peter Greenaway’s art-house picture The Belly of an Architect (1987).
Initially he wanted to turn the script down: “Kracklite is pompous, arrogant, pretentious … I hated it because it was too close to me.” But the warmth he brought to the part made the film almost uniquely moving in Greenaway’s chilly oeuvre.
Having neglected the theatre for several years, he embarked on a campaign to persuade Peter Brook to cast him as the oafish Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard (Majestic, Brooklyn, 1988) – “I would not be denied.” His faith in his suitability for the role was rewarded with excellent reviews.
He began a long association with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where he played Willy Loman in a 1998 production of Death of a Salesman; he went on to win a Tony when it transferred to Broadway, a Golden Globe when it was televised, and an Olivier award when it went to the Lyric Theatre in London.
“I’d always pictured Loman as a wizened little fellow. Dennehy is a great bear of a man, which makes his stooped shoulders, mental confusion, and sudden moments of raging anger and grief all the more moving,” wrote The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer.
“The contradiction of being an American actor is I think I’ve done the best work that I’ve done in the last five or 10 years and in terms of making money it’s been the least productive part of my career,” Dennehy told the Telegraph.
He cemented his late-flowering status as a leading stage actor in 2003 when he won a second Tony Award as James Tyrone, opposite Vanessa Redgrave, in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Brian Manion Dennehy was born in Connecticut on July 9 1938, the son of Edward Dennehy, a journalist, and his wife Hannah. His was an Irish Catholic family: “I was serious about becoming a priest until I discovered sex.”
His father discouraged his acting ambitions, and Brian concentrated on American Football; he claimed that he started out a mediocre player, but he worked so diligently on his game that he won a scholarship to Columbia University in New York.
He did not quite fit in with either the sporty or the arty sets, and decided he “needed a place where I could be lost for a while”. He spent five years in the Marines, serving in South Korea and Japan, before returning to complete his BA in History.
He began to take roles in community theatre productions, but he was 35 before he could support himself through acting; in the meantime he had worked as a salesman – good training for Willy Loman, he said later – a truck driver, a bartender and, most soul-destroyingly, a stockbroker.
In the late 1970s he started to appear on television, with bit parts in Kojak, M*A*S*H, Lou Grant and Dallas. His burly physique won him his first film role, as a football player in Semi-Tough (1977), starring Burt Reynolds.
His other film parts included the sympathetic bartender in 10 (1979), Romeo’s father in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), and the voice of Django, a rat, in the Pixar animation Ratatouille (2007). Latterly he tended to play softer-hearted characters than in his prime, including a war veteran who befriends a shy Asian-American boy in the recently released Driveways.
For his work on television he received six Emmy nominations; his most notable part was the serial murderer John Wayne Gacy in To Catch a Killer (1992). (Gacy wrote to him from prison, protesting his innocence: “It was a letter of disappointment in the fact that one of his favorite actors had participated in this calumny.”)
Dennehy also played Holroyd opposite Colin Firth and Albert Finney in the BBC miniseries of Conrad’s Nostromo (1996), and guest-starred in Miami Vice, The West Wing and 30 Rock.
An unstoppable talker and a proud host of raucous parties, Dennehy had a tendency towards self-mythology, and in 1998 was forced to apologise for having falsely claimed in several interviews that he had served, and been wounded, in Vietnam. He was invariably professional in his work, however, and much liked for his geniality and generosity.
Brian Dennehy is survived by his wife Jennifer Arnott, whom he married in 1988, and by their son and daughter, as well as three daughters from an earlier marriage.
Brian Dennehy, born July 9 1938, died April 15 2020