'A titan of an actor': Brian Dennehy remembered by Clare Higgins

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

I first met Brian in New York in 2003 when I was doing Vincent in Brixton on Broadway and he came backstage to say he’d enjoyed it. Two years later I was gobsmacked to be cast as Linda opposite him in Death of a Salesman in London. Brian had already won a Tony award for his performance in New York. He’d been a complete sensation. Arthur Miller adored him. He’d say: “Some people think Willy Loman should be small but Brian’s the biggest guy – and the bigger they come, the harder they fall.”

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When he came to London, Brian didn’t just hang on to his Tony-winning performance. He chucked it up in the air. Here he was rehearsing with a mostly British cast and he said: “Give me whatever you’ve got.” Talk about no ego. Brian had a huge heart and the humility to be a great actor. He had this incredible generosity to other actors on stage – he knew you’re doing something bigger than yourself. We were talking for Arthur Miller. After one performance he said to me that this is what church ought to be – it’s people getting together in a dark place under the canopy of the greatest 20th-century playwright and we’re all in it together.

Brian was a jazz fanatic. In the scene where Willy is with his employer in the office, when he knows his life has finished, he would tap the set, use his feet on the floor and play that stage like a jazz musician.

Douglas Henshall, Clare Higgins and Jonathan Aris in Death of a Salesman at the Lyric theatre, London, in 2005.
Douglas Henshall, Clare Higgins and Jonathan Aris in Death of a Salesman at the Lyric theatre, London, in 2005. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

I’ve never run to work for a Wednesday matinee but I did with Brian. We did Salesman for six months in the West End, and at the end of every performance there was a sound I’d never heard before: English men weeping helplessly. I used to hand out Kleenex. Men would say: “My dad was like that.”

Politically, we were poles apart. He’d tell me: “You goddamn socialist … but I love your NHS.” I’d say: “Brian, you’re such a big Chicago bullshitter.” He’d reply: “You got me, mamma!” The air went blue when he was talking. After every matinee he’d say: “My goddamn motherfuckin’ knees are letting me down.” He was in his late 60s and they’d been replaced with titanium ones.

One afternoon, just before we opened, Brian told me how much the play meant to him and how he’d been scared to do it in England. I can remember his face when he won his Olivier award. He was a titan of an actor – big, brash but so gentle and understanding.