Brian Dennehy

Bringing O’Neill To Life

Actor Brian Dennehy will be honored with the 2010 IAW&A Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award next Monday (Dan Littlejohn/©2001 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved)

Mike Fitzpatrick Talks To Actor Brian Dennehy

Actor Brian Dennehy, the barrel-chested behemoth of Broadway and beyond, is to be honored next Monday (October 18th) by the Irish American Writers & Artists Inc., a non-profit group whose main aim is to promote and celebrate the work of Irish Americans in the arts, at a special ceremony to be held in New York City.

Dennehy, a forty-year veteran of stage and screen, is to be presented with the 2010 IAW&A Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award, for his continued commitment to bringing to life the roles created by the legendary New York-born playwright.

It is just the second time the award is to be presented, having been established in 2009, in an effort to recognize an artist whose performance best exemplifies O’Neill’s illustrious body of work.

The winner of the inaugural award in 2009, was William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘Ironweed’, and this year’s event, which will be staged at popular midtown Manhattan venue, Rosie O’Grady’s (just blocks from where O’Neill was born), will be attended by numerous renowned figures of the Irish and Irish-American writing and performing fraternities, including William Kennedy himself, Irish actor Gabriel Byrne and writers TJ English, Michael Patrick MacDonald and Malachy McCourt.

The Connecticut-born Dennehy has performed dozens of memorable roles throughout the course of his acting career, ranging from Sheriff Will Teasle, the nemesis of Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo in the 1982 hit, ‘First Blood’, to that of Big Tom Callahan in the 1995 Chris Farley vehicle, ‘Tommy Boy’, and the corrupt lawman, Sheriff Cobb, in 1985’s ‘Silverado’, in which he starred alongside Kevin Costner, Kevin Kline, Danny Glover and John Cleese.

He’s also featured in dozens of made-for-television movies, including his starring role in 1992’s ‘To Catch A Killer’, where his stellar performance as serial killer John Wayne Gacy earned him an Emmy nomination (one of six such Emmy nods to date).

His role in the 2000 televised version of another great American play, the Arthur Miller-penned ‘Death of a Salesman’, catapulted him back onto the pages of the arts publications, as his portrayal of Willy Loman saw him again nominated for an Emmy Award in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie category, while he won Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globe and PGA Awards for the role.

It is his continued work bringing the plays of Eugene O’Neill to life however, that he is often remembered, something, the actor himself is probably quite comfortable with.

It’s no walk in the park though, even for someone of Dennehy’s wealth of experience and knowledge regarding the work of the playwright. Speaking to The Irish Examiner recently, upon hearing of his upcoming award, Dennehy told us how challenging a role in a Eugene O’Neill play is:

“O’Neill has always been fascinating to me for lots of reasons. Being an Irish-American, was one of them. He’s a very difficult writer to perform.

“He even said repeatedly throughout his career, and he wrote, certainly, that the actual performance of his lines, from his characters, were not his problem, they were the directors.

“His writing is complicated, it’s packed with qualifying clauses and afterthoughts that a writer might have to try to squeeze into one sentence, it’s not easy stuff (for an actor) to do, which is one of the reasons why (his plays) are not done very often, and when they are, they’re not always done very well.

“However, it’s beautiful and extremely powerful writing. So, it’s endlessly fascinating.

O’Neill never does anything easy, he doesn’t ever give the actors a break, he doesn’t give the director a break. He requires very imaginative and constant attention to what’s going on, so a performance can work.

“The passion and the intellect have to be constantly engaged, there are no easy ways to do it, there’s only a hard way”.

In his sixty-odd motion pictures and over 100 appearances in television series and made-for-TV movies, Dennehy has brought an aura of working class realism to many of his roles.

The former marine, truck-driver, bartender and salesman has proved able to bring qualities and personality traits from each of his former professions to his longest-held position as one of America’s most popular and recognizable character actors.

He has proven himself to be at ease either beside lesser-known but equally committed performers on the stage, or alongside leading lights of the Hollywood set.

Indeed, over the course of his career, Brian Dennehy has featured alongside, as well as the aforementioned individuals Kline, Costner, Glover, Stallone and Farley, Don Ameche, Lee Marvin, William Hurt, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Ethan Hawke, Leonardo DiCaprio and a host of others.

Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in July 1938, Dennehy’s family relocated to Long Island when he was a child, where he went on to become a football star at Chaminade High School, in the town of Mineola.

His football talents earned him a scholarship to Columbia University, and after graduating from there, he joined the US Marines, where he served for four years.

He went on to work odd jobs as he enrolled in Yale Drama School, and it is believed that much of this working class background has found its way into the roles he’s been offered over the years.

On film and television he has gone on to portray cops, firemen, union organizers and, just for good measure, a sadistic killer of over thirty young men who dressed as a clown in his spare time (‘To Catch A Killer’).

Of his love for the theater, Dennehy said: “It’s funny how O’Neill (continues to be) rediscovered. And I’m always amazed how theater somehow hangs on. It gets battered and the crap gets beaten out of it. But somehow it always hangs on, and a revival will come along and make people think, so that’s what theater’s all about.

“O’Neill was around for the beginnings of television, and he understood the art form of theater, he also understood, and this is important, that what happens in a theater, can only happen in a theater.

“If you see an extraordinary production of Chekhov, or an extraordinary production of O’Neill, or of Shakespeare, something happens to you, and I don’t mean just people like me that love the theater, something happens to you that can’t happen to you in a movie theater, or in front of a television screen, I don’t give a damn how good they are. It’s not the same thing.”

No stranger to Irish literature, he’s featured in several challenging theater roles created by Irish writers, including well-received parts in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ and Brian Friel’s ‘Translations’ and ‘Inherit The Wind’.

In the early 1990s he made waves in Ireland, by commencing upon his ongoing relationship with the work of Eugene O’Neill, by starring as Hickey in the Abbey Theater’s production of ‘The Iceman Cometh’.

A time he enjoyed immensely, speaking of the performance, despite it being a very dark play in general, Dennehy once claimed that the Irish audiences understood what O’Neill was getting at, and roared with laughter, having recognized where the humor was coming from.

Two Tony Awards, both times for Best Lead Actor in a Play soon followed, the first for his part in 1999’s ‘Death of a Salesman’, and his second in 2003, for his performance in ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’, both directed by Robert Falls, productions which had originally been staged at Chicago’s Goodman Theater.

He’s also renowned as a Shakespearean actor, having taken on roles in ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ in recent years.

As well as the award-winning side to his persona, Dennehy also holds the rather unique distinction of having been lampooned by two hit animated shows, ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘South Park’ (the latter in the motion picture, ‘South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut’.

As far removed from the likes of O’Neill creations he’s starred as, such as; Willy Loman (‘Death of a Salesman’), Hickey (‘The Iceman Cometh’) and Erie Smith (‘Hughie’), as one would have thought possible.

With no plans on slowing down just yet, the 73-year-old Dennehy’s next move, after Monday’s awards presentation of course, will be to begin preparation for his role in ‘Twelfth Night’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, as well as a leading role in Harold Pinter’s ‘The Homecoming’.

For now however, it’s on to Rosie O’Grady’s, in midtown Manhattan, where Brian Dennehy will be recognized once more for his services to the theater, and in particular, for his ongoing role in maintaining the high standards of Irish-American literature set by Eugene O’Neill.

Leave a Reply