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Brian Dennehy, Versatile Performer in ‘Tommy Boy,’ ‘Death of a Salesman,’ Dead at 81

Character actor won two Tonys, one Golden Globe during prolific career


Brian Dennehy, the prolific character actor who could easily jump between comedy and drama on stage and screen, died Wednesday from natural causes in Connecticut. He was 81.

Dennehy’s daughter, Elizabeth Dennehy, confirmed his death Thursday on Twitter, writing, “It is with heavy hearts we announce that our father, Brian passed away last night from natural causes, not COVID-related. Larger than life, generous to a fault, a proud and devoted father and grandfather, he will be missed by his wife Jennifer, family and many friends.”

For more than 40 years, Dennehy took on an array of roles in film, television, and the theater. He was widely known for playing Big Tom Callahan in Chris Farley and David Spade’s 1995 comedy classic, Tommy Boy, while he also won a Golden Globe for his starring turn as Willy Loman in the 2000 television-film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death a Salesman — a partial adaptation of the 1999 Broadway revival Dennehy also starred in and for which he won his first Tony Award for Best Actor. He nabbed his second trophy in that same category for playing James Tyrone in the 2003 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

Dennehy was a broad-chested, unmistakable presence in whatever project he popped up in (prior to his acting career, his size served him as a football player at Columbia University). He earned a graduate degree from Yale’s drama school and began his professional acting career in the late Seventies with an assortment of small roles in TV shows like Kojak, Serpico and M.A.S.H. and films like Semi-Tough and F.I.S.T. His breakthrough came in 1982 when he reunited with his F.I.S.T. co-star Sylvester Stallone in the first Rambo flick, First Blood, in which he played Sheriff Will Teasle.

Over the next several decades, Dennehy turned in memorable performances in films like Ron Howard’s Cocoon (he was the alien overseeing the fountain of youth located next to a Florida retirement home), Robert Mandel’s F/X (a police detective investigating a fake murder), Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (Rome’s father, Ted Montague) and Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (Joseph, father to a screenwriter named Rick, played by Christian Bale). His TV work never slowed either, whether he was doing multi-episode acs on Dynasty, or popping up as a guest star on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and 30 Rock.

Dennehy also became a go-to actor for TV miniseries and movies during the Nineties, picking up Emmy nods for his performances in projects like To Catch a Killer (he played John Wayne Gacy), The Burden of Proof and Murder in the Heartland. And while stage acting was always a part of Dennehy’s repertoire — he frequently appeared in shows in Chicago — it became an even more central tenet of his career after he made his Broadway debut in 1995. Even as he entered his late Seventies and early Eighties, Dennehy continued to work regularly. He popped up on TV shows like The Blacklist and Hap and Leonard, and recently appeared in Michael Mayer’s 2018 film adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull.

In a 2018 interview with The AV Club as part of its “Random Roles” series, Dennehy looked back on his extensive career and reminisced about the hectic early days, and how they seemed to be setting the stage for something greater: “Those were great times,” he said. “I had a lot of fun, and I didn’t make any money. I was jumping on the subway all the time. I was usually doing a play, so that meant I had to be released from the TV show by 6 or 7 p.m. so I could get to the theater. And it was just a harum-scarum, crazy-ass existence, but of course, I was reasonably young, and it was fun. And it all kind of seemed to be leading some place, so I had a good time. The important thing is you do what you want to do and you do it well, and you have a good time. Okay? One thing about my life is I’ve had a hell of a good time. And I’m glad I did.”