As you’ve probably heard by now, Brian Dennehy recently passed away, age 81. I always liked him. Here’s a 1996 cinebio no one got to read (no mention of his Broadway triumph as Willie Loman, just around the corner), and I hope not far away you’ll find a 1985 Film Comment piece I wrote about Silverado. I won’t pretend it’s about Brian Dennehy, but in it as in the movie, he looms large. —RTJ
Birth: July 9, 1939; Bridgeport, Connecticut
Education: Columbia and Yale
Bearlike, silver-haired actor whose grin may betoken shrewdness, affability, or menace, Brian Dennehy shaped up as one of the premier character actors of the 1980s. In the Marines, he was the radio voice of Dear America from Vietnam in 1965–66, after which he returned to postgraduate study, odd jobs, and then roles Off- and on Broadway; his big break came with David Rabe’s barrack-room drama Streamers. Making his film debut as a dumb, inadvertently dangerous footballer in Semi-Tough (1977), he worked steadily in films and television—perhaps most impressively, in Michael Mann’s TV-movie The Jericho Mile (1979) and as Don the Mazatlán bartender who listens so well to Dudley Moore in Blake Edwards’s ‘10’ (1979). And he really should have had a 1985 supporting actor Oscar for either Walter, the leader of the benign extraterrestrials in Cocoon, or Cobb, the amiable villain who just about steals Silverado from an all-star cast. He wasn’t even nominated, and starring roles in The Check Is in the Mail (1985), F/X (1986), and The Last of the Finest (1990) got him nowhere. Peter Greenaway tapped him for the blustering lead of his art film The Belly of an Architect (1987), which brought Dennehy a Chicago Film Festival award as best actor. But Dennehy is a cagey pro and he knew in his belly where his best chance lay: in television, where he has reigned as king of the TV-movie and miniseries since 1990. His performance in 1993’s Foreign Affairs, opposite Joanne Woodward, won him a Cable ACE award.