Brian Dennehy and the Gift of Presence

Barrel-chested, square-jawed, large-domed, and all around physically formidable character actor Brian Dennehy was an unlikely candidate for stardom despite his obvious thespian gifts. Sure, it’s no surprise that Dennehy had a long career as an actor, it’s just that it’s amazing how far he was able to stretch his opportunities considering he looked like a guy who should have spent his life playing nothing but thumb breakers and longshoremen.

He could have easily ended up in that heap of talented actors who you look at when they appear on film and think, “what was he in?” The kind of guy you knew you’d seen before, but you weren’t sure where.

Whether by sheer talent or force of will (quite likely both), Dennehy persevered against those constraints. His first few years in acting consisted mostly of small parts in films like Foul Play and Looking For Mr. Goodbar, as well as guesting on episodes shows like M*A*S*H and Kojak.

His big break would come in 1982 when he was cast as the malevolent sheriff who tortured and then tracked down Sylvester Stallone’s Vietnam veteran, John Rambo, in First Blood. It’s easy to forget what a terrific little B movie First Blood is. The relentlessly overblown sequels it begat contribute to the diminishing of its reputation. As effective as Stallone was in the lead, Dennehy is perhaps more key to the film’s dramatic success. It’s not like the script went out if its way to explain why Dennehy’s sheriff was so virulently against Stallone’s drifter. Dennehy was able to make the question moot by nothing more than attitude. It was as if a nastiness settled in this man and his behavior needed no explanation. He simply was.

That sort of ingrained untrustworthiness was one of my favorite things about Dennehy. Much like another great character actor, JT Walsh, a smile from Dennehy was to be regarded with suspicion. That little smirk in his grin barely concealed a possible turn towards wickedness that simply couldn’t be ignored. Dennehy made you feel uneasy, unsafe and he hardly seemed to be trying.

After the success of First Blood, Dennehy went on a fine run for the rest of the decade, making strong impressions in quality films like Never Cry Wolf, Gorky Park, Twice in a Lifetime, Silverado, Cocoon, and Return to Snowy River. The beefy actor even scored a handful of significant lead roles such as the police officer in the sleeper hit F/X, in Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect, and the underseen film noir, Best Seller alongside James Woods.

That stretch of peak ended in 1990 with another fine performance in Presumed Innocent with Harrison Ford. Dennehy had the occasional uptick after that on film (notably in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and in the cult farce Tommy Boy), but his greatest successes over the remainder of his career were typically found on stage and on television.

From 1990 to 2000, Dennehy was nominated for five Emmys (two as a lead and three in support) for his performances on movies and in mini-series. His greatest triumph was probably as Willy Loman in the 1999 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which won him a Tony for best actor in a play (he would win a second Tony in the same category for a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night). A 2000 TV movie of Salesman earned him that fifth Emmy nomination as well.

While many think of Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Willy Loman as the gold standard, Dennehy’s was just as good — if not better. To see a man with such a powerful physical presence laid so low by a world leaving him behind was perhaps more devastating than what it felt like to see the same fate befall a smaller man. Couldn’t this Willy Loman just raise his voice and take the world by the throat? No, he could not. And Dennehy’s performance was all the more powerful for the natural largesse he brought to that failure. Dennehy’s burly bellow into the darkness as Willy Loman was unnerving, frightful, and unforgettable.

As a true working actor, Dennehy performed steadily over the last twenty years of his career. He could be found just recently doing a multi-episode stint on the hit show The Blindspot.

In every role, no matter how large or small, Dennehy was felt. At some point in his life he was given the gift of presence. Never once did he waste it.

Brian Dennehy died today, he was 81 years old.


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