Remembering Tony Award-Winning Character Actor Brian Dennehy

Apr 24, 2020
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Brian Dennehy, the burly actor who often played emotionally vulnerable characters, died last week of natural causes. He was 81. An accomplished character actor, Dennehy was a recognizable face in numerous movies and TV shows. But he was best known for his work in the theater, earning Tony Awards for his leading roles in "Death Of A Salesman" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

Our TV critic David Bianculli interviewed Dennehy in 1999, when he was then starring as a world-weary Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death Of A Salesman."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEATH OF A SALESMAN")

BRIAN DENNEHY: (As Willy Loman) I met a salesman in the Parker House. His name was Dave Singleman. And he was 84 years old. and He had drummed merchandise in 31 states. Old Dave (laughter), he'd go up to his room, you understand, he'd put on his green velvet slippers - I'll never forget - and pick up his phone and call the buyers. And without ever leaving his room at the age of 84, he made his living (laughter).

Of course, when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. I mean, what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of 84, 20, 30 different cities, pick up a phone and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people, you know? When he died - by the way, he died the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers in the smoker of the New York, New Haven and Hartford, going into Boston.

DAVIES: The role of Willy Loman is grueling. At the time, Dennehy was 61 and had no understudy. David Bianculli asked him what it was like to perform that part so many times a week, month after month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DENNEHY: Doing a demanding role in the theater over a long period of time is like having a bad case of Lyme disease or the flu.

DAVID BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

DENNEHY: You find yourself taking thin soup and resting a lot and then getting up and going to the theater so that you have that explosive energy that you need for the three-hour periods that the play runs. And then after that, you collapse. And you go back to your very monklike existence. I mean, what you do is the play. And you're doing very little else. It's a grind. It's tough.

At the same time, it certainly represents, for me, the kind of culmination of many years of being in the business and many years of life. I mean, Willy is a part that has more to do with your life experiences than it does with your acting experiences. And I suspect it would be very difficult for someone 35 or 40 years old to play Willy Loman. I think you've got to have the age and the scars and the toughened hide to play Willy, to understand him.

BIANCULLI: Is there a moment in "Death Of A Salesman" or was there a moment in preparing for "Death Of A Salesman" where the character of Willy Loman really hit you personally?

DENNEHY: Well, there was a moment in rehearsal - I had an awful lot of trouble. I always have trouble in the first few weeks because I'm struggling with the lines, and I'm trying to rationalize what it is I'm doing. And this is why you have directors. And this is why Bob is such a good director. And I kept saying to him, I don't understand this guy. I don't understand what's going on here. I don't understand why he does this. And even though the rehearsals were going very well, I had no idea why certain things were happening.

And Bob said, don't try to understand it. Willy does not lead an examined life. He's not capable of it. And he's afraid to examine his life because if he does, he'll see all kinds of things that he doesn't want to see. What Willy does is live by instinct. He lives by a bumper sticker philosophy. And he keeps lowering his head and just going straight ahead in his life. There's just an instinctive, primal quality to the way he lives. when I realized that and I realized that that was right, it became clearer. Acting is strange in that way. It's very hard to hold. Its quicksilver.

There's a great story about Maggie Smith when she did Desdemona to Olivier's famous "Othello." After the show had been running about four or five months, Olivier tried all kinds of interesting things. He made himself into a black man. And he lowered his voice. And he did all kinds of interesting physical things in order to get this Othello. And one night, it all came together. And it was extraordinary. It was just an extraordinary performance.

And Maggie Smith ran down to Olivier's dressing room to tell him that. And she walked in, and Olivier was sobbing, uncontrollably sobbing at his makeup table. And she was shocked. And she said, Larry, what's the matter? She said, why are you so upset? That was brilliant. I've never seen anything like that. And he turned to her. And he says yes, I know. And I don't know why.

BIANCULLI: Oh, wow.

DENNEHY: And at the end of the day, that's what happens. You never know why.

BIANCULLI: To go back to how you got on the stage in the first place, I understand you were raised Irish Catholic in Queens. And in high school, you were both on the football team and in the high school theater. Is that right?

DENNEHY: Well, we didn't have a high school theater program when I started high school. I had a wonderful teacher named Chris Sweeny, who is still a friend of mine and still very much a part of my life. I was one of those very, very fortunate young people who had an extraordinary mentor at the right age. I was 13 or 14. And I was a complete wiseass. Chris realized that there was some energy there - I wouldn't call it talent at that point, but energy - and he was interested in the theater himself. So he started a theater department at this Catholic boys - all-boys school. And we started out by doing "Macbeth."

(LAUGHTER)

DENNEHY: And I was 13 or 14 years old. And we did a shortened version of "Macbeth" for the student body, which, again, was a bunch of tough Irish Catholic boys - 1952, 1953.

BIANCULLI: Right, really wanted to hear Shakespeare.

DENNEHY: Yeah, they really wanted to see me play Macbeth. And people always say, boy, you had a lot of guts to go out there and play Macbeth in front of this audience. And I said, can I tell you something? Not nearly as much guts as the little 13-year-old freshman who had to play Lady Macbeth.

(LAUGHTER)

DENNEHY: He was really brave because he put on a dress. And he was good, too. He was very good. That took guts. Anyway, as any great teacher does, Chris opened a door and showed me something on the other side that I didn't even know existed.

BIANCULLI: Even before you became an actor for real, what actors and actresses inspired you?

DENNEHY: Well, I think as a kid I liked - you know, I loved John Wayne. It's only in recent years that I've come to realize what an interesting actor he was. John Wayne had the essential quality that an actor must have, which is the ability to suspend disbelief.

Now, later on, of course, I, like many of my peers, was enormously affected by Marlon Brando. I remember vividly seeing, at the age of 14 or whatever, "On The Waterfront." And for the first time - because it's not something that John Wayne could do for me or Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart or any of those guys - for the first time when I saw that picture, I realized that there were people in the business who looked like me and who sounded like me and who had - who came from places like I came from. Before that time, acting was like ballet. It was something that I could appreciate but never could consider myself part of. But all of a sudden, acting became a possibility because there were people in this movie doing it that I knew were actors, but they weren't like no actors I'd ever seen before.

BIANCULLI: One of the things that I really love about your career is that you don't seem to have any snobbery about stage versus movies versus TV.

DENNEHY: That's a very kind way of putting it.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: But looking back, each of those areas requires something, I think, very different in an actor. And what are the frustrations and freedoms of each? I mean, how is stage acting different from TV acting, different than movie acting when you're putting together a role?

DENNEHY: Well, for one, you get paid a hell of a lot less. Once I became a professional actor - and it took a long time; I really wasn't making a living at this until I was in my late 30s - I was playing catchup. I had kids. I had kids who were getting ready to go to college. And I knew I had the responsibility, which I did not resent, to make sure that they had good educations. I had a wife that had made great sacrifices over the years, whom I knew it was not fair to ask any further sacrifices of.

So I made decisions in those days to do certain things that I probably shouldn't have done. I did a lot of television. But I was paying the bills, and I was sending my kids to school and eventually trying to help them buy houses and so forth. And I have no regrets about that. I learned a lot doing television. I learned how to work fast. I learned how to rewrite stuff in a hurry that was barely written and had a good time and then certainly made a good living at it. I got a chance to be in some really good movies. And I learned that part of the business, to see a real good filmmaker work, like Alan Pakula or Larry Kasdan or even Peter Greenaway. So I had a wide-ranging career. I've never been as careful about my choices as I should have been. And there are some regrets about that, but not too many.

BIANCULLI: As you've come to know Arthur Miller, what advice or compliments or anything has he given you that really registered?

DENNEHY: Well, he's very careful with his compliments, but I - you know, I know he likes this production. I know he likes this Willy. It's not Manny Newman, who is the real Willy. But he said one thing. He didn't say it to me, but he said it to one interviewer. And I treasure it, and I will always treasure it. What he said - he said, well, I really admire Brian because he goes out there every night, and he falls on his sword (laughter). And he's exactly right. That's what I do.

BIANCULLI: Well, Brian, I want to thank you very much for that production and that performance and for being here today on FRESH AIR.

DENNEHY: Thank you.

DAVIES: Actor Brian Dennehy, recorded in 1999. He died last week at the age of 81. He spoke with our TV critic David Bianculli. After a break, a tribute to jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEE KONITZ'S "'ROUND MIDNIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.