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There Was One Great Role Brian Dennehy Never Got to Play

Dennehy in The Iceman Cometh in 2012. Photo: Richard Termine

Brian Dennehy was somehow in everything. In more than a hundred movie roles and countless episodes of television, he was everywhere because he was Everyman; we believed him as anyone — a lawyer, a sheriff, Chris Farley’s dad. (In fact, before his stardom, he worked on a meat truck, drove a cab, and worked on Wall Street.) There was a consistency there, no matter how goofy the project: When Dennehy played the grouchy cop in F/X: Murder by Illusion, he exuded the same suffering-fools-just-barely quality that made him so entertainingly dangerous in Rambo and Silverado, so sweet in Ratatouille. You could depend on Brian Dennehy. It seemed as if those ox-yoke shoulders would always be somewhere in a trench coat, hulking over a crime scene. Hollywood will miss him.

But the theater will grieve. Because for us he wasn’t the un-showy journeyman — he was a titan, our leading interpreter of Eugene O’Neill, a fluid and expert actor in some of drama’s most challenging roles. His appetite for difficulty made him seek out the high peaks: Beckett (he performed Krapp’s Last Tape just two years ago in Los Angeles), Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht, and Miller. In Death of a Salesman in 1999 — the first of his two Tony–winning performances — he gave us one of the great Willy Lomans, making that grayed-out unfortunate creature vivid and muscular. At the time, Miller himself called him “a powerhouse,” contrasting Dennehy’s work to the other Lomans before him. “Some of the others were more strategic — less powerful,” Miller said. “Brian is really throwing himself on his sword.” And indeed, anyone who saw him perform knows that Dennehy (ex-offensive lineman for Columbia University) never left anything on the field. In a wonderful interview in 2012, as he was preparing for The Iceman Cometh, he growled, “The only way to do it is to grab the fuckin’ audience by the throat, shake the shit out of ’em and say, ‘You think you’re getting out of here alive? You’re not. Prepare to spill your fucking blood, because I’m gonna spill mine, and you’re coming with me.’” Then he tossed back a glass of Merlot.

Yesterday I spoke to Robert Falls, the director who was his partner in many of these adventures, the day after Dennehy died in Connecticut at 81. The two men had a 35-year artistic kinship and a deep friendship: Their work together at Chicago’s Goodman Theater (where Falls is artistic director) included two productions of Iceman, the much-lauded Salesman, as well as A Touch of the Poet, Galileo, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, a production which eventually won Dennehy his second Tony Award. Their collaboration created some important productions, but more broadly, it recharged O’Neill’s reputation in a theater always on the verge of forgetting him, of finding him too lugubrious, too dense. A Falls–Dennehy production could demolish your preconceptions — I’m still shattered by the 2015 Brooklyn transfer of that second Iceman, which ground my bones for five astonishing hours.

They met in 1985, when Falls was running the small 120-seat Wisdom Bridge Theatre in Chicago. The director Steven Robman and Dennehy came to him, wanting to produce the Northern Irish political psychodrama Rat in the Skull — despite Dennehy’s being at the height of his mid-’80s movie stardom. “He loved this play, and he wanted to work in Chicago,” Falls says, “and I just fell in love with him. I thought, well, I want to do a lot of things with this guy, so we cooked up Brecht’s Galileo for my first season at the Goodman in 1986.” That production was noted for Dennehy’s “cunning” and “rage.”

The air of danger onstage wasn’t just because of his height and bulk — it was based on a long career as a hell-raiser. One night during Galileo rehearsals, he took members of the cast out to Kingston Mines, a blues bar in Chicago. “I got a call at four in the morning,” remembers Falls, “and it was an actor saying, ‘Go check on Brian.’” A fight at the nightclub (he had tackled the wrong guy) ended with Dennehy getting glassed in the face, but he’d refused to go to the hospital and had returned to the hotel. When Falls got to Dennehy’s floor, “It looked like the Manson murders,” laughs Falls. “There were bloody handprints smeared all down the hallway.” But when he finally got Dennehy to open the door, the actor, blood streaming down his face, waved him off: “It’s a mouse! It’s only a mouse,” referring to a common boxing injury. “He had to wear giant sunglasses for the rest of rehearsal,” says Falls. “And on opening night, he gave everyone a sweatshirt with a woodcut portrait of Galileo — with a black eye.”

Dennehy was often doing battle, whether with his own family’s darkness (he and Falls both had alcoholics in their families), with drinking (he started cutting back 20 years ago), with pain in his knees left over from football. But even when he was peaceful, he was fighting with the text. Falls remembers him in rehearsal for Long Day’s Journey into Night. “He would look up and start screaming ‘Fuck you, fuck you, Gene, fuck your words, I’m doing the best work I can fucking do on this fucking play!’ And it was how he worked,” says Falls. “In going after these monstrosities of plays he had to wrestle; it had to be hard.”

There was grace under the muscle. Dennehy had the same balletic quality some football players keep all their lives, a lightness, and a deft way of using his physicality to express pain and defeat. His big body could reel, like a bear in an avalanche, groggy and beaten; he could shrink in front of your eyes, deflating that massive chest, showing us the entire tragic fall of man in one exhalation. Falls calls him a sensualist for his love of food and dancing and language, and an intellectual for his deep reading in political science and history (his major at Columbia). And it was as a thinker-in-space that he made his mark on the theater. In The Iceman Cometh in 2015, when he played the disillusioned Larry Slade to Nathan Lane’s broken bon vivant Hickey, he was completely still, hunched at his table in the down-at-heel bar. Certainly no one who saw it will ever forget how his motionlessness gave the production its immense gravity — when Larry Slade finally turned his head to see the disaster all around him, it was like an Easter Island statue had looked up from his drink.

Iceman was their last production. Dennehy went on to do Endgame at Long Wharf in 2017 (with Reg E. Cathey, who died the following year) and Krapp’s Last Tape and O’Neill’s Hughie in 2018, directed by the same Steven Robman who directed in him Rat in the Skull long ago. Falls says that he sensed it would be their last time working together. “He was getting tired,” he says. “He felt he was the most fortunate person in the world to play what he did,” says Falls. “He had played in Beckett; he had hit the roles that you could play in the O’Neill canon. I can’t think of another role …” His voice trails off. “Well, he always wanted to play Lear,” Falls says. And the two of us are quiet for a moment, thinking about what might have been.