Two-Time Tony Winner Brian Dennehy, Masterful Interpreter of Eugene O'Neill, Samuel Beckett, and Arthur Miller, Dies at 81

Obituaries   Two-Time Tony Winner Brian Dennehy, Masterful Interpreter of Eugene O'Neill, Samuel Beckett, and Arthur Miller, Dies at 81
 
Mr. Dennehy won Tony Awards for his performances in Miller's Death of a Salesman and O'Neill's Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
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Brian Dennehy, who won two Tony Awards for Best Lead Actor in a Play—for Death of a Salesman (1999) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2003)— passed away April 15 in Connecticut. He was 81.

"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," his daughter Elizabeth shared on Twitter April 16.

Brian Dennehy in <i>White Rabbit Red Rabbit</i>
Brian Dennehy in White Rabbit Red Rabbit Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

Brian Dennehy, born July 9, 1938, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, attended Columbia University on a football scholarship prior to studying dramatic arts at Yale University. The barrel chested, six-foot-three actor achieved success on screen before making his Broadway debut in 1995 in Brian Friel's Translations, directed by Howard Davies. He returned to Broadway in 1999 as the ill-fated Willy Loman in a revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman that originated at Chicago's Goodman, helmed by Artistic Director Robert Falls. Falls also directed the Broadway revival, which won five Tonys, including awards for the two and for Best Revival of a Play. A taped performance of that production subsequently aired on Showtime and won Mr. Dennehy a Golden Globe; in 2005 he reprised his performance at London's Lyric Theatre, the first West End staging of Miller’s drama since the playwright’s death.

In 2003, Mr. Dennehy earned his second Tony Award, playing James Tyrone in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, also directed by Falls. His co-stars included Vanessa Redgrave (also Tony-honored for her performance), Robert Sean Leonard, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Mr. Dennehy felt an affinity for the work of the four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright; while rehearsing for a 2008 production of O'Neill's Hughie at the Long Wharf Theatre, he told Playbill, "I think that my being Irish-American, the grandson of a factory worker in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and my having been raised in a real Irish-American climate in Brooklyn and Long Island and New York in the 1940s and '50s goes a long way toward explaining it. There's definitely some understanding of the attitude that O'Neill had, an attitude that is very close to my own experience—his being bitter and cynical and trying to explain what he sees as life, but also with a pretty good sense of humor."

Mr. Dennehy's other Broadway credits included the 2007 revival of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's Inherit the Wind—he played Matthew Harrison Brady in a cast that also included Christopher Plummer, Byron Jennings, and Denis O'Hare; and the 2009 revival of O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms, once again directed by Falls.

Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Franz in the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman
Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Franz in the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman

In 2008, Mr. Dennehy also spoke about his lengthy working relationship with Falls, explaining, "Our first play together was Galileo by Brecht. And from the beginning, our philosophy, our attitude, has always been the same—to try to do things we weren't sure we could do." In fact, in 2009 Falls named Mr. Dennehy the newest member of Goodman's Artistic Collective.

At that time, Tony winner Falls said, "My collaboration with Brian has been one of the most fulfilling, wonderful journeys of my life, one that feels familiar, but it is always new. Over 20 years and seven individual productions, he has been my friend and compatriot, always at the center of my artistic dialogue. I am thrilled to welcome him to our Artistic Collective."

Mr. Dennehy's final Broadway outing was the 2014 production of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters opposite Mia Farrow.

He returned to the New York stage in 2015 in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Goodman production of O'Neill's four-act epic co-starred Tony winner Nathan Lane and was directed by Falls, who also helmed the five-hour drama when it sold out its Chicago run in 2012.

In addition to O'Neill, Mr. Dennehy was also an enthusiastic interpreter of Samuel Beckett. While readying to star in Beckett's Endgame at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven in 2016, he told Playbill, “The greatness of Samuel Beckett, as far as an actor is concerned, is that Beckett depends so much upon performance…It's a single sculpture, not a series of sculptures. All his work is of a piece. He’s trying to come to terms with what he has learned about what everybody carries with them as they trudge toward the last years or months or days of existence. It’s almost as if every few years he takes out a chisel and a hammer and does a little bit more work, so by the end it all adds up.”

Mr. Dennehy's work on TV and film was prolific. His film credits included First Blood, Foul Play, Gorky Park, Cocoon, Silverado, F/X, Legal Eagles, Presumed Innocent, Tommy Boy, and The Song of Sway Lake, while TV audiences enjoyed his work in Lou Grant, The Fitzpatricks, Knots Landing, Dynasty, Star of the Family, Evergreen, Night Visions, Just Shoot Me!, Public Morals, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Hap and Leonard, and The Blacklist.

In 2016, while discussing his role in the Terrence Malick film Knight of Cups, Mr. Dennehy explained he didn't see many professional opportunities among contemporary plays. “For people like me," he told Playbill, "it’s O’Neill or Miller or Beckett and maybe a handful of other playwrights who have written for people with some years on them. And I intend to do as many of them as I can before I hang it up.”

Mr. Dennehy was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2015.

Mr. Dennehy is survived by his second wife Jennifer Arnott, three daughters from his first marriage to Judith Scheff: Elizabeth, Kathleen, and Deirdre, and son Cormac and daughter Sarah with Arnott.