ian Dennehy was in his late 30s when he finally scored a break, being cast opposite Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson in the 1977 film Semi-Tough. The role paid him $1,000 for 10 weeks of work. “I thought it was all the money in the world,” Dennehy told the New York Times in 1989. “I had a very simple goal: to make enough money to put my kids through college, through good colleges.” In the 43 years that followed that debut, Dennehy broadly surpassed those expectations: he won two Tony awards, scored six Emmy nominations, and co-starred in more than 180 projects across stage and screen. He died on Wednesday at age 81, his daughter Elizabeth announced on social media.
“It is with heavy hearts we announce that our father, Brian passed away last night from natural causes, not Covid-related,” she wrote. “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.”
Born in Connecticut on July 9, 1938, Dennehy grew up on Long Island and attended Columbia University. He wanted to be an actor; his father, a journalist for the Associated Press, thought law was a better choice. “Anyone raised in a first or second-generation immigrant family knows that you are expected to advance the ball down the field,” Dennehy said in 1999. “Acting didn’t qualify in any way.”
He joined the Marines Corp at 21 and did a tour of duty in Vietnam during early 1960s. “I was furniture over there,” he told the Times in 1989. “I was lucky furniture. My wounds were superficial and my experience in Vietnam was superficial. I had no war to speak of.” Upon his return, Dennehy found employment as a bartender, truck driver, and stockbroker. He called it the best apprenticeship to become an actor. “I learned firsthand how a truck driver lives, what a bartender does, how a salesman thinks. I had to make a life inside those jobs, not just pretend,” he said.
Dennehy began acting on stage, where an agent saw the broad-shouldered actor performing Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov and set his career in motion. In the years that followed Semi-Tough, Dennehy guest-starred on numerous series, including Kojak, MASH, Knots Landing, and Dynasty. But his real movie breakout came in 1982 when he starred as the unreasonable sheriff opposite Sylvester Stallone in First Blood, the first Rambo film.
“It took a long time to shoot because of the weather, but when it came out, it exploded,” Dennehy said of the film in an interview with A.V. Club in 2018. “It was huge. It was a huge success for Stallone. … People wanted to see the goddamn movie.”
The ’80s were a boom time for Dennehy on the big screen. After First Blood he starred in Gorky Park, Cocoon, Silverado, and F/X. He was up for major roles too, like Gene Hackman‘s part in Hoosiers. Not that Dennehy minded losing the part: “If I was the producer and had the choice between him and me, I’d hire him every time,” he said to the Times in 1989. “When you get to this stage of the ball game, you no longer have the luxury of being jealous. I can’t be angry because Gene Hackman got Mississippi Burning. You couldn’t see a better performance. I idolize Gene Hackman. He is not a natural star, not an incandescent personality like Jack Nicholson, but he makes luminous the problems of being an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.”
In the ’90s, Dennehy settled into a groove as a character actor. On television, he led the Jack Reed crime drama television movies for NBC and separately landed three Emmy nominations, including for playing serial killer John Wayne Gacy. On the big screen, he continued to work consistently as well, with his best-remembered role from the decade likely being Chris Farley’s dad in 1995’s Tommy Boy. “I liked him a lot, and working with him was a sweet pleasure, because we were so creative with each other,” Dennehy told A.V. Club of Farley, who died in 1997.
Dennehy’s love for the stage pre-dated his on-screen work, and his Tonys came after he was an established actor. He won best actor in a play at the 1999 ceremony for playing Woody Loman in Death of a Salesman and then again in 2003 for Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
“The great thing about doing this play and what’s happened to me in the last six months is that I’ve found something that was lost: a sense of who I am, and what I’m about, and why I got into this 30 years ago,” he said in 1999 about Death of a Salesman. “Why I drove a cab, why I drove a truck, why I worked so hard to get into this profession. It’s very easy to lose it along the way, and I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I got it back.”
Story: Vanity Fair