by Carol Rocamora
The first thing you noticed about Brian Dennehy was his bear-like frame and shaggy, grey head – you couldn’t miss him anywhere.
I recognized him instantly, standing at the cash register of Ernest Klein’s supermarket on 6th Avenue and 55th on a wintry afternoon in early 1999. He was in town performing on Broadway in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, “Mr. Dennehy!” I cried. He turned, surprisingly pleased by the recognition.
“I’m bringing a class of playwrights from NYU/Tisch to see you tomorrow at the evening performance,” I blurted, unable to stop myself, “Would you come talk to them afterwards? Please? They’d be thrilled!” It’s the kind of request that actors like Dennehy are inundated with (that’s why they have agents) and most often politely decline – especially when they’re playing parts as demanding as Willy Loman, one of the great classical roles in the American Theatre. I never expected his response. “Sure!” He exclaimed, without hesitation. “Gimme a pen!” And he scribbled the email address of his company manager on my shopping bag. “See you Wednesday!” he flashed his broad grin, and off he went.
And sure enough, on that Wednesday evening, almost apoplectic with anticipation, we watched Dennehy’s great performance as Miller’s tragic Willy, his huge, hulking frame collapsing before our eyes under the crushing weight of the American Dream (he won a Tony later that spring). After the curtain had fallen at the O’Neill Theatre, an usher guided about 25 of us down to the first two rows of the front orchestra. The house had emptied, the stage had cleared, the stage manager had put the ghost light in place… and on he strode, with that special energy and magnetism that great actors exude after performing a great role (twice, I might add – there had been a matinee earlier that day).
“OK, I’m here, gimme your questions!” he declared. And one after one, those star-struck students got the chance to talk to one of the finest American actors of our time. “ “You say you’re writers, yes?” He asked. “Well, I’m from Chicago, and now I live in LA and do TV. Now listen to me. You’re in New York. Stay here. Be playwrights. Write for the theatre. Don’t come out to California and write for Ally F****ing McBeal!” (a hit TV series at the time).
What charisma, what generosity of spirit! It’s a moment that those young writers and I will never forget. And now we’ve lost him (at the age of 81) – one of America’s most respected, admired, and versatile actors of stage, screen and television. Many of us were fortunate to see his unforgettable Willy Loman, as well as subsequent Broadway appearances – his unexpectedly moving James Tyrone Sr. in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night opposite Vanessa Redgrave (2003), and his stern, unyielding Ephraim in Desire Under the Elms (in 2009) opposite Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber.
Yes, his screen credits are impressive (Split Image, Legal Eagles, F/X Murder By Illusion, Presumed Innocent), as well as his Emmy nominations for numerous roles in TV films and series. But once you’ve seen him on the stage, that’s where you wanted him to stay. His talent, like his frame, was larger than life.
I think my favorite Dennehy performance was in Peter Brooks’ legendary The Cherry Orchard at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1988.. He was appearing in a stellar international company that included Natasha Parry (Brook’s wife), Linda Hunt, Mike Nussbaum, Kate Mailer, Erland Josephson, Stephanie Roth, David Pierce and Zelko Ivanek. Dennehy played Lopakhin, the former serf, emerging capitalist, and proud owner of the cherished cherry orchard. I remember how he strode about the stage, pounding his chest and waving his arms, just as Chekhov indicated in the script. This was an actor who respected the playwright, and whose dedication to the theatre was an abiding and passionate one. Larger than life, indeed… He will be greatly missed.