The Death of a Dennehy

Bring me a meatball sandwich, wouldja? About yea big?”

We lost Brian Dennehy (b. 1938) back in April, so I thought I’d post a brief birthday tribute.

This will floor some people, and others may actually relate, but I was almost certainly first exposed to Dennehy on his very short-lived starring TV series Big Shamus, Little Shamus (1979). The show had similarities to Veronica Mars. Dennehy played the house dick at an Atlantic City hotel. Doug McKeon (the kid from On Golden Pond) played his 13 year old son Max, who ends up helping him solve mysteries. The series was HUGELY hyped at the time, with network commericals and ads in TV Guide, and since I was around the same age as the kid, I was an avid fan of what there was to see of it. You could have knocked me over with a feather when it was cancelled after TWO episodes! I can’t for the life of me imagine why it did so poorly. It may have been up against a popular show on one of the other networks in the same time slot (a big factor in those days). And it may have been that Dennehy was then still a relative unknown. Though already over 40 years old, he’d only broken into film and TV two years prior.

A former Columbia football player and Marine vet, one of Dennehy’s first major credits was the gridiron picture Semi-Tough (1977). He was also in Foul Play (1978) as Chevy Chase’s cop partner, and Blake Edwards’ 10 (1979). An Irish Catholic guy from Bridgeport, he ended up specializing in, and relishing, blue collar, hard-hat types. He was a big guy — I always paired him mentally with Charles Durning in terms of rough type, although there were certainly differences. Durning was associated very much with comedy, Dennehy with drama. One very distinctive thing about Dennehy was that, as excellent as he was, he was not a snob, and so he had a very bifurcated career, mixing distinguished roles in the theatre and theatrical adaptations (O’Neill, Beckett, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Miller) with high visibility TV movie schlock based on tabloid stories and true crime, in things like Ruby and Oswald (1978), Skokie (1981), Blood Feud (1983), and perhaps most deliciously To Catch a Killer (1992), in which he portrayed John Wayne Gacy. He literally did dozens of these kinds of movies. These movies are frequently popular, but they don’t do a lot for one’s prestige. It says a lot about Dennehy’s talent that so great an association with such a tawdry cul de sac didn’t drag his career into a permanent ostracization. Good roles always came around for him. He did a screen version of The Sea Gull only two years ago.

I am most conversant on his work of the ’80s, a time when I saw a bunch of his movies in cinemas, things like Never Cry Wolf (1983), Gorky Park (1983), Cocoon (1985), Silverado (1985), F/X (1986), and Legal Eagles (1986). I thought his casting as Chris Farley’s dad in Tommy Boy (1995) was absolute genius.

I am always interested in TV series that are tried and failed. TV series are like baby sea turtles. Most of the ones that are hatched don’t make it to the water. After Big Shamus, Little Shamus, Dennehy starred in a sitcom called Star of the Family (1982) in which he played the fire captain dad of a singing star; Birdland (1994), in which he played chief of psychiatry of a big city hospital; and The Fighting Fitzgeralds (2001), co-created by Ed Burns, in which he played another firefighter (retired). He also had recurring and supporting ensemble roles on several other series.

Dennehy had close to 200 screen credits and no doubt a similar number of theatrical credits. He was acting right up until his death by cardiac arrest at the age of 81. At this writing, some of his last films have yet to be released.