Tony-winning actor Brian Dennehy, a literal giant of stage and screen, died on April 15. He was 81.
My dad gave me a little kick under the dining room table during supper at my grandparents’ house on Long Island. I was 11, and I was so looking forward to our weekend trek to the Lambertville Summer Theater Festival in New Jersey, where my dad would be playing the little barber in The Man of La Mancha, that I had blabbed and let out his secret. I forgot that his parents would be mad if they found out he was still doing theatre. He was 32, with a wife and three kids, and we were living with his parents; they said we could stay with them as long as he promised to make an honest living and not waste time on acting. He dutifully commuted into the city every morning by train, but still mainlined theatre on the sly. On weekends that summer we would stop in the city on the way to New Jersey to collect two stunning flamenco dancers who played the horses in The Man of La Mancha. Another reason to love the theatre!
Mom was 19 and Dad 21 when I was born. She told me she was one of the older moms at Camp Lejeune. Dad had been accepted to Columbia University and was the captain of the football team, but after having too much fun he was shown the door. So he joined the Marines and was stationed in Okinawa when my sister Kathleen was born. Dad returned to Columbia, graduating with a degree in history. Deirdre was born two years after Kathy. We lived with our grandparents periodically through the years, often with the three of us sharing one bed. All the while Dad created theatre companies where he and his brother Ed could act and direct: They did theatre at the Church of Saint Aidan’s in Albertson, N.Y., and started the Amityville Community Theater (a.k.a. ACT). They put on shows all over Long Island. My sisters and I were fairies in The Tempest, the Snow children in Carousel, the no-necked monsters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and chorus members in everything. At 15 I was props master for The Odd Couple and a protean in Forum at the Watermill Inn Dinner Theatre in Sayville.
It was On the Waterfront and Marlon Brando that enthralled him and his brother Ed. My dad always said that until Waterfront they had never seen actors who looked like ordinary guys like them. We have home movies they made of my uncle moodily walking the beach to Leonard Bernstein‘s epic soundtrack; to make something like that in the ’60s with a home movie camera took a lot of determination. The mythic drunken escapades of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed captivated and motivated them—perhaps a bit too much.
Dad continued to go into the city to act in plays at places with names like the Billy Munk Theatre and the Impossible Ragtime Theater. He toured in Bus Stop with Anita Gillette and Sweathog-era John Travolta. After a production of Julius Caesar, he was approached by an agent and finally started getting serious auditions. He loved telling the story of standing in line at an open call chatting with another actor. After Dad went in to audition for director Mike Nichols, he was asked to return. He watched the dismissed actors, including his new and suddenly former friend, go one way, while he went another. Nichols cast him as an understudy in Streamers at Lincoln Center, and recommended him for the movie Semi-Tough.
That was the end of acting in secret. We all went to see the movie on Thanksgiving Day when I was 16. He was living in Los Angeles at this point and worked on pretty much every TV series in production. We cheered for him at home. By the time the movie 10 was released, the offers started rolling in. He no longer had to audition for roles. He was 36.
People often ask what it was like growing up with a “movie star” dad. My sisters and I inwardly roll our eyes. If only life were that romantic. It sounds romantic because we all know the ending. But how many actors at 25, with three kids, still living with their parents, juggling odd jobs during the week, amateur acting on the weekends, go on to not only support the family as a working actor, but go on to become internationally recognized as one of the greats? Living through it was a roll of the dice full of crappy cars, unpaid bills, thawing frozen pipes with a hair dryer…but also pool parties with the Travoltas and hot flamenco dancers.
Growing up, I envied my friends’ big houses, dads who lived at home, and their nice clothes. Sometimes their dads would ask me: How did your dad do it? I’d tell them he had a dream, he believed in himself, and he was very very lucky. Remembering their sad faces, I’m glad my dad had a job he loved. I am very proud. He was determined, talented, and, yes, very lucky.
When I started acting myself, Dad and I would talk about auditions. He told me how much he missed auditioning. “I miss walking into the room and surprising people,” he said. “They see me and they’re sizing me up and they think they know what this guy can do. I loved blowing their minds and showing them how wrong they were. The producers have a problem to solve: They have a blank line next to a character name, and here you are to solve their problem. You’re the answer to their prayers, someone’s name has to be put on that line, and it might as well be yours.”
I’m so glad he was cast as my Dad.