Brian Dennehy, the burly leading character actor, died April 15th of natural causes at the age of 81. Obits of course made mention mostly his well known and popular projects, such as First Blood (1982), Cocoon (1985), Tommy Boy (1995), etc. All great performances, I grant you, but I thought he was best in other roles. His role as the wise and friendly bartender in 10 (1979) was an early indication of what he was capable of beyond his bulky exterior. That role, in fact, resulted in his being cast as the tough New York City cop on the trail of his brother’s murderer in Gorky Park (1983).
According to the film’s production notes, director Michael Apted did not consider Dennehy right for the role, at first. However, Dennehy persisted as doggedly as his character in the film and finally convinced Apted to change his mind. The result, according to the likes of Facebook friend, Matt Lamaj, “I remember when I first saw Gorky Park. I walked out of the theater and said ‘that sonofabitch, Dennehy, just stole the film from Lee Marvin and all those ham actors just by being real.'”
I would not necessarily agree that Dennehy stole the film from Marvin and the other members of the veteran cast, but he was indeed very real in the role.
There’s good reason for that, of course. Like Lee Marvin, he was a former high school athlete — a football lineman, whereas Marvin was a champion track star and swimmer — and was also a veteran Marine. He trained as an actor via different acting schools but, like Marvin, had something that could never be taught: mesmerizing presence.
I didn’t pursue an interview with Dennehy as he had no scenes with Marvin in the film. I did, however, interview director Michael Apted at length for Lee Marvin Point Blank, who told me some unknown aspects concerning Marvin and the production of the film that proved to be a revelation.
One unused quote from Apted concerned Brian Dennehy’s opinion of Lee Marvin: “I think Brian was very much in awe of Lee as I was. Brian was into that same kind of genre, as it was. Wanting to do action stuff, and here is one of the great action movie stars of all time.”
Glad to finally be able to use that quote in its proper context but saddened for the context at the same time. In other words, Dennehy’s admiration of Marvin was well-placed. I just wished both men had worked together and maybe remembered more for their lesser known performances.
If you want to see the greatness Dennehy was capable of exhibiting, the more popular projects listed above are good examples but there are others. Witness his mentoring Vietnam-era sergeant in the mini-series A Rumor of War (1980); his troubled yet benevolent police chief in Skokie (1981); and best of all was his father of a troubled son caught up in a religious cult in the largely forgotten Canadian film, Split Image (1982). He’s heartbreakingly good in the role worthy of rediscovery.
It’s cliche of course to say we shall not see his like again but cliche’s are borne of truth. It could not be more true than in the example of Brian Dennehy. Hell, see all his work and admire a truly great actor who’s like we shall never see again.
– Dwayne Epstein