This interview with actor Brian Dennehy, who died April 15 in New Haven at the age of 81, was originally published in the October 2008 issue of Connecticut Magazine. It was reposted to the web on April 16, 2020.
We caught up with actor BRIAN DENNEHY this past August, toward the end of a triumphant run in Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where he appeared in three plays: the Bard’s All’s Well that Ends Well, Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie and Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. He was having a ball, but admitted, “It’s kind of schizophrenic, or whatever the triple version of schizophrenic is.” Multiple personality disorder, perhaps? “Something like that, I guess . . . but I’ve had that condition for a long time.”
Your average neurotic thespian would kill to garner the kind of reviews Dennehy scored for Hughie and Krapp’s—two one-acts performed in tandem, unified by the desolation of their themes, the Irishness of their playwrights and the fact that, despite the presence of the brilliant Joe Grifasi as the mostly silent sidekick in Hughie, they were one-man tours de force. Though Dennehy had not attempted the Beckett play before, he’s played O’Neill’s grieving gambler Erie Smith several times over the years. Fortunately, he’s giving Hughie another whirl this month at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. Sadly, though it was originally on the local bill, he’s decided to put Beckett’s play—a heartbreaking meditation on time’s passage and life’s follies—aside for a while.
“I needed some distance from it because it’s so profound,” he says. “To be honest, I’m worn out. I just turned 70 this year and I’m feeling every damned day of it right now.”
Nonetheless, he discusses Hughie with youthful zeal. “At 45 minutes, it’s as perfect an illustration of O’Neill’s philosophy of life as any of his longer plays. To him, it’s all about the necessity of finding an illusion that will get you through—about who you are and what you’ve become—and being lucky enough to find someone else who’ll participate in your illusion as you participate in theirs.
“Any Irish-American whose father was not a stockbroker feels a real kinship for O’Neill. My grandfather was an immigrant, a factory worker and very tough, unsentimental, unsparing. That’s the way those immigrants were.”
Movie and TV audiences know Dennehy best as the kind of character actor who, over the past 30 years, has explored a wide range of screen roles with aplomb, from the avuncular alien Walter in Ron Howard’s fantasy Cocoon to the sinister John Wayne Gacy in To Catch a Killer to the cancer-ridden Stourley Kracklite in Peter Greenaway’s acclaimed The Belly of an Architect. (He can currently be seen as Lieut. Hingus in Righteous Kill, opposite Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.) However, the Columbia and Yale University-educated Woodstock resident has zero illusions about this line of work.
“Norman Jewison came to see the plays at Stratford, and it was fascinating to realize that this guy, who had directed In the Heat of the Night and Moonstruck, is pretty much out of the movie business,” he says. “Why? Because he’s not 25, because he’s not making shit like Tropic Thunder or whatever weekly piece of crap they’re turning out next. The idea of a group of people making a serious movie is long over. It’s not enough to make $10 million or $15 million—if you can’t make $200 million, no one’s interested.”
In December, he and longtime collaborator Robert Falls, artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre (and director of Hughie as well as Dennehy’s Tony Award-winning turns in Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey into Night), go into rehearsal for a Goodman production of Desire Under the Elms. The two met in 1981, and have become known for mounting plays together that “we’re not always sure we can pull off,” Dennehy says. “Desire is almost an impossible play. And yet there’s something about its themes of primitive religion, hypocrisy, acquisitiveness and sex that relates profoundly to the situation our culture finds itself in right now, so we had to try it. I always expect the worst, and Bob expects the best. Between the two of us, we come to some kind of mutual ground.”