Brian Dennehy, the legendary, award-winning stage actor whose work set the standard in stage, television, and film, has died. The Death Of A Salesman and Cocoon performer was also a Chicago theater staple and was recognized for his indelible, decades-long impact. His daughter Elizabeth Dennehy confirmed the acting giant’s death on Twitter: “It is with heavy hearts we announce that our father, Brian passed away last night from natural causes, not Covid-related. Larger than life, generous to a fault, a proud and devoted father and grandfather, he will be missed by his wife Jennifer, family and many friends.” He was 81 years old.
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Dennehy entered Columbia University on a football scholarship. At 6-foot-3, the actor’s stature was as iconic as his work and at times served as a dichotomy to some of his gentler roles, such as the kind alien leader Walter in the Oscar-winning fantasy feature Cocoon. Naturally, he had played his share of menacing figures as well, like his turn as the corrupt sheriff in Silverado. His work in made-for-TV films led to six Emmy nominations, including two in the same year for his performances as John Wayne Gacy in To Catch a Killer and a supporting role in 1992's The Burden of Proof. With 183 listed acting credits, Dennehy was a formidable presence in both television and film. However, his heart was notably in the theater.
Dennehy frequently performed in Chicago—in fact, he worked in the city so often that he was regularly mistaken for a resident. In 1999, he became the first male recipient of the Chicago-centric Sarah Siddons Award for his outstanding stage work. That same year, his work on Broadway’s Death Of A Salesman earned him his first Tony Award for Best Lead Actor In A Play. He told The A.V. Club’s Marah Eakin that he was particularly grateful for that role in a 2018 interview: “It kind of opened a lot of doors for me. That show, that play, and the fact that it was successful, and my interpretation was accepted as valid. People enjoyed it. I have nothing but good memories about Salesman and gratitude for it.” He won the same award in 2003 for his role in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Even as one of the most respected character actors in the entertainment landscape, Dennehy was renowned for his kindness, his adoration of Chicago, and a genuine love of his craft. He is survived by his wife, Jennifer Arnott, and five children.