Brian Dennehy, who played the sheriff who jailed Rambo, dies at 81

United States

Brian Dennehy, the burly actor who started in films as a macho heavy and later in his career won plaudits for his stage work in plays by William Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov and Arthur Miller, has died at 81.

Key points:

  • Dennehy appeared in 40-odd films including First Blood, Silverado and Cocoon
  • Dennehy was born July 9, 1938, in Bridgeport, Connecticut
  • His first movie, Semi-Tough, starred Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson

Dennehy died on Wednesday night of natural causes in New Haven, Connecticut, according to Kate Cafaro of ICM Partners, the actor’s representatives.

Known for his broad frame, booming voice and ability to play good guys and bad guys with equal aplomb, Dennehy won two Tony Awards, a Golden Globe, a Laurence Olivier Award and was nominated for six Emmys.

He was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2010.

External Link:

"The important thing is you do what you want to do and you do it well, and you have a good time. Okay? One thing about my life is I’ve had a hell of a good time. And I’m glad I did." -Actor and Academy member Brian Dennehy

Tributes came from Hollywood and Broadway, including from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who said he saw Dennehy twice onstage and called the actor “a colossus”.

Actor Michael McKean said Dennehy was “brilliant and versatile, a powerhouse actor and a very nice man as well”. Dana Delany, who appeared in a movie with Dennehy, said: “They don’t make his kind anymore.”


Dennehy starred opposite Sylvester Stallone in Rambo First Blood. (Supplied: IMDb)

Among his 40-odd films, he played a sheriff who jailed Rambo in First Blood, a serial killer in To Catch a Killer, and a corrupt sheriff gunned down by Kevin Kline in Silverado.

He also had some benign roles: the bartender who consoles Dudley Moore in 10 and the level-headed leader of aliens in Cocoon and its sequel.

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The great actor Brian Dennehy has passed away. He simply was a great actor … He also was a Vietnam vet that helped me very much building the character of RAMBO The world has lost a great artist

“The world has lost a great artist,” Sylvester Stallone wrote in tribute on Twitter, saying Dennehy helped him build the character of Rambo.

‘Movies used to be fun’


Dennehy won plaudits for his stage work in plays by William Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov and Arthur Miller. (Reuters: Lucas Jackson )

Eventually Dennehy wearied of the studio life.

“Movies used to be fun,” he observed in an interview. “They took care of you, first-class. Those days are gone.”

External Link:

Was lucky enough to see Brian Dennehy twice on stage, masterful in Love Letters, and monumentally heartbreaking in Death Of A Salesman. A colossus. What a loss.

Dennehy had a long connection with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, which had a reputation for heavy drama.

In 1998, Dennehy appeared on Broadway in the classic role of Willy Loman, the worn-out hustler in Miller’s Death of a Salesman and won the Tony for his performance.

“What this actor goes for is close to an everyman quality, with a grand emotional expansiveness that matches his monumental physique,” wrote Ben Brantley in his review of the play for The New York Times.

“Yet these emotions ring so unerringly true that Mr Dennehy seems to kidnap you by force, trapping you inside Willy’s psyche.”


Arthur Miller presents Brian Dennehy with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tony Awards in New York. (AP: Kathy Willens)

He was awarded another Tony in 2003 for his role in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, opposite Vanessa Redgrave, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Sean Leonard.

At the podium, after thanking his family, co-stars and producers and complimenting his competitors, he said: “The words of Eugene O’Neill — they’ve got to be heard. They’ve got to be heard, and heard and heard. And thank you so much for giving us the chance to enunciate them.”

Dennehy’s early life


Brian Dennehy and Trey Wilson starred in the movie FX in 1986. (Supplied: IMDb/Dodi Fayed)

Dennehy was born on July 9, 1938, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the first of three sons.

His venture into acting began when he was 14 in New York City and a student at a Brooklyn high school were he acted the title role in Macbeth.

He played football on a scholarship at Columbia University, and he served five years in the US Marines.


Dennehy played serial murderer John Wayne Gacy in To Catch a Killer. (Supplied: IMDb/FOX)

Back in New York City in 1965, he pursued acting while working side jobs.

“I learned first-hand how a truck driver lives, what a bartender does, how a salesman thinks,” he told The New York Times in 1989.

“I had to make a life inside those jobs, not just pretend.”

His parents — Ed Dennehy, an editor for The Associated Press in New York, and Hannah Dennehy, a nurse — could never understand why their son chose to act.

“Anyone raised in a first- or second-generation immigrant family knows that you are expected to advance the ball down the field,” Dennehy told Columbia College Today in 1999.

“Acting didn’t qualify in any way.”

The 191cm Dennehy went to Hollywood for his first movie, Semi-Tough, starring Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson.

Dennehy was paid $10,000 a week for 10 weeks’ work, which he thought “looked like it was all the money in the world”.

He became a professional actor at the age of 38.

Dennehy played serial murderer John Wayne Gacy in the 1991 TV movie To Catch a Killer and union leader Jackie Presser in the HBO special Teamster Boss a year later.

“I try to play villains as if they’re good guys and good guys as if they’re villains,” he said in 1992.

His last foray on Broadway was in Love Letters opposite Mia Farrow in 2014.

“There is no-one I enjoyed working with more. And there are few friends as valued in my life,” Farrow wrote.

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Just devastated to learn that the magnificent Brian Dennehy has died. They is no one i enjoyed working with more. And there are few friends as valued in my life. I took this photo backstage when we were in Love Letters. He loved my pup Bowie.

Others who worked with Dennehy through the years also tweeted messages of sorrow and condolences to his loved ones.

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I’m just devastated to hear we lost my beloved friend and colleague, #BrianDennehy. We were partners on two of my favorite films, Split Image and Best Seller. I’ve never laughed so hard as we did every day on the set or off. For a big “tough guy,” he was a sweetheart. #RIPBrian

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Brian Dennehy has passed. He was a fine actor . He was good company. (golden globe, 6 Emmy noms, 2 Tony wins & an Olivier award) Watch – The Next Three Days (2010) Directed by Paul Haggis. Underrated movie. It was a privilege to work with him. Condolences to his loved ones.

He is survived by his second wife, costume designer Jennifer Arnott, and their two children, Cormac and Sarah.

He also is survived by three daughters — Elizabeth, Kathleen and Deirdre — from a previous marriage to Judith Scheff.



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