Famed Character Actor Brian Dennehy Dead at 81

Film, stage and TV star Brian Dennehy is gone, leaving behind indelible roles in Cocoon, First Blood and others.

Photo: Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

Veteran character actor Brian Dennehy, known for a wide variety of roles in film, TV and on the stage, died Wednesday night (April 15) at the age of 81, according to Variety.

The Golden Globe and Tony-winning star passed away in New Haven, Connecticut from natural causes. A statement posted on Twitter by his daughter, actress Elizabeth Dennehy, said, “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.”

Dennehy was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on July 9, 1938. He served in the Marines from 1959 to 1963,  and later attended Columbia and Yale, earning a master’s degree in dramatic arts from the latter university. He worked briefly as a stockbroker before making both his film and TV debuts in 1977, appearing in shows like Kojak and Lou Grant plus films such as Semi-Tough with Burt Reynolds.

His breakout screen performance was in 1982’s First Blood, where he played the police chief of the small town who is the primary antagonist of Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo. From that point on, he had significant roles in Ron Howard’s sci-fi hit Cocoon (1985), the western Silverado from the same year, the thriller F/X (1986) and its 1991 sequel, the romantic comedy Legal Eagles (1986) with Robert Redford and Daryl Hannah, and the 1991 legal thriller Presumed Innocent, in which he played Harrison Ford’s slippery boss.

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Dennehy was one of those beloved actors who was instantly recognizable to audiences and seemed to never stop working. His lengthy list of TV credits included many TV movies as well as guest, recurring and regular roles on Dallas, the original Dynasty, The West Wing, Just Shoot Me, The 4400, 30 Rock, The Good Wife, The Blacklist and Hap and Leonard. Some of his later films included Romeo + Juliet, the Assault on Precinct 13 remake, Ratatouille, The Next Three Days and Tag.

Dennehy won a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for his performance as Willy Loman in the 2000 TV version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a role for which he also won a Tony Award in 1999. Dennehy, an accomplished stage actor who made his Broadway debut in 1995, earned his second Tony Award in 2003 for Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Variety called the actor “perhaps the foremost living interpreter of O’Neill’s works,” as he starred in a number of O’Neill plays throughout his career.

Dennehy was married to Judith Scheff from 1959 to 1974, and Jennifer Arnott from 1988 until his death. In addition to Armott, he is survived by three daughters from his first marriage — Elizabeth, Kathleen and Deirdre, actresses all — and two children with Armott, son Cormac and daughter Sarah.