Here’s a guy that worked his tale off and finally achieved success at age 44. He played character parts on television and in films, but his great achievements were on the stage.
“I don’t look like an actor. I don’t sound like an actor, I’m just another person. Which really is the whole point of acting, is trying to be just another person.”
Dennehy might have been a recognized face on screen, but he played mostly tough guys and cops, probably due his large frame and imposing persona. It would be a few years before audiences saw his broader talents. You might recall that Dennehy continued to play cops and authoritarian roles, but those roles became broader and deeper.
It was his portrayal of Sheriff Will Teasle in First Blood that served as his breakout. Yes, it was a tough, angry role, the drifter Rambo broke out of his custody and is blamed for the death of one of his deputies. But Will Teasle was no cardboard character, and people noticed. They saw how he could hold his own with Stallone onscreen.
The 1980s would bring lead roles and A list project co-starring roles. It would also lead to some very interesting television projects as his marquee value grew.
Supporting roles in Never Cry Wolf, Gorky Park and Cocoon followed by a true gem, Silverado.
Dennehy plays Cobb, sheriff of Silverado with his hand in a lot businesses. Dennehy plays his character like Lee Marvin might have in Bad Day at Black Rock or Dean Martin in Rough Night in Jericho. Delicious, but not over the top.
In 1986, at nearly 50 years old, Dennehy got his first starring role with Bryan Brown in F/X. Although he once again plays a cop, it is the best cop role he’s had. Dennehy’s Leo McCarthy tries to unravel the mystery and has to color outside lines as he is on the trail of Brown’s special effects expert. This is a crime mystery at heart and although Dennehy and Brown share little screen time, they have chemistry. Five years later they re-team for a sequel.
As in Silverado, Dennehy dons facial hair, McCarthy has a mustache, which gives Dennehy a distinguished look. His longish gray hair and precise way of speaking make him an appealing older leading man.
Dennehy appeared in a few television films and took a supporting role in the big budget bomb, Legal Eagles (1986), before co-starring with James Woods in a crafty police thriller, Best Seller.
Written by Larry Cohen (It’s, Alive, Phone Booth), Best Seller presents Dennehy as a cop who writes books on the side. James Woods plays a hitman who has picked Dennehy’s cop to write his life story. Woods’ Cleve is a detestable character and Dennehy’s Meechum is a burnout, together they have a cat and mouse relationship of trust and distrust. Woods is stone-cold, and Dennehy goes back and forth about whether to believe Cleve.
In 1990 came Presumed Innocent, the big budget murder mystery based on the Scott Turow. Dennehy played the district attorney in a supporting role. A year later, F/X2 was released.
Dennehy starred in a number of television mini-series (To Catch a Killer, The Burden of Proof, Murder in the Heartland, Birdland), and high profile television films (A Killing in a Small Town, Rising Son, In Broad Daylight). These were not leading film roles, but for a character actor in his 50s, these were good projects. Television, like the stage, provided Dennehy great opportunity to explore projects that interested him, and to step behind the camera. In the 1990s, Dennehy wrote, directed and starred in several television films on the Jack Reed police character.
For many, his role in Tommy Boy (1995), as Chris Farley’s dad, introduced them to Dennehy’s work. He was not known for comedy, but he could certainly inject a light moment effectively into a dramatic performance.
For the rest of his career, Dennehy worked when he wanted to, alternating between television, film and the stage. With his distinctive voice, he lent his instrument to animated films, narrated documentaries and even video games.
His love was the theater, and it loved him back. He won two Tony Awards for playing two iconic characters of American theater: Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and as James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” He appeared on Broadway as Matthew Harrison Brady in Inherit the Wind opposite Christopher Plummer (2007) and in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms (2009).
“I’m now 80 and I’m just another actor and that’s fine with me. I’ve had a hell of a ride,” he said. “I have a nice house. I haven’t got a palace, a mansion, but a pretty nice, comfortable home. I’ve raised a bunch of kids and sent them all to school, and they’re all doing well. All the people that are close to me are reasonably healthy and happy. Listen, that’s as much as anybody can hope for in life.”