Brian Dennehy, Tony-winning actor of stage and screen, dead at 81

Brian Dennehy, Tony-winning actor of stage and screen, has died at the age of 81, his daughter shared on social media Thursday.

'His talent, intelligence and love for the theatre dwarfed Everest,' says Stratford Festival head

Acclaimed actor Brian Dennehy, seen in 1999 winning a best actor Tony Award for the revival of Death of a Salesman, has died at the age of 81. (Kathy Willens/The Associated Press)

Brian Dennehy, the burly actor celebrated for acclaimed turns in the plays Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey into Night as well as a prolific career in film and television, has died at the age of 81. 

Dennehy died Wednesday night of natural causes in New Haven, Conn., according to Kate Cafaro of ICM Partners, the actor's talent agency.

"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," his daughter Elizabeth posted via Twitter on Thursday.

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 and was nominated for six Emmys.

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

Connecticut-born Dennehy was a familiar face across stage and screen, with a lengthy list of credits. His wide-ranging resumé spanned movies, such as First Blood, Cocoon, Romeo + Juliet and Tommy Boy, to TV miniseries, such as To Catch a Killer as well as a recurring role on Dynasty, to celebrated turns on Broadway that included revivals of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's Inherit the Wind.

"I try to play villains as if they're good guys and good guys as if they're villains," he said in 1992.

Long-time love for the stage

Despite the gamut of roles across his dozens of film credits — from a sheriff who jailed Rambo in First Blood to the levelheaded leader of aliens in Cocoon and its sequel — Dennehy eventually 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."

Dennehy and Terrence McNally attend a special benefit performance of Mothers And Sons in New York in 2014. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Dennehy had a long connection with Chicago's Goodman Theater, which had a reputation for heavy drama. He appeared in Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo in 1986 and later Anton Chekhov's Cherry Orchard at far lower salaries than he earned in Hollywood. In 1990, he played the role of Hickey in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, a play he reprised at the Goodman with Nathan Lane in 2012 and in Brooklyn in 2013.

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.

"Mr. Dennehy seems to kidnap you by force, trapping you inside Willy's psyche," New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote in his review of the play.

The actor was awarded another Tony in 2003 for his role in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night

"The words of Eugene O'Neill — they've got to be heard. They've got to be heard, and heard and heard," Dennehy said in his acceptance speech. "And thank you so much for giving us the chance to enunciate them."

Dennehy poses with Vanessa Redgrave after the duo won best lead actor and actress in a play for Long Day's Journey Into Night at the 2003 Tony Awards in New York City. (Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

His stage roles extended beyond Broadway and American regional theatres: he also performed on the West End in London, as well as in Canada at the Stratford Festival. Part of the Stratford company in 2008, 2011 and 2013, he had roles in productions ranging from All's Well That Ends Well to Krapp's Last Tape, Twelfth Night to Waiting for Godot.

"Brian Dennehy was a mountain of a man and his talent, intelligence and love for the theatre dwarfed Everest.… While he became famous on film, his heart was on the stage. His mind loved to take apart a great text and make it his own. He was bashful about his big physicality, but he was the friendliest giant you could ever meet,"  Antoni Cimolino, artistic director of the Stratford Festival, said in a statement.

While he became famous on film, his heart was on the stage. His mind loved to take apart a great text and make it his own.- Antoni Cimolino on Brian Dennehy

"At the Stratford Festival he found a second home, and his work ranged from Shakespeare to Schiller, from Beckett to Pinter," Cimolino said. 

"All of us at the festival are crushed by this news.… He leaves us far more than we can ever thank him for."

Pursued acting while working side jobs

Dennehy was born July 9, 1938, in Bridgeport, Conn., 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. He acted the title role in Macbeth. He played football on a scholarship at Columbia University, and he served five years in the U.S. Marines.

Back in New York City in 1965, he pursued acting while working at 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 his 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 six-foot-three-inch Dennehy went to Hollywood for his first movie, Semi-Tough starring Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson. Dennehy was paid $10,000 US a week for 10 weeks work, which he thought "looked like it was all the money in the world."

He continued to work deep into his 70s, in such projects as SundanceTV's Hap and Leonard, the film The Seagull with Elisabeth Moss and Annette Bening and the play Endgame by Samuel Beckett at the Long Wharf Theatre. His last foray on Broadway was in Love Letters opposite Mia Farrow in 2014.

He is survived by his second wife, costume designer Jennifer Arnott and their two children, Cormac and Sarah. He is also survived by three daughters — Elizabeth, Kathleen and Deirdre — from his previous marriage to Judith Scheff.

With files from CBC News