Brian Dennehy Has Died, And Attention Should Be Paid (Corrected)

This would normally be in the Warm-Up, but I left it out, and I want to make sure it is seen. I have written about this pet peeve of mine before, but I see that it was on the old Ethics Scoreboard in 2005, before Ethics Alarms. (ARGGH! I have GOT to get that site back on-line!)

Here is a typical headline I am seeing on the web:

Veteran Actor And ‘Tommy Boy’ Star Brian Dennehy Dead At 81

“Tommy Boy.”

For the love of God…

Brian Dennehy, who  died this week, was one of our finest, most versatile and most enjoyable character actors. His performance as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of  Salesman” on Broadway is considered by critics as one of the very best interpretations of that classic role in what has been called the Great American Tragedy. The performance won him a Tony, as did his turn as Hickey in the other contender for the Great American Tragedy, O’Neill’s “The Ice Man Cometh.” (That one would get my vote.)

Dennehy’s brawny, square-headed Irish bartender looks limited him to supporting roles in films (In “Silverado,” He’s one of my two all-time favorite Western bad guys,  evil and so, so engaging!) and while he had many TV roles, Dennehy never found a long-running hit that would make him a household name ( and a gazillion dollars) like so many lesser actors. But Dennehy considered himself a stage actor, and there he excelled.

“Tommy Boy” is a sophomoric gross-out comedy that starred the late Chris Farley. Dennehy was terrific as Farley’s father, but the movie was the kind of throw-away that actors like him do to buy new pools. Citing that as Dennehy’s claim to fame is more than misleading, it’s an insult.

When I wrote about this issue before, it was when actor John Fiedler and Paul Winchell died, both in 2005. Both deceased actors were described in headlines as their “Winnie the Pooh” movie voice performer roles (Fieldler was Piglet, Winchell was Tigger*), and in both cases, but especially Winchell’s, it was like announcing Thomas Edison’s death by calling him the inventor of the concrete house (which he was, you know.)

John Fielder and his strange, breathy, high-pitched voice was featured in many memorable TV episodes (he was the spirit of Jack the Ripper on the original “Star-Trek”) as he guest-starred in dozens of shows, often multiple times, throughout the 50’s and 60’s, including a recurring role as one of Bob Newhart’s psychiatric patients in the first “Bob Newhart Show.” Fiedler only appeared in a few films, but one was as Juror 5 in “Twelve Angry Men,” and another was as the fearsome (if “shrunk”) lawyer  J. Noble Daggott in “True Grit.”

Reducing his career to the voice of an animated toy is bad enough, but doing the same to Paul Winchell was almost criminal.  In the 50’s and 60’s he was the star of two of the most popular Saturday morning  kids shows, sharing the stage with his ventriloquist dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smith. Winchell might have been the best and most innovative ventriloquist of all time: he was to TV what Edgar Bergen was to radio, and as far as technique, it was no contest.  Winchell was also an important inventor. He had medical training, and while he was not not moving his lips on TV, he had a parallel career as the inventor of medical equipment, including becoming the first to build and patent a mechanical artificial heart, (US Patent #3097366)

I think I’ll call what was done to Fiedler, Winchell, and now Brian Dennehy, “Headline Depreciation.” It’s misleading, it’s disrespectful, it’s incompetent, and it’s wrong.


* NOTICE OF CORRECTION: I originally wrote Eeyore here, not Tigger. Serves me right for hating “Winne the Pooh”…

19 thoughts on “Brian Dennehy Has Died, And Attention Should Be Paid (Corrected)

  1. There was a time in the ’80s or ’90s when you couldn’t watch a TV show without Brian Dennehy having a role in it. Reminds me of Dennis Miller’s observation upon Michael Caine’s similar ubiquity: “Watched my wedding video last night. Damned if Michael Caine wasn’t in it.”

    • Chaz Palminteri had a great story about that.

      At one point three different movies he was in were out at the same time. He was at a theatre to watch another film, when a trailer for one of his movies came on. The guy sitting in front of Palminteri remarked to the friend sitting next to him something like, “Chaz Palminteri again? I can’t get away from that guy! Everywhere I turn, there he is!”

      So Palminteri taps him on the shoulder. The guy turns around and Palminteri says to him, “You got a problem with that?”

  2. Credit to Dennehy’s family for being clear that he died of natural causes and not COVID-19. I can imagine that they didn’t want his death co-opted as part of the pandemic narrative.

    I will say that one of my favorite Dennehy roles was in F/X. He doesn’t appear for the first 40 minutes, but after that the movie is his.

  3. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Winchell play Tigger, not Eeyore?

    Otherwise, I agree with everything you wrote. Reducing an entire career down to one role in a stupid, crowd-pleasing movie is hugely disrespectful to an actor.

      • You’re absolutely right, but what do you have against Winnie the Pooh? Don’t tell me you think the books were saccharine like Dorothy Parker, who reviewed the second book with “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.” That said, not everyone started life with a stuffed Pooh bear as their first and constant companion and so developed an affection for a childhood sentimental object that could not quite be shaken later.

  4. Dennehy was among the first actors that I started to recognize across films, and Tommy Boy itself was so forgettable that I didn’t even remember him in it.

    Headline was written by an editor with little experience of films made before they were born?

      • I’ve…um…availed the Moore/Webber line (to “Donald, Don to my friends and paying customers”) I’ve left a little something for your favorite charity so many times over parts of each of the last five decades, I should be paying royalties.

        Moore’s character was having a midlife crisis @42? Sheesh; I haven’t had mine yet and I’m 42 with nearly 23 years experience!

  5. I’ve always enjoyed seeing him on screen. My friends thought he died a few years back, but I knew he as still with us because I’d been watching The Blacklist on NBC and he’d show up every now and again. Always seemed like a great and nice guy with a larger than life presence.

    He was a piece of my “Entertainers over 80” list, so now that’s been updated:

  6. Re: Paul Winchell and ventriloquists.

    Sorry. Ventriloquists terrify me almost as much as clowns (and mimes).

    Speaking of mimes, we watched “Resistance” last weekend. I knew vaguely about Marcel Marceau. I had no idea that he played an integral role in rescuing Jewish children in France from the Nazi-Vichy government in France during World War II. I recommend the movie, which happily doesn’t have too many scenes with mimes.


  7. When Sir John Gielgud — arguably the greatest classical actor of his generation — passed away, many newspapers went with: “Butler from Arthur Dies.”

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