Brian Dennehy has spent his acting life 'chasing something different' from every role, every performance. Now 72, and preparing for 'The Field', he tells SARA KEATINGhe's happy to keep chasing 'until I collapse'
BRIAN DENNEHY IS sitting in a strange, half-supine position when I arrive to meet him, as if in meditation. In repose, he looks like a character in a Eugene O'Neill play; Con Melody, perhaps, the deluded Irish-American soldier from A Touch of the Poetwhom O'Neill defined by the "map of Ireland written on his face". With his wide brow, large features and pale blue eyes, there is indeed something particularly Irish about his bearing.
O'Neill seems like a third member of our party as our conversation starts. Dennehy has performed in several O'Neill plays over the years: as the complex actor patriarch of the Tyrone family in Long Day's Journey into Night; the parsimonious farmer Ephraim Cabot in Desire Under the Elms; the small-time hustler Erie Smith in O'Neill's monologue play, Hughie; and the tragically evangelical Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, at the Abbey Theatre in 1992.
Dennehy was even awarded the prestigious Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year, although he is too polite to mention it during our meeting. Indeed, he is happier talking abstractly about his love of the Irish-American O’Neill and his passion for Irish literature – Samuel Beckett, Sebastian Barry, John B Keane – than he is about himself, his achievements or the longevity of his career in film, television and stage.
The life of O’Neill gradually opens into a discussion of Dennehy’s own background and the complexity of his Irish-American heritage. “O’Neill was Irish-American, remember, not Irish,” he says, as if qualifying his own connection to the island. “And that’s a whole lot different.”
Dennehy’s parents were children of Irish parents who emigrated around the same time in the late 1890s and settled in Connecticut. Their relationship with their homeland was very different from Dennehy’s parents’ understanding of their heritage. “My grandfather had a really bitter childhood,” he says. “He went to America to lose himself. He hated being reminded of Ireland and hated everything Irish: Irish music, everything. And maybe that wasn’t an unusual reaction for the first generation – all they remembered was poverty and oppression.
“But my own father, he became a typical Irish-American, a typical sentimentalist. Me, third generation, I fell in love with Ireland when I first visited, but I am no idealist; I know the good and the bad points – the joy and the craziness – but at the same time it all works for me.”
In the same way O’Neill’s father, James O’Neill, defied convention by becoming an actor, so Dennehy shocked his parents by deciding to take to the stage. He had flirted with the military (“service was compulsory in those days”), driving a cab and going to law school (he got a scholarship to Columbia University), so when he eventually settled on acting his parents were confused.
“ ‘Why do you want to be an actor?’ my father asked me. ‘Because it might make me happy,’ was what I said. ‘What’s that got to do with it?’ my father wanted to know – and he was right. It was a whole generational thing, and we got carried away with it – the pursuit of happiness – and I think it is what left us with the whole mess we are in right now, in Ireland, in America, and that is something my children and your generation will have to live with.”
Dennehy first visited Ireland almost 40 years ago on a brief sojourn from a film shoot in the UK. After working at the Abbey Theatre in 1992 he bought a cottage on the Beara Peninsula, to which he made an annual pilgrimage with his family until a few years ago. He visited JB Keane in nearby Listowel one year, just before the writer died, and is thrilled now to have the chance to perform in The Field, "a great melodrama that is also unbelievably profound".
“When you read it and remember that it was written in 1965, it is just astonishing in the way it’s so anti-authoritarian, so anti-church. It was written right at the cusp of a whole new mood . . . and it was based on a real-life local incident. It was a really brave play.”
Dennehy is taking on the role of the fearsome Bull McCabe, a complex, particularly Irish figure whose tragedy is his stubborn determination to uphold his principles, despite the consequences. He may not be a sympathetic character, but Dennehy sees “a grace note there”.
“Aside from committing a murder – and that was an accident; I don’t believe he intended to murder this guy – and aside from being a bit of a pig when it comes to gender, there is a real integrity to his character. He embodies this struggle against primitive capitalism. He is closely related to nature.
"He resents modernisation. It will result in a field being turned into a concrete factory, nature being sacrificed on the altar of commerce. He might not be a sympathetic character – but he might be right." In light of the crazy overdevelopment of the Irish landscape since the mid 1990s it seems prescient, too, but Dennehy is careful not to shoehorn The Fieldinto a reductive argument about political relevance.
“It is not contemporary, because the Bull’s solution is so fascist. Perhaps the more modern part of it would be the total condemnation of what he calls ‘the gang’ – the priests, the doctors, the lawmen, the schoolmaster – who have the world wrapped up between them. And how people like the Bull are constantly thwarted by their desires.”
Having just done the first read-through with the full cast, Dennehy is excited to get into the rehearsal room to work the play out, but rehearsals, he says, are merely the beginning of his journey with both character and play.
"It is not until you are out on the stage with the audience that you really begin to know what you are doing," he says. "That is when you learn. The more you do it, the more you understand it, but I don't know if you can ever really put your finger on it." He played Willie Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesmanmore than 700 times, he says, "and maybe three weeks after I finished it – and I spent 10 years with that play – I was driving home when something came to me. I had to pull into a rest area on the highway, and I sat there for 20 minutes going through it in my head, a whole new way of doing a scene, even though I knew I was never going to do it again.
“Sixty performances for a straight run?” he continues. “That’s nothing. I don’t know that, after such a short time, you can really figure it out, but you’re trying. When you’re shooting a movie you might do a take 50 times; you’re trying to achieve a certain thing. But in the theatre you’re chasing something different every time. A door you didn’t realise existed might open up suddenly, and you might want to follow, and it might bring you somewhere entirely new, and that’s much more exciting than some jerk-off TV series.
“The thing you’re really looking for is the thing you have no control over. Because what you want is not applause but silence, where nobody moves or opens their programme or shifts in their seat. That’s when you know you have them. There’s this thing actors and directors say: ‘Can we make them lean forward in their seats?’ That’s what you want: 850 people leaning forward to try to catch the next sound.”
Dennehy is 72 now – “and I feel it. I feel really old” – but his enthusiasm for performing hasn’t waned. If anything, he has done more and more theatre over the past 10 years.
“Why would I not?” he asks. “I mean, you get the opportunity to spend two hours a day exploring, making an effort in the thing you love and enjoy the most and they want to pay you. That is not a chore. That makes me a very, very lucky person. Some people might say, ‘Oh the repetition,’ but that’s bulls**t.
“I suppose the thing about getting old is that certain things become more important to you. I went shopping with my wife one day and she said, ‘Why don’t you get a new jacket?’ and I thought, I don’t want a new jacket. I’m 72. New socks, underwear, fine – but I have enough jackets for the time I have left. And that’s what it’s like professionally. I only want to do things I really care about, and I’m happy to do that until I collapse.
“An actor friend of mine . . . His name was Davy Byrnes – a wonderful actor but no one heard of him – he died on stage in Chicago one night. And Tommy Cooper collapsed one night after a show, his feet sticking out from underneath the curtain, and the audience thought it was a joke, part of the show. That’s how I want to go – feet sticking out from underneath the curtain.”
The Fieldopens at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin on Thursday
Iceman and aliens: A life of performance
As he has more than 60 big-screen appearances and 70 prominent TV roles, you have probably seen Brian Dennehy give more performances than you remember.
How about the brooding NYPD cop relocated to Russia in Gorky Parkor Walter, chief alien in Ron Howard's Cocoon?
He was also the mafioso Montague in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film of William Shakespeare's Romeo & Julietand, less recognisably, Remy's father Django in the animated film Ratatouille.
Dennehy has appeared in countless television shows, garnering six Emmy nominations, and he has also popped up in serials as diverse as The West Wing, Law & Orderand South Park(he played himself in the South Parkfeature film).
Dennehy is best known for his performances in the plays of Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller. He performed in The Iceman Comethat the Abbey Theatre in 1992 and played Willy Loman in Death of a Salesmanon Broadway more than 700 times, a record that O'Neill's actor father, James O'Neill, whom Dennehy immortalised in his performances in Long Day's Journey into Night, would have been proud of.