His face always stood out. It was so Irish. It had that weather-beaten, lived in look even when he was a younger man. Back then you usually caught him doing walk-ons for such shows as Kojak or Dynasty. But, no matter the role, it was hard to ignore Brian Dennehy.
He worked hard and his roles got better, for he possessed that certain something that helped him stand out in the wasteland of television. Even when he wasn’t the star or the hero you found yourself plugging for him.
No one ever accused him of being pretty but he inspired a lot of guys to give acting a shot – if Dennehy can do it, why not me?
I wasn’t surprised to find he was born in Bridgeport. He didn’t stay long but the city left its mark on him. Home of P.T. Barnum, Bridgeport was one rowdy burgh in the 70’s when I first hit it. Areas of it were rougher then than even Belfast or the Lower East Side, it’s great to see the old industrial city on the Sound resurrect itself and come roaring back.
Dennehy, on the other hand, never went anywhere. It seems like he’s always been with us. Perennial tough guy on the silver screen or the idiot box, he took on the greatest challenge in American theatre, the interpretation of Eugene O’Neill.
Why is O’Neill so difficult – simply because he’s the Man. Shakespeare is more facile, poetic, and has all the gifts that every writer aspires to, but when it comes to dealing with the sheer terror and joy of living, Irish Gene O’Neill wrote the book. And Brian Dennehy wades through it with a primal force informed by a rare sensitivity and an unstinting love for the characters he inhabits.
Barely more than a boy I stumbled into a production of A Touch of the Poet starring Jason Robards. I was floored by the intensity and truth of this great actor’s performance. I never thought anyone could match it until I saw Dennehy - and Gabriel Byrne - take O’Neill in other, but no less thrilling, directions.
That’s the magic of theatre, isn’t it? You can be obsessed with a titan like O’Neill, think you know it all, and then some actor comes along, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and opens your eyes to shadows and depths that you were breezily unaware of.
Unfortunately, Robards won’t be around to raise a glass on October 18th at Rosie O’Grady’s. But Gabriel Byrne will salute Dennehy when he receives the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish American Writers and Artists. It will be a banner night, for Albany’s William Kennedy - perhaps the greatest living American novelist - will make the presentation.
A note of disclosure, I must admit that I’m connected to this IAW&A posse. We set out less than two years ago to “highlight, energize and encourage Irish Americans working in the arts.”
There have been some notable successes including a fundraiser at Connolly’s in March for victims of the Haitian earthquake that netted over $100,000.
In general the organization is populist with a progressive slant, but looking around the table at board meetings in a midtown law office I see many shades of political opinion. And on Oct. 18th we might even provide a Tea Party table; however, we would seat Malachy McCourt at its head for balance and, no doubt, a “robust exchange of opinions.”
Seriously though, our goal is to help promote Irish American writers, musicians, actors and all other artists no matter what their politics, and to that end we’ll be honoring ex-Marine, hard man and O’Neill explorer, Brian Dennehy.
As ever our events are lively, informal and open to the public. You can rub shoulders with the famous, shake hands with various devils or just sit at the open bar and take the whole thing in. Maybe I’ll see you there.
Eugene O’Neill was born in a hotel room a couple of blocks from Rosie’s. It’s hard to imagine that his ghost won’t be present in some corner gruffly approving of Brian Dennehy, a man who has not only carried on his spirit but helped reinvigorate it.
For information go to www.i-am-wa.org or call 212-213-1166.