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The Life of Brian

After a drought in Hollywood playing invisible roles in disposable movies, two-fisted actor Brian Dennehy rebounds on Broadway with a crushing portrayal of Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman."


First, a clarification: Brian Dennehy is not Charles Durning. This will come as news to the people who believe they remember his winning performance in Tootsie. The confusion stems in part from the superficial similarities between the two men (ruddy cheeks, sturdy builds, Father Christmas eyes) but also, more poignantly, from the very nature of character acting, which lends itself to a kind of transparency. Dennehy has appeared in two dozen movies over the past fifteen years but usually in roles we can't quite place -- the crooked sheriff in Silverado, for example, or the hungry prosecutor in Presumed Innocent. These life-worn types are staples of American cinema, but seldom its centerpieces; Hollywood rarely sings the praises of unspectacular men.

Some of the finest American theater, however, does, and Dennehy has played at least two of them: Hickey, in a 1990 Goodman Theatre production of The Iceman Cometh, and Willy Loman, in the current revival of Death of a Salesman. When the latter opened in Chicago (also at the Goodman), the critics marveled at the actor's ability to wrench such frailty from that enormous, imposing frame. "I never would have imagined Brian as Willy," says Robert Falls, who staged both Iceman and Salesman, "because he's so tremendously vital and bigger-than-life. But I remember walking down the streets of Chicago with Brian one day, and his knees were troubling him. I looked at him hobbling along and I realized, My God, I can see Willy Loman."

The Broadway production of Salesman opens Wednesday at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre -- 50 years to the day after the debut of the play, which not only defined an era but gave our literature a character as ineluctably American as Huck Finn or Jay Gatsby. "What Dennehy has," says Arthur Miller, who wrote Salesman when he was just 33, "is a mixture of a very human and vulnerable personality and a . . . massive quality, and that I find terribly interesting."

Equally interesting may be what Dennehy doesn't have: a marquee name. As odd as it may seem, A-list celebrities have always played Loman, the ultimate nonentity, at least in New York: Lee J. Cobb. George C. Scott. Dustin Hoffman. Dennehy obviously doesn't have the same glamour or cachet. "People recognize him," muses Larry Brezner, a Los Angeles producer and manager who has known Dennehy for nearly twenty years, "and they like him, but they don't know exactly who he is. Kind of like Willy Loman."

Dennehy is sitting in the back of Joe Allen, the theater-district hangout, eating vegetable stew, drinking scotch, and making jokes at his own expense. "Someone calls me this morning who'd seen the show," he says. "A Harvard guy, millionaire, worked for Goldman Sachs -- no, wait -- Salomon Brothers, for years. He's a friend of mine from the old days, all steel-gray hair and Paul Stuart suits. And he says to me, 'I was absolutely devastated by the show, blah blah blah, but what was the most amazing to me was how you got the wardrobe right -- you know, the baggy pants.' " Dennehy pauses. "I said, 'Uh, Sydney? That didn't have anything to do with the wardrobe. That's my body. I'm fucking Irish. I got no ass and a big belly.' "

Dennehy's Loman isn't always this expressive. In fact, there are times, to the actor's credit, when his performance is inversely proportional to his size. Perhaps it's a reflection of Dennehy's attitude toward the theater, which, like everything else about him, is resolutely unaffected -- right down to his un-chic address in northeastern Connecticut ("Not Litchfield"), where he lives with his second wife and two young children.

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