The Life of Brian

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.

“It’s a funny situation for me,” he says, “because I’m a blue-collar actor. I mean this in the sense that acting is a job to me. It’s a good job, an interesting job, and I wor – Holy Jesus!” A waiter arrives with his second scotch. It’s huge. “Send for the paramedics! Anyway – I work hard at it, but I’m not a Jesuit, you know what I mean? I’m an actor. Like a carpenter.

“I don’t spend very much time preparing before I go onstage,” he continues. “As Jon Lovitz would say, it’s acting. I watch actors stalk around the stage beforehand, banging their heads against walls, but – ” I point out that Hoffman got so tired doing the role he shaved off Saturday matinees. He cuts me off. “Fifty years ago, if you were Ralph Richardson or John Gielgud playing Richard III, you did it eight times a week. If you were John Barrymore, drunk off your ass, you were still doing great performances eight times a week. It’s not easy, but it’s not all that complicated.”

In the late eighties, show-business people did think that Dennehy would be the Next Big Thing. He’d gotten ecstatic notices for his work in Peter Brook’s The Cherry Orchard and supporting roles in big Hollywood features. But then . . .

“I said yes to some roles when I shoulda said no,” admits Dennehy, presumably referring to the string of TV movies he made in the nineties. “I had to put three kids through college and grad school; I had an ex-wife. You know – the same things that everybody else has.”

Dennehy spent most of his early childhood in Red Hook and Floral Park. When Dennehy was 10, his father, a general-news editor for the Associated Press, and his mother, a nurse, moved the family to Mineola, where Dennehy played not only football at his all-male Catholic high school but Macbeth. Dennehy knew then that acting suited him. Nevertheless, he went to Columbia University, and then joined the Marines, before finally trying to break into show business. He worked as a truck driver, waiter, and bartender to keep solvent in those days, and didn’t land his first real role – in a New York production of Chekhov’s Ivanov – until he was 33.

His career has since cycled through many ups and downs – with more downs than he would have liked in recent years. But playing Willy Loman has completely revived him. “It has restored in me a kind of faith I’d lost in what I was doing,” says Dennehy. “You get to a certain age, and you say, ‘What the fuck am I doing this for? It’s one thing if you’re 60 years old and you’re Anthony Hopkins or Gene Hackman, and even Gene – I’m sure he does a lot of shit he’d rather not do. But I don’t even get asked to do the shit.”

He orders one final scotch. “This will last for three months, maybe four, maybe six,” he says. “And then that will recede into the past, and there’ll be another job or there won’t. That’s the life. That’s everybody’s life. I got no problem with that.”

The Life of Brian