Wearing a baseball cap and a bemused expression, Brian Dennehy leans in, oblivious to everything around him. He is, as it happens, lost in conversation with the last journalist to grab his ear in a long afternoon of pre-preview interviews about his latest Broadway adventure: playing the aging patriarch in Desire Under the Elms. And Dennehy is in his element, talking eloquently on a subject he grasps completely: the drama of Eugene O’Neill.
For Dennehy, the show which opened at Broadway’s St. James Theatre on April 27th and closed on May 24th, after debuting to stellar reviews at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, is his fifth major O’Neill production and the first on Broadway since winning a Tony Award in 2003 as James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. He’d already picked up a Best Leading Man Tony in 1999 for his portrayal of Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
The veteran actor, considered one of the foremost interpreters of O’Neill’s work, refers to the playwright as The American Shakespeare, noting that: “He never shied from anything – he was a driven, dedicated artist. He understood that the 800-pound gorilla in the room was his writing and that everyone and everything had to be sacrificed for it – including himself.”
Without question, Desire was one O’Neill’s more controversial experimental works thanks to its Freudian overtones and plot generously lifted from Greek mythology’s Phaedra-Hippolytus story that focused on the love affair of a stepmother and stepson. In O’Neill’s version, set in 1850 New England, Dennehy’s autocratic character (Ephraim Cabot) brings his new young bride home to a bleak homestead where she seduces his youngest son – an act that leads to a volatile love triangle which results in horrific tragedy.
“When it was done in Los Angeles in 1924,” Dennehy says, “the cast was arrested on opening night because of the famous seduction scene. Even today, audiences are shocked, and O’Neill loved that. He never took mercy on the audience.”
At 70 – he turns 71 on July 9th – Dennehy remains a powerful character actor with solid working class Irish roots who likes to joke that the Dennehys were the only peasants in Ireland. “Every other Irish family seems to have Irish kings in their family tree.”
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, he grew up in Mineola, New York where he was inspired to pursue acting in high school by his mentor/ teacher/football coach, Chris Sweeney, with whom he still keeps in touch. His first major role was playing a teenaged Macbeth opposite a male Lady Macbeth. “But you get in front of an audience and you get this buzz,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is interesting.’”
So interesting that after serving in the Marines, driving a cab, majoring in history and playing football at Columbia he went on to study drama at Yale. Still, he admits, it wasn’t a simple leap into acting. “I have no idea why I decided to act. Why the hell would you want to be an actor – what does it have to do with anything?”
Eventually, however, Dennehy came to recognize that it was acting that made him happy, and his subsequent (and highly successful) career in film, television and on the stage proves his instincts were correct. Prolific, versatile and reliable, he is frequently able to use his brawniness (he was an offensive and defensive lineman in college), to underscore his personal authority, often in roles as cops, politicians or military men.
His work is frequently described as titanic, majestic or poignant. “Acting,” he contends, “is emotion on cue.” And, he says, he finds that emotion easier to conjure once he understands his characters. “I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what makes characters human,” he said. “It takes me a while now. Maybe it’s age.”
He said that he was able to grasp Tyrone and Loman’s humanity, at least initially, more than Ephraim Cabot’s. Which is where his history with Desire Under the Elms director, Robert Falls, came into play. “Bob and I have this huge relationship. We met in the early ‘80s when he was the art director of a small theatre in Chicago.
“At the time we talked about long-range ambitions – something I’d never had –and we set as our ambition to do things we weren’t sure we could pull off, “ says Dennehy. When Falls took over the Goodman, the two knew instinctively Desire was both a beautiful and difficult play – perfect to fulfill their early dreams.
Yet as volatile Ephraim and other characters he’s played have been, Dennehy says he has no problem leaving them behind once the curtain comes down. “People think you can’t help but be affected by the parts you play – and some actors pay a terrible price – but I’m not one of them,” he notes. “I can leave, watch sports – I’m a sports and baseball fanatic. I was originally a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, but I guess you could say I’ve gone over to the dark side: I come off the stage and ask ‘Who’s pitching for the Yankees?’”