For, Friday, April 17, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: Burly, barrel-chested character actor Brian Dennehy passed away Thursday at age 81 of natural causes. Dennehy began his career in movies and on television in 1977 — and during that year appeared in no less than three theatrical films and two made-for-TV movies, as well as guest shots on eight television series. It would set the pace for a busy 40-year career, which also included Broadway, where he won two Tonys. I interviewed Dennehy when he was promoting Ron Howard’s ‘Cocoon’ and his star was still on the rise for this article, published in the Deseret News on June 25, 1985. ‘Cocoon’ was a big hit in June 1985, and just two weeks later Dennehy had a prominent role in another summer blockbuster, Lawrence Kasdan’s ‘Silverado.’

NEW YORK – Brian Dennehy, one of the busiest and best character actors in the movies today, is finding his profile gradually raised, and admits that his 6-foot, 5-inch, 250-pound frame probably helps him when casting directors are looking for heavies, slang for movie bad guys.

You may know him as the police chief who pushed Sylvester Stallone over the edge in “First Blood,” the New York cop that helped Soviet cop William Hurt in “Gorky Park,” the quirky pilot who terrorized Charles Martin Smith in “Never Cry Wolf,” or from roles in “10,” “F.I.S.T.,” “Foul Play,” “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” and other films.

In “Cocoon,” however, he is not a heavy. He’s a good guy. An alien, mind you, but a good alien. “From an honest planet,” as Steve Guttenberg says in one scene.

“I wanted to do it because it was a departure, a very different picture for me,” Dennehy said during interviews for the film at the Plaza Hotel in New York. “It was a damn good part. I just don’t get offered those kinds of roles.”

He added that because they believed in the project, most of the cast took a pay cut to help keep the budget down. “We all worked for a lot less money in this picture than we normally get, in some cases I’d say about half. Everyone worked in this picture at a sacrifice.”


Brian Dennehy and his alien friends in 'Cocoon (1985).

Dennehy also had great praise for his fellow cast members, which include some of the great names in movie character work over the years. “It’s beautifully cast, wonderful actors, Jack Gilford, and Don Ameche who I think is extraordinary, Hume (Cronyn), Wilford (Brimley). Very few pictures of this kind have been made in the science-fiction framework. I’m kind of pleased in the way the two stories blended.

“In one way this was a difficult picture, because you had all these really extraordinarily talented people who were to a certain extent underutilized. I mean there was an awful lot of hanging around in this picture, more so than usual, and there’s always a lot of hanging around. You’d get into a lot of reading and crossword puzzles, and I went swimming a lot, but on the set it was just really a warm and friendly and helpful atmosphere.”

He says he’s enormously satisfied being a character actor, and given the choice, Dennehy would rather be an actor, than a star. That explains why, when asked to name a star he admires, Dennehy chooses an actor.

“To me the best American actor is Gene Hackman. Hackman has been a star and then he’s not a star and he is a star. Hackman does the work. I admire him beyond all bounds.

“We did a picture together called ‘Twice Upon a Time’ (which has not yet been released) and it was like 25 years ago in the theater, when you were giving and taking from an actor and he wasn’t trying to protect himself. He wasn’t trying to project an image, and most stars today do that. Most stars treat their stardom as if it was a commodity that has to be very carefully packaged and protected and sold.

“Gene is an actor. Small ‘a’. And he is a star at the same time, and that’s the kind of stardom I can understand. The other stuff I don’t understand.”


Brian Dennehy, left, with Sylvester Stallone in 'First Blood' (1982).

Dennehy also has come observations to make about Sylvester Stallone, with whom he worked in “First Blood.” “I have an enormous respect for Stallone. He doesn’t do the kind of thing I do, but I certainly respect what he has done.

“Nobody ever gave Sylvester Stallone anything, he made himself a star, and he understands the dimensions of his stardom better than anyone. He’s a guy who fashioned himself, and when he became a star he refashioned himself into an even bigger star. That’s an extraordinary feat.”

He’s also philosophical about big stars like Stallone who make enormous salaries (Stallone will reportedly get $12 million for his next film).

“If Sylvester Stallone doesn’t make ‘First Blood,’ I don’t make it either. I don’t get to do that picture. I don’t get that paycheck. Stallone being a star of a movie, or Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood, gets that movie made, and it employs all those other actors and all those other technicians.

“I understand that. I understand how this business works. Nobody’s paying five bucks, or very few people are paying five bucks to see me in a movie. They’re there to see Stallone. He gets the big money and he gets the press and all that stuff, but he also has the responsibility.”

With a chuckle, Dennehy added,  “If the picture goes in the tubes, nobody’s sitting back in Hollywood saying, ‘The mistake we made was in casting Brian Dennehy. He’s the guy that made that picture fall. He stinks, no more are we going to put him in our pictures.’