Brian Dennehy Dies: Versatile ‘First Blood,’ ‘Tommy Boy’ & ‘The Blacklist’ Actor Was 81

Brian Dennehy dead obituary
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Brian Dennehy, the Tony- and Golden Globe-winning actor whose career in movies, TV and the stage spanned nearly half a century, has died. He was 81. He died Wednesday of natural causes at his home in New Haven, CT, his agency ICM Partners said.

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Stallone and Dennehy in ‘First Blood’ (1982). StudioCanal/Shutterstock

Instantly recognizable for the past four decades, Dennehy broke out with his role as a small-town sheriff who hassles John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) in the franchise-launching 1982 actioner First Blood. The lawman pushes the wandering Vietnam vet too far and gets much more than he bargained for. He first teamed with Stallone in the 1978 labor-union drama F.I.S.T.

He went on to appear in such varied films as Gorky Park (1983), Cocoon (1985), F/X (1986), Presumed Innocent (1990), Romeo + Juliet (1996) and most recently Knight of Cups (2015). He also voiced the father of the lead rat in Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007).

Dennehy also co-starred as the ruthless, villainous Sheriff Cobb in the star-laden 1985 Western romp Silverado and played the father of Chris Farley’s Tommy in Tommy Boy (1995). In the latter, “Big Tom” was the genial owner of Callahan Auto whose assistant Richard Hayden (David Spade) ends up on a wild road trip with Tommy.

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His earlier film work included the hit comedies Semi-Tough (1978), with Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson; Foul Play (1977), opposite Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn; and the Dudley Moore-Bo Derek romp 10 (1980).

Brian Dennehy Mike Piscitelli

A six-time Emmy nominee, he most recently recurred on NBC’s The Blacklist. Starting with Season 3 in 2016, he played Dominic Wilkinson, the Russia-born KGB agent whose granddaughter is Liz (Megan Boone) and daughter is Katarina (Laila Robins). He is among the few characters to know Raymond Reddington (James Spader) secret.

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His other 2000s TV work includes Hap and Leonard, Public Morals, The Good Wife and the finale of The Big C.

Dennehy won Golden Globe and SAG awards and scored an Emmy nom for his lead role as Willy Loman in the 2000 miniseries Death of a Salesman, reprising his role from the 1999 revival of Arthur Miller’s classic play. All six of his Emmy noms were for miniseries, ranging from 1990’s A Killing in a Small Town to 2005’s Our Fathers. All were for supporting roles except Death of a Salesman — which he also produced and shared a PGA Award for — and 1992’s To Catch a Killer, in which he starred as the notorious serial murderer John Wayne Gacy.

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Brian Dennehy dead obituary
Dennehy and Douglas Henshall in the West End production of ‘Death of a Salesman’ (2005) Alastair Muir/Shutterstock

Dennehy won a pair of Tony Awards for Best Actor in a Play, for Death of a Salesman — also starring in its West End run — and later for playing James Tyrone in the 2003 revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night. His extensive Broadway credits began with Brian Friel’s Translations in 1995 and also included 2007’s Inherit the Wind, 2009’s Desire Under the Elms with Carla Gugino and opposite Mia Farrow in 2014’s Love Letters.

He was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 2011.

Born on July 9, 1938, in Bridgeport, CT, Dennehy joined the Marine Corps in 1958 and served on Okinawa for five years. Early on he drove a truck, was a butcher and also worked as a stock broker alongside Martha Stewart at Moness, Williams, & Seidel in New York City.

While juggling day jobs, Dennehy acted in plays all over Long Island, honing his skills in dinner theaters, then at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, PA. That experience led to roles in off-Broadway and off-off Broadway theaters in Manhattan. Encouraged by good reviews for his role in David Rabe’s production of Streamers, he moved to Los Angeles, where he became a professional actor at the age of 38.

Survivors include his wife, Jennifer Arnott, a costume designer; their son, Cormac, an agent at Gersh in New York; their daughter, Sarah; daughters Elizabeth, Kathleen and Deirdre from an earlier marriage to Judith Scheff; and several grandchildren.

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