Brian Dennehy, a versatile stage and screen actor known for action movies, comedies and classics, but especially for his Tony Award-winning performances in “Death of a Salesman” in 1999 and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in 2003, died on Wednesday in New Haven, Conn. He was 81.
His agency, ICM Partners, announced his death. His agent, Brian Mann, told The Chicago Tribune that the cause was cardiac arrest resulting from sepsis. Mr. Dennehy lived in Connecticut, where he was born.
Brawny and gregarious, Mr. Dennehy was often called on to play an Everyman or an authority figure: athletes, sheriffs, bartenders, salesmen and fathers. He was in scores of movies — “First Blood” (1982), “Gorky Park” (1983), “F/X” (1986) and “Presumed Innocent” (1990) were among them — as well as an assortment of television series. But his first love was always the stage.
“He was a towering, fearless actor taking on the greatest dramatic roles of the 20th century,” Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago, where Mr. Dennehy did some of his finest work, said in a phone interview. “They were mountains that had to be climbed, and he had no problem throwing himself into climbing them.”
Mr. Dennehy, who once played college football, thrived on roles that let him contrast his physical presence with an emotional vulnerability.
“Mr. Dennehy is a big bear of a man, but sometimes more of a teddy bear than a grizzly,” Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times in 1990 after seeing Mr. Dennehy’s performance as the protagonist Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” at the Goodman, which Mr. Falls directed. “There’s a buried, dainty tenderness in his burly frame as well as a hint of festering violence.”
Mr. Falls also directed Mr. Dennehy’s two Tony-winning turns, which started at the Goodman. Ben Brantley of The Times, in his review of the Goodman’s production of “Salesman,” the Arthur Miller play, called it the performance of Mr. Dennehy’s career.
Mr. Falls said in the interview that Mr. Dennehy’s background — he had come to acting somewhat late, after knocking around in various blue-collar jobs — had helped make his portrayal of Willy Loman, one of the great roles of the American theater, so memorable.
“When he did ‘Salesman,’ he just brought everything to that role,” Mr. Falls said. “It was tailored for him. He knew those people. He knew that world.”
Brian Manion Dennehy was born on July 9, 1938, in Bridgeport, Conn., to Edward and Hannah (Manion) Dennehy. He grew up on Long Island.
He enrolled at Columbia University on a football scholarship, though, he said later, what he really wanted to do was perform with the Columbia Players.
“In those days, the Players had an artistic definition of themselves which didn’t allow a football player to be active,” he told the alumni magazine Columbia College Today in 1999. “I remember going up there a few times and distinctly feeling unwelcome.”
His first newspaper notices were not as an actor but as a tackle on the Columbia football team. He was picked to be one of the senior captains, but in July 1959 The Times ran an article headlined, “Football Captain-Elect Drops Out of Columbia.”
Mr. Dennehy, who said he had struggled academically, left school to join the Marines, serving in the United States, South Korea and Japan while he and his first wife, Judith Scheff, had two children. After leaving the service he completed his bachelor’s degree at Columbia in 1965 while working variously as a cabdriver, trucker, butcher, bartender and motel clerk to support his family.
He also spent time as a stockbroker — Martha Stewart was a co-worker — though he admitted that he hadn’t been a very good one and hadn’t enjoyed the work.
“I was sitting in the bullpen at Merrill Lynch down at Liberty Plaza and 30 guys got off the elevator with their attaché cases and headed for their desks,” he told the Columbia publication. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ And I did. Eventually, I was an overnight success — after 15 years.”
He had been acting in community theater productions, mostly on Long Island, for years, but in the mid-1970s he branched out.
“The thing was,” he told the Long Island newspaper Newsday in 1991, “you could work in community theater for 30 years and no one would spot you, no matter how good you were. Eventually, I had to take a chance in New York.”
His first mention as an actor in The Times was in 1976, when he was in a showcase production of Chekhov’s “Ivanov” by the Impossible Ragtime Theater. An agent named Judy Schoen saw the show and happened to be looking for “a pro football type,” as Mr. Dennehy put it, for a role in the movie “Semi-Tough.” He was cast, and small roles in other movies and television series came quickly after that.
By 1982, when he landed a regular role in the TV series “Star of the Family,” The Associated Press was calling him “one of Hollywood’s busiest character actors.” That same year his role as an overzealous sheriff in “First Blood,” the Sylvester Stallone hit (the first of Mr. Stallone’s “Rambo” movies), was something of a breakout.
For the next four decades Mr. Dennehy seemed to have as much television and film work as he wanted, racking up more than 45 credits in the 1980s alone. In 1990 he received the first of six Emmy nominations, as outstanding supporting actor in a mini-series or special for the TV movie “A Killing in a Small Town.”
In 1992 he played the serial killer John Wayne Gacy in “To Catch a Killer,” another mini-series. On the other side of the law, he played a Chicago police investigator, Jack Reed, in six TV movies in the 1990s, directing and earning writing credits on four of them himself.
Another well-known role in the 1990s was Big Tom, the father of Chris Farley’s character in the 1995 comedy “Tommy Boy.”
In recent years he had recurring roles in the TV series “Public Morals,” “Hap and Leonard” and “The Blacklist.” His last Broadway appearance was in 2014 in A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters.” In an interview with The Times in conjunction with that show, he was asked about favorite fan letters he had received.
“The most interesting was from John Wayne Gacy, who was in prison at the time, awaiting execution,” he said. “I played him in ‘To Catch a Killer.’ It was a letter of disappointment in the fact that one of his favorite actors had participated in this calumny. The movie revealed that 33 bodies of young boys were buried in the crawl space of his little house. His explanation: ‘Lots of people had access to that crawl space.’”
Mr. Dennehy’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1974. In 1989 he married Jennifer Arnott. She survives him, as do three children from his first marriage, Elizabeth, Kathleen and Deirdre; two children from his second marriage, Cormac and Sarah; and several grandchildren.
One of Mr. Dennehy’s best-known film roles was as an extraterrestrial in “Cocoon,” Ron Howard’s 1985 film about residents of a retirement home who are rejuvenated by swimming in the aliens’ pool. The movie was shot in Florida. For an article marking its 25th anniversary, Mr. Dennehy told The St. Petersburg Times that cicadas had been in season and chirping loudly during the filming — so loudly that before Mr. Howard called “action,” a crew member would fire a gun to quiet the insects.
“You could get two or three minutes when they would shut up, and you could actually shoot and record,” Mr. Dennehy said. “That would be the last thing done before we’d roll the cameras.”
Derrick Bryson Taylor contributed reporting.