Brian Dennehy, honorary Chicago actor

Brian Dennehy died Wednesday night at 81, and as the news broke on Thursday, I started getting texts from friends. Not because I was president of the Dennehy fan club (though I’d at least consider applying for membership), but because Dennehy was the subject, along with Nathan Lane, of what might be the single best interview I’ve ever been privileged to conduct.

In February 2012, two months before Dennehy and Lane would perform in a Goodman Theatre production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, I flew to New York and met the two actors at a 120-year-old bar in Manhattan that would have been a decent stand-in for Harry Hope’s. Dennehy and Lane had never worked together before, but they’d been pals for three decades—a fact that wasn’t widely known, and that I got to take full advantage of as they—but mostly Dennehy—really let their guards down over a few rounds of drinks. We hired a photographer to document the interview, but the bar was so dark that most of the shots didn’t turn out well enough to use in print; we ran the one above as an inset, but set up another shoot in Chicago a few weeks later, after they’d arrived to start rehearsals, to get the cover. You can read the whole thing, including Dennehy’s choice quote about Jessica Lange, at Time Out, or if you want to see it as it ran in the magazine (remember magazines??), download a PDF here.

Dennehy never lived in Chicago, but as a theatergoer here, you’d be forgiven for imagining that he did. Dennehy worked onstage frequently in Chicago, starting with Wisdom Bridge Theatre’s 1985 production of Rat in the Skull. That’s where he began his enduring working relationship with Robert Falls, who didn’t direct Rat but was Wisdom Bridge’s artistic director.

In Mark Larson’s book Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater, Falls recalls meeting Dennehy:

We went out for coffee at the coffee shop at the end of Howard Street, and I just loved him. He and I just kind of hit it off. You can’t not be a drinking buddy of Brian’s. A lot of actors are. I was a drinking buddy of Aidan Quinn’s. We were all young. Anyway. I said to Brian, “I really think you should be coming back to Chicago doing a lot of roles. You love Chicago, Chicago loves you, and you feel like a Chicago actor.” We almost immediately started talking about doing other plays.

Dennehy followed Bob to the Goodman Theatre, where Falls became artistic director in 1986, and appeared in the first production of Falls’s first season, Brecht’s Galileo. Dennehy eventually became a member of the Goodman’s “artistic collective,” returning to the theater eight times over the next 26 years, often to perform works by O’Neill, a playwright he and Falls both revered: Dennehy played Hickey in a 1990 production of The Iceman Cometh before shifting to Slade for the 2012 staging, and appeared in A Touch of the Poet (1996), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2002), Hughie (2004 and again in 2010), and Desire Under the Elms (2009). He played Willy Loman in Falls’s 1998 production of Death of a Salesman; the 2010 remount of Hughie was paired with the Samuel Beckett one-act Krapp’s Last Tape. Three of these productions transferred to Broadway, and Dennehy won the Tony Award twice for Salesman and Long Day’s Journey.

Which is why theatergoers in Chicago—or New York, or London, or at Canada’s Stratford Festival, where Dennehy appeared in five productions of plays by Shakespeare, Pinter, Beckett and O’Neill—might have shaken their heads just a little at the framing of Dennehy’s career by many news outlets yesterday. As one pal texted me: “I love how the cut line is ‘Brian Dennehy, Tommy Boy actor’?!”

Not that there’s anything wrong with Tommy Boy. But I’m not sure any of Dennehy’s numerous screen roles—IMDb lists 183 of them—captures what he was able to do onstage. A.V. Club staffer (and Chicago playwright) Randall Colburn wrote about seeing Dennehy at the Goodman in a roundup of appreciations yesterday, and I couldn’t agree more with his assessment: “Not only could he deftly wrap his mouth around some of the densest, most emotionally volatile language in modern theater, but onstage he also had this way of growing and shrinking, physically oscillating between statures imposing and pathetic.”

I’ll count myself lucky that I got to be his drinking buddy, just for a day.

Streaming theater updates

Sunday, April 19 at 6pm Central, head to Season of Concern’s YouTube channel for Chicago Offstage! Live at Home, a livestream event featuring an all-star lineup of Chicago performers including Jessie Mueller, E. Faye Butler, Bethany Thomas, Michael Mahler, Heidi Kettenring, Angela Ingersoll, Kelvin and Alexis Roston, Samantha Pauly and more. WGN’s Ana Belaval hosts; it’s free to watch, but donations to Season of Concern’s Covid-19 emergency fund are welcome.

Sideshow Theatre Company is offering pay-what-you-wish streaming access to an archive recording of Philip Dawkins’s solo show The Happiest Place on Earth, which premiered at the Greenhouse Theater Center in 2016. Fill out the registration form here, make a donation if you can, and receive a streaming link in your email.

Also livestreaming Sunday night at 7pm Central, Michael Urie will reprise his performance in Jonathan Tolins’s one-man comedy Buyer and Cellar on’s YouTube channel. Yes, fine, this isn’t a Chicago production, but Urie did perform the show here, kicking off a multicity tour in 2014 at the Broadway Playhouse. I interviewed him ahead of that opening, and you can also read my review at Time Out. It’s a terrific performance, and it’s raising funds for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS’s Covid-19 fund.

Theater Wit has “extended” its streaming run of Teenage Dick through May 3.

Victory Gardens Theater announced plans this week to make available an archive recording of its 2017 production of the sublime musical Fun Home for a two-week streaming revival. Details still to come, but it’s sure to be worth your bandwidth.

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