How Did Brian Dennehy Die? Veteran Actor Dead At Age 81

Dennehy was known for his work in film and in theatre.

How Did Brian Dennehy Die? Veteran Actor Dead At Age 81 Getty

Veteran stage and screen actor Brian Dennehy has died. Though perhaps best known for his appearance alongside Chris Farley in Tommy Boy and as infamous basketball coach Bobby Knight in A Season on the Brink, the Connecticut native was considered one of the most iconic stage actors of his generation.

Robert Falls, who directed Dennehy in many stage productions at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, said "No other actor has so defined himself by the greatest roles of the 20th century,” Falls said. "Brian was a giant man and he wanted to take giant risks every time he came up to bat.”


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Dennehy's television performances include guest sports shows such as Dynasty, Law & Order and The West Wing. His film and theatre career spanned three decades and netted him two Tony Awards and a Golden Globe. 


How did Brian Dennehy die?

He started out as a football player.

He was born in July 1938 in Bridgeport, CT and moved to Long Island when he was 12. He played football in high school and started acting on the suggestion of his coach. He went on to Columbia University in New York City on a football scholarship and majored in history. After graduating, he went on to the Yale School of Drama. During his early years, he focused on theatre work and supported himself with a variety of day jobs including driving a meat truck, working as a Merrill Lynch stockbroker and tending bar. His first major break was in the off-Broadway Vietnam War play Streamers by David Rabe's.

He was a frequent guest on television series.

For many years, Dennehy was a familiar face on popular TV shows, though he was often appearing for only a single episode. He did spots on Kojak, Police Woman, and M*A*S*H in the 1970s. In 1981, he landed a recurring role as D.A. Jake Dunham on Dynasty. The following year, he starred as a father and fire captain on ABC's Star of the Family, but it was canceled after 10 episodes.


He worked in films until the end of his life. 

Dennehy's film career really got started when he starred alongside Burt Reynolds in Semi-Tough in 1977. He played the racist sheriff Teasle in First Blood with Sylvester Stallone. Over the years, he was seen in films like Legal Eagles, The Belly of an Architect, Return to Snowy River, Gladiator, and Romeo + Juliet, where he played the father keeping Clare Danes from Leo DiCaprio. More recently, he filmed an adaptation of The Seagull.

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He continued to act on stage despite being a movie star.

Dennehy loved the stage and often performed at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. He claimed to love spending time in the Midwest "because I can sit down with rational people who make $50,000 a year and live in houses and have children and pay their taxes and shop at Sears." Dennehy also made frequent appearances at Stratford Festival of Canada, where he did roles in plays by William Shakespeare.



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Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane in 2015.

He was an award-winning actor.

Dennehy was nominated for two Tony Awards as Best Actor and won both times. The first was for the 1999 revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and again in 2003 for a revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. He won a Golden Globe for the 2001 television version of Death of a Salesman, for which he also won a Screen Actor's Guild Award. 


He stopped a performance over a cell phone.

In one memorable performance of Death Of A Salesman, Dennehy made headlines not for his acting, but for bringing the show to a halt. An audience member had neglected to turn off his cell phone and it started to ring during the second act of the play by Arthur Miller. Dennehy remembered being angered by the interruption. 

"It's a very beautiful scene, heartbreaking scene, and this thing went off, and it went off, and it went off, and it went off," he recalled. "I finally just said, 'Alright, let's stop. We'll wait while you find your phone and turn it off, have your conversation, whatever it is, but we'll just wait.' Well of course the guy was mortified and ran out of the theater."


Dennehy died this week at the age of 81.

He was hospitalized near his home in Connecticut several days ago and passed away due to cardiac arrest due to sepsis, according to statements from his agent, Brian Mann. 

He is survived by his wife of 32 years Jennifer Arnott and five children, Elizabeth Dennehy, Cormack Dennehy, Kathleen Dennehy, Deirdre Dennehy, and Sarah Dennehy. His first wife, Judith Lee Scheff Dennehy, whom he divorced in 1974, died in 2015. 

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Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. She is the creator of the blog FeminXer and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.