While Yalies may recognize Brian Dennehy from “Tommy Boy” or “Romeo + Juliet,” the two-time Tony-winning actor barely discussed his Hollywood resume at a Master’s Tea at Jonathan Edwards College on Thursday.
The self described “Irish Catholic kid from Brooklyn” spoke to an audience of some 40 people about his love for the stage. Dennehy also recounted his personal history and spoke about his theater career, praising the playwright Eugene O’Neill, whose play “Hughie” he stars in at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven until Nov. 16.
Though Dennehy has had many roles in popular films — among them “Righteous Kill” and “Ratatouille” — he admitted to not having seen more than a dozen major releases from the last decade and a half.
“I’ve been kicked out of the movie business because I’m too old and nobody gives a crap,” the 70 year-old said.
In the late 1950s, Dennehy attended Columbia University on a football scholarship, joined the Marine Corps and finally returned to Columbia for a master’s degree in history.
It was after this that Dennehy said he entered an aimless point in his life. After working some odd jobs, he decided he wanted to act. But it was years before he could support himself through acting, finally landing a role as Borking in Ivanov and receiving what he called a “valentine of a review” from The New York Times.
“Ten years later, I was an overnight success,” Dennehy said.
Later, Dennehy ventured into the Chicago theater scene — “an explosive place of theater,” he called it — and worked with director Bob Falls, who is now directing “Hughie” at the Long Wharf.
“Our only rule was that we must only do things we’re not sure we could do,” he said of their collaborations.
In 1998, they produced the highly regarded revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” After Miller saw the production and gave it his seal of approval, the show went to Broadway, Dennehy said. One of his Tony awards is for his role as Willy Loman.
With his solid reputation, Dennehy said he now chooses the roles he loves — such as his current one, as Erie Smith.
“Everything O’Neill wanted to say about life is in this play,” Dennehy said. “Melancholy, sadness, illusion, delusion, self-delusion.”
When asked about the changing identity of theater audiences, Dennehy predicted that there may not be a long future in theater with young people absent from the crowds.
Bobby Allen ’09, a Theater Studies major, said he expected to more of his peers at the event.
“I’m an actor and I was surprised that not many male actors came,” Allen said. “It might be a bit telling of kids in our generation that not many came to see a great man of the stage.”
Other students who only knew Dennehy from film walked away with a new perspective.
“Movies are only a footnote to his career,” Chris Lash ’11 said. “What he really cares about is acting.”
Dennehy said his approach to acting has also evolved over the years.
“Like any actor of a certain age, I want to tackle Shakespeare,” he said.