Brian Dennehy Looks Back on His Career and Marvels at the Talent Around Him

We chat with the actor about his various film roles, from ‘First Blood’ to ‘Cocoon.’

First Blood
Orion Pictures

When you look back at your lifetime of cinematic obsession, several actors regularly appear in the projection booth of your mind. Often, I find that it’s the supporting players that stick out above the celebrities overwhelmed by their spotlight. Sylvester Stallone may have carried a couple of your most cherished childhood franchises, but it was Brian Dennehy that defined Rambo’s ascent into action movie nirvana.

The character actor roared through the 1980s, populating one blockbuster after another. Dennehy worked with an extraordinary amount of filmmakers. He shaped and was shaped by the talents of Ron Howard, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Apted, Terrence Malick, and dozens of others. Look within your passion for movies, and you’ll find Brian Dennehy staring right back at you.

Recently he has appeared in the television shows The Blacklist and Hap and Leonard, as well as making memorable film appearances in Knight of Cups, The Seagull, and Tag. His most recent movie is The Song of Sway Lake in which his voice narrates over the adventures of Rory Culkin’s struggling vinyl thief. You want gravitas? Dennehy provides.

I recently spoke to Dennehy over the phone. We looked back over his notable career, and the actor obliged with a series of accounts surrounding that momentous work. If anything is clear from this conversation, it’s that Dennehy has tremendous respect for the filmmakers he stood beside, and he’s as much in awe of those encounters as we are. He’s not here to take compliments, but he appreciates that his work has been seen and respected.

Here is our conversation in full:

Is there a film of yours that you feel doesn’t get enough love? A movie or role that you wish more people would talk about?

You mean I should pick it out, is that what you’re saying?

Yeah. Is there a movie that sticks out in your career that you wish more people addressed?

That would probably be just about all of them, I would think. No, I’m kidding. Well, Cocoon was a big hit. I don’t know, I would have to think about that.

Cocoon was the first movie of yours that I saw.

Yeah, that was probably the first big, huge hit. Ronnie had made a couple of pictures before that, but this was, this was huge, of course. And it was brilliantly made. It was a great script. I guess it was based on a book, I can’t remember. But, fun to make, wonderful cast of older actors. We were in Florida for 10 or 12 weeks, and I had the best time with those people.

Ronnie was an easy guy to work with, really knew his stuff, knew how to direct. Talk about a guy who deserves the success that he’s had. Ron Howard’s a perfect example of that. Grown up in the business and absolutely absorbed everything about the business that was important, and then has been giving it back now for 15, 20 years, 30 years. Fantastic character. Wonderful guy, too. Very nice, very sweet. Nice guy. A great experience.

Were you surprised by how that film connected with the audience? Did you know on set that that was going to be a success?

Well, the funny thing about it, I was doing other stuff. In those days, when I was kind of hot, you finish a picture and, bang, you’re on a plane going someplace else to do another one. I had to go back a few times to do some voice work on the picture, and everybody was saying it was really great, but they always say that.

When I saw the picture, what they had done with it, and more importantly, I saw it with an audience in Westwood, CA, I was in Los Angeles. I spent half my time watching the film and half my time watching the audience. By this time the reviews were all great and the picture was going very well. I realized that it was a joyful experience for the audience. A lot of pictures these days, even if they’re hits, are not. That picture was loved because it was lovable because you could love it. I did my part, which was not a huge contribution to it, but I was in it. But Ron Howard, that’s when he proved just how great of a storyteller he is and so the rest is history. A huge picture, a huge career for him, well deserved. And it was great for me.

The film that I adore, but one that I feel doesn’t get a lot of love these days is F/X with Bryan Brown.

F/X one was a big hit, that’s why they made F/X two.

Oh sure and I watched them both on repeat throughout the eighties and nineties. They were great potboilers.

Yes. You know the thing about F/X, both F/Xes, because the first one was certainly more close to what I’m talking about, is they were fun. They were fun. The old-fashioned movies were, there was very little serious stuff involved. When people got killed it was kind of part of the fun, part of the gag and they were not essential to what the story was. It was just fun to be in it. Fast moving, funny, amusing. Brown was one of the best when it comes to that. We all were having a good time and it showed in the picture. So, I was not surprised. We could have made a couple more, I wouldn’t have minded that at all.

So, do you feel like the mainstream entertainment right now is too self-serious?

No, I don’t think that. When anyone ever asks me a question like that, I always say the same thing, which is I don’t really care. It’s just the business as a whole. I don’t know what’s out there; I don’t go to the movies really. I like movies. I live way out in the country and I have a TV set and I get pictures in the mail all the time from Hollywood, some of which I watch and some of which I don’t. But this whole idea of the business and what’s happening and what’s going on, I don’t have any idea what some of this stuff is. Somebody said “Go see this director, go see this casting person” and then you get in the movies and you do the best you can, you make a movie, and then you go home.

One of my favorite recent roles of yours was in Hap and Leonard as Sheriff Valentine.

Yeah, that was supposed to be a series but I don’t think it lasted very long.

No. It got canceled.

It was nice. Nice picture. I don’t remember a hell of a lot about it.

Seems like you had a lot of fun with that character. Wish he had continued on.

I’m in this thing recently now, Tag. Similar kind of character. I had a good time with it too.

Of course, the movie most folks probably want to talk with you about is First Blood. It’s an all-time classic that’s often confused with the action movie madness that the sequels became.

Well, one thing I remember about that picture is that it was cold. We were shooting in Canada in November, December, January and it was a god damn cold picture. Of course, Sly is running around with no shirt on, I mean he had that canvas that he threw on. Now, he had the muscles for it, but Jesus Christ, he was a better man than I am for doing that shit.

You know, the funny thing about that picture, it was a reasonably priced picture. Sly, of course, had done the Rocky, I think he had made a couple of Rocky’s at that point, but he hadn’t done much else. So he came up with this character based on a book. We were shooting the picture and we started shooting, we’re in Western Canada, way the hell out in the woods someplace, colder than hell, snow all the time, rain half the time, snow, miserable weather. We had a bunch of motorhomes is what we were in and everybody was miserable, but we’re all doing it, and Sly’s running around without his shirt. He was a great guy to work with. Terrific guy, I really liked him. A lot of people moan about him all the time, I don’t know why. I thought he was really fun to be with.

What was your feeling about the film when you eventually saw it?

It had some reasonable expectations, but Stallone’s career had crested and it was kind of drifting off and this was, he was technically playing the same guy, but this was a different kind of movie, it’s a war movie right? So, Ted Kotcheff, the director who is a great director, under appreciated guy, knew what the hell he was doing and we all went home at one point. They stopped production for some reason, I can’t remember what it was. We came back and were kind of stumbling around and we went home for Christmas I guess it was. And there was a market, there was a film market someplace, I can’t remember where it was in Europe, but all the technicians went over the to the film market to show 15 minutes of the film, or whatever it was. And they came back and they said “My god, the reaction was unbelievable!’. And all of the sudden everybody got serious about that picture and the picture was released and it was another huge, monster hit for Stallone. He made, I don’t know, how many of those did he make? Five?

Four but he’s attempting making a fifth one now.

Yeah and Rocky was five or six. Talk about a career. You know those ten pictures or twelve pictures are a normal, monster movie star’s career. So Stallone is one of those guys. People want to watch him, they want to listen to him, they want to see him, and all you have to do is time it in a way that its entertaining and fast-moving, violent, whatever the hell it has to be and they pour out to see it. And that picture, nobody knew it was going to have that kind of success. In retrospect, when you look back and say “Well, of course, it was a big war movie, Stallone shooting people and knocking people around.”. Well at the time it was just another picture. But it became huge. And Ted Kotcheff is a director that is not a name that is not on everybody’s lips, but he was smart enough to understand what he was doing and he made that picture into the hit that it became.

It’s one of my very favorite films, and it remains relevant today. Especially in regards to how it addresses PTSD, and how it pits your character’s Korean War vet mentality against the mindset of the broken Vietnam War vet. There’s a lot on its mind, whereas Rambos two and three were more straight-up action extravaganzas.

First pictures are always like this. Stallone seems to understand this better than anybody else I’ve ever known. I mean Rocky; you talk about a picture that was made by him. Dreamed up by him, made by him. I mean, he’s a rich kid. A lot of people don’t know this, but he’s a rich kid from Philadelphia, who decided he was going to be a movie star and made himself a movie star. Smart, funny, interesting guy. Easy to work with, great guy. He saw something in Rambo and he made it work and here makes ten of probably the highest grossing pictures ever made. He essentially plays the same character in all of them. It’s like the old days with serials. It doesn’t make a difference, people love him and he knows that. Very, very smart guy. Rich as hell. He’s done other stuff too, but he is what he is. Great guy, good for him. Good for him.


The Song of Sway Lake is now available on Digitial HD and VOD.

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Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.