“THE BEAUTIFUL GAME”
Ladies and gents,
When Brian Dennehy discretely checked himself into the hospital with heart troubles in the middle of his Broadway run in Death of a Salesman, the intake desk clerk asked him to provide an emergency contact. Dennehy wrote down the name and telephone number of the show’s legendary press agent, Richard Kornberg. You see, Dennehy’s father was an Associated Press reporter, and thus he understood the importance of getting bad news to a press agent with urgency.
So, when news reached me that Dennehy passed away at the age of 81, my first call was to Kornberg, who was by the actor’s side for his two biggest career triumphs: his Tony-winning turns as Willy Loman in Salesman and James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
I caught Kornberg at cocktail hour, just as he was pouring himself a vodka martini in his late friend’s honor. “Mr. Dennehy introduced me to Grey Goose martinis,” he growled. “It was his favorite. I occasionally drank mine dirty, but he didn’t want anything to dilute vodka. We were in Los Angeles on the road tour of Death of a Salesman, staying at the Belvedere Hotel I think.” I couldn’t help but point out the irony of being introduced to Grey Goose in the lobby of a hotel that shares its name with a competing vodka brand. Of course, with Dennehy’s well-documented heart issues, he wasn’t supposed to be drinking at all. “I got a lecture about it from his cardiologist. A guy named Dr. Robert Cole. The same name as the general manager on Salesman, incidentally.”
Dennehy’s route to stardom was circuitous, to say the least. “He was a football player in high school, and it was his coach that urged him to take up the theater.” It was football, not theater, that earned him a scholarship to Columbia College — where he studied alongside another theatrical legend we recently lost: Terrence McNally. But a stint in the Marines would take him away from the university for five years before he was able to return to finally graduate. Even after school, he didn’t jump into acting. “He worked at a stock brokerage firm out of college,” Kornberg explained. “You know who else was working there? Martha Stewart!”
But he belonged on the stage, and it wouldn’t be long before he’d be making a name for himself on television and, later, in film. But his heart always belonged on stage, and his legacy will forever be wrapped up in the towering performances he delivered in canonical work after canonical work.
As much as he loved the craft of acting, he always seemed every bit as enamored with the camaraderie and theatrical rituals that happen offstage. His career was defined by close personal friendships with collaborators like Christopher Plummer and Nathan Lane. His Irish charm proved almost magical when it came to winning over co-stars. When he was cast opposite Vanessa Redgrave in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, producers were so convinced that the two stars — he a lifelong Republican, she as lefty as they come — would loath each other; they brought in a full-time referee to keep the peace. Well, as Kornberg remembers it, “Against all odds, it was love at first sight. They got on like a house on fire, and wound up becoming the best of friends.” To Kornberg, the thing that made Dennehy such a unique talent was “his intelligence. Mr. Dennehy was so well-read and so insightful. The two smartest performers I ever worked with were Kevin Kline and Brian Dennehy. Actors who are that smart know how to bring all their life experience into every role.”
As always, a toast of a Grey Goose martini to Mr. Dennehy!