It Was a Good Interview, But It Never Got Finished: A Conversation with Brian Dennehy

Way back yonder in 2015, I did an interview with Brian Dennehy when he was in the midst of doing press for his TNT series Public Morals. It was an interesting period piece, set in New York City in the 1960s and focused on the NYPD’s Public Morals Division, but if you don’t remember it, there’s a likely reason for that: it premiered on August 25, wrapped its first season on October 20, and there was no second season.

Talking to Dennehy was delightful, but since we were chatting on a day when he was doing several back-to-back interviews for a junket, I went into the conversation with the presumption that I’d be able to hop back on the phone with him to finish it at a later juncture, so I opted to let the conversation flow in as organic a manner as possible…and by this, I mean to say that I didn’t actively pursue asking him about all of his biggest and most famous roles, only the ones that were most convenient at the time. As a result, when I found out that I was not, in fact, going to be able to get back on the phone with him before Public Morals premiered, I felt like I didn’t have enough to move forward with the piece, so I decided to hold onto it until I could successfully finish the conversation, whenever that might be.

Of course, now it will never be finished, because Dennehy died earlier this year. But five years after the original conversation, having revisited the audio of the interview and transcribed it, I now see a back-and-forth that probably would’ve gone over just fine if I’d turned it in at the time. Oh, sure, I would’ve heard from people about how I didn’t ask about Cocoon or F/X (or Cocoon: The Return or F/X 2), let alone a few dozen other projects that would’ve no doubt been ripe with anecdotes, but it still would’ve been greatly appreciated.

Well, now’s your chance to appreciate it, belated though it may be. And for what it’s worth, the fact that he’s no longer with us has resulted in a closing line for the ages.

Thanks for your time, Mr. Dennehy. I wasn’t just blowing smoke a minute ago: it really was delightful. That’s not to say that I don’t wish we could’ve gotten on the phone again, but the time I got with you, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

“Fitzgerald”—The Fighting Fitzgeralds (2001)

“Joe Patton”—Public Morals (2015)

How did you find your way into Public Morals in the first place? I know you'd worked with [series creator, director and star] Ed Burns before, at least in a production capacity. 

Brian Dennehy: Well, I knew Ed Burns. I don't think I'd ever worked with him.

Well, he created The Fighting Fitzgeralds. That's what I was referring to. 

BD: Oh, was he involved in that? Shit, I didn't remember that at all! [Laughs.] But that didn't last very long. It was a good show. It should've lasted. But...they called and asked me about this. I was doing Love Letters with Mia Farrow on Broadway, and somebody called and said, "You could probably do this. We'll have a car pick you up and take you out there, and we'll get you back in time for the show." So it was pretty easy. And I've always admired Eddie, as much for his choice of wives as anything else. He's married to the most beautiful woman in the world! But I realized when  I read it that it was about the real New York City police Public Morals squad from the '50s and '60s.

I knew a lot of those guys, because when I got out of the Marine Corps in '63, I worked as a bartender on the upper east side. [Laughs.] We got to know all those guys. They'd come in and bring their families in there and have their Sunday breakfast in there...and not only did they not pay their bill, but they had to be reminded to tip the waiter! But that was then, and this is now, and cops are cops. They'll probably always be the same. My brother was a cop. An FBI agent. So he got out of the Marine Corps shortly before I did, I guess, and he went with the FBI. He's been retired now for 20 or 30 years.

Anyway, that's how I got involved. They asked me to do it, and I said, "Yes," and then we had to do some jukin' and jivin' because, of course, they were shooting out in Brooklyn and I was working on Broadway. But one thing about the movie industry: the drivers are the best. They always know to make time in an impossible situation in New York traffic. I never was late.

So how would you describe Joe Patton in a nutshell?

Well, Patton was an immigrant with his father - he was very young at that point - and his father... I haven't done any kind of a backward resume for them, but I think they must've come from Dublin in the '20s or '30s. But there was always this kind of crime that was primarily associated with the mob - a small Irish mob has been allowed by the Italian mob to exist as long as they pay their dues and they don't get in the way - and this crime has to do with getting liquor licenses for people and running a numbers game.

 I was raised in Brooklyn and the numbers was a big deal. As I remember it, it was from zero to 999, and you could buy a numbers ticket for as little as a quarter, and then you could put five bucks on it and you would win accordingly if they picked your numbers. They ran that, and it was a easy poor man's lottery, but it seemed to be a hell of a lot more fair running it that way. And the same thing was true with the liquor licenses, and they ran some girls, I think. The Irish mob was not as active in that, though. But they loaned money. They were loan sharks. And people who needed five bucks or a hundred bucks could get it very easily. Cash, right away, no wait, no paperwork, as long as you were willing to pay a fair steep interest rate. [Laughs.] 

But because of this gambling, all these things were available to them, like getting a drink on a Sunday morning from someplace that was otherwise not supposed to be open, or having a voice in the courts. If you could get a vote wherever it was supposed to go, you could get a lawyer that wouldn't show you. So it was the sort of crime that made it easier for poor and very poor Irishmen to live in what was otherwise a huge, bustling city that was somewhat alien to them. And Patton's the guy - along with his father - who put it together, and now he's reached the point in his life where he wants to just kind of concentrate on the more legitimate aspects of it. 

The Italian mob went through the same thing, although it was the release of The Godfather that changed all that for the mob. They didn't want to be legitimate. They wanted to hear the theme from The Godfather playing in their head as they shot this one or ran  drugs for that one or whatever. They didn't want to be legitimate. Paulie Castellano, who ran a meat business and had three or four different things going, like Stanley Gravel. He got killed because he wanted to go legit, as they say. It's kind of an interesting phenomenon. 

But Patton represents that. As he says, "We're not doing that anymore. We don't want to do that anymore. We don't have to do that anymore. We've got the politicians, we've got the cops... Let's just make a lot of money, lay low, and nobody gets hurt!" Of course, there's always the knuckleheads who want to make life difficult for themselves, because that makes it interesting, and one of them is his son. 

It's true the way that happened. Actually, the real truth of the Italian mob is that they were pretty much the west side. They were just head-knockers.  But there was a more sophisticated group of Irish mobsters, as there had been all the way back into the '20s in New York. Some of them were lone operators, some of them were entrepreneurs with all kinds of aspects of business. In fact, one of the most famous of all was Jack Kennedy's old man! That's how he got rich. He got rich bringing in really good quality Canadian booze during the Depression, then swinging over into legitimate relationships with Scotch whiskeys once it was over. 

“Longshoreman”—Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye (1977)

That's funny that you bring up the Kennedys. With this feature, we try to ask everyone about their first on-camera role, and I might be wrong about this, but it looks from IMDb like yours was playing a longshoreman in Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye

Jesus, you're right! Yeah, that was the first. I'm amazed you can even dig that up, because now we're talking a long time ago! 

'77. Or at least that's when it aired, anyway.

Yeah, that was...Gilbert Cates, his name was, who directed that. And, yeah, that was about Jack Kennedy.

Prior to that, you'd been acting, but you hadn't been doing it full-time. Did you just finally decide to take the plunge at that point?

I'm damned if I know. [Laughs.] I got out of the Marine Corps in '63, and after having failed at several jobs that required sitting at a desk and pretending you're on the telephone, I wound up driving a meat truck. It was very simple: moving pieces of beef and boxes of chicken and pork and delivering 'em to small butcher stores around the city. And I got paid very well for it because I was reliable, and "reliable" meant getting there at four in the morning and making sure that all the meat that was supposed to go to Butcher A actually got there and didn't wind up in the trunk of somebody's car.

But in the meantime... I didn't really want to do that for a living, obviously, so I started auditioning. And one thing led to another, and even though half the people I auditioned for would, in effect, say to me, "You don't look like an actor, you don't sound like an actor, and we only want actors here..." [Laughs.] And the other half would say, "This is very interesting. Read that again!" And eventually it kind of worked out, and I started to get work, because once they know you can do something... 

The key to acting - to life, to anything! - is that when they give you a chance, you have to be better than they think you're going to be. At the end of the session, if they say to themselves, "I gotta have this guy, because he did something with it that I wasn't aware was there," then you've done it the right way. I used to like auditioning, because I like surprising people...and when you surprise 'em, they hire you! Most of the time. [Laughs.]

“Wilson”—Lou Grant (1977)

“O.C. Hanks”—Butch And Sundance: The Early Years (1979)

“Police Chief Arthur Buchanan”—Skokie (1981)

There are a couple of other very early roles I wanted to bring up quickly, mostly because I talked to someone else who was in it with you, were in the "Nazi" episode of Lou Grant, and you impressed Allan Burns enough that he hired both you and Peter Weller again for Butch and Sundance: The Early Years.

Yeah, I actually don't think that was a... [Hesitates.] Well, maybe it was. Maybe you're right. Because I also did a thing around that time called Skokie, which dealt with the Nazi party marching through Skokie, Illinois, which had a large Jewish neighborhood. And I got to work Danny Kaye in that thing, believe it or not. And Carl Reiner, and a few other people. So I thought you were talking about that at first, but I guess you're right: I did do [a Nazi-themed] episode with Peter Weller.

Peter Weller has become an academic authority on Italy, by the way. He's a really interesting guy. He kind of comes back and does a part here and there again. Wonderful actor. Great musician. Hell of a jazz musician. I mean, talk about a Renaissance man.

He's been doing a fair amount of directing lately, too. 

Oh, I didn't realize that. He hasn't hired me, the bastard! [Laughs.]

“Mayor Frizzoli”—Finders Keepers (1984)

When you did Butch and Sundance: The Early Years, you apparently got along well enough with Richard Lester, too, because he hired you for Finders Keepers a few years later.

Lester was the best. Yeah, I did Finders Keepers with Lester in Canada...with Jim Carrey, actually, who was very funny. And Beverly D'Angelo, who was even funnier. I don't think the movie ever did very much, but I loved Richard Lester. Absolutely loved him. He made so much money, I think, on the Beatles pictures that he just kind of went through the motions for awhile and then just stopped. But a brilliant director, an absolutely brilliant guy, and fun to be with. And he liked me, too. We got along well.

“Teasle”—First Blood (1982)

Would you say that playing Teasle in First Blood was kind of a turning point in your career?

Yeah, you know, what's interesting about that... People run them all together, but that one - First Blood, which was directed by Ted Kotcheff, who did a brilliant job - essentially created the mold by which Stallone could make a fortune doing all the other ones. Along with Dick Crenna, who was... Crenna was astounding!

Crenna was hired on the last weekend. Kirk Douglas was supposed to play that part, and then the Friday before Monday that we started shooting in...wherever the hell we were - I think it was Vancouver - it suddenly dawned on him that he was not the star of the picture, that Stallone was, and he got on a plane and got the hell out of there. And Ted started making phone calls. He called Billy Devane, and he couldn't do it, and then I think the second call he made was to Crenna! Who is one of life's great gentleman. A hilarious, funny, sweet man. Great family. And talk about a huge investment that paid off. He did three of 'em, I think. None of the others were as good as First Blood, though. 

First Blood was a real movie. In fact, Stallone was supposed to get killed at the end of it, and they were about six weeks into production when the producers, looking at dailies, said, "He's not getting killed in this picture. Maybe he can get killed in number eight...but he's not getting killed in this one!" And Stallone learned a lesson, which he has followed up with The Expendables, which is that if you have a good formula, just mix it again and put a little less sugar in it this time, or maybe a couple of raisins, and serve it. People will still snap it up!

“Whitaker”—Indio (1989)

You did kind of a Rambo riff when you were in the movie Indio.

Oh, my God...

The only reason I'm curious about it is because it was basically at the height of your '80s success. Was it just too good a deal to resist?

I think what happened is that it was an Italian company, an Italian director I could barely understand, and... I got it when I was doing a play: The Cherry Orchard, in Brooklyn for Peter Brook. Talk about a swing in sophistication! [Laughs.] And Susan called me and said, "They want you to do this Indio thing..." Marvin Hagler was in it! I've got plenty of funny stories about Marvin Hagler, but I'd be afraid that he'd beat the shit out of me!

We did that in the Philippines, and they paid me an obscene amount of money to do it. And I think you're right: I think the thinking was, "If we can't get Stallone, let's get Dennehy, and we'll just get him in larger war clothes, and it'll be great." Well, I never saw a frame of it, I never heard about it, it might as well have sunk into the Philippines Sea without a trace. So I don't know what else to say except "thank God!" 

“Jimmy Horn”—Gladiator  (1992)

BD: What I remember about Gladiator is that I had to work out for six weeks to look like a retired fighter. [Laughs.] But Bob Loggia was great. I worked with Bob, and he was nice. Cuba Gooding, Jr., he was such a sweetheart. But I dunno, I can't remember a lot of it.

As I always say to people, “Yes, it was the lesser Gladiator.” [Laughs.] The major Gladiator came sometime thereafter and took place largely in a coliseum. We took place on the south side of Chicago. But, look, it was a job, they paid me for it, those days, I was swinging back and forth between scratching my jones for substance in the theater and scratching for money in movies, and thank God I was able to do both. Now I can't seem to get films out to save my ass!

It's funny you say that about the theater, because I've heard that from a number of actors. Dan Lauria said that, basically, the work he does on screen is to finance the work he does in the theater. 

Yeah, that's been the case for a lot of people over the years. And Dan's one of our great American heroes. Dan played Vince Lombardi, and he was on Broadway for awhile with it. He made that work.

“Django”—Ratatouille  (2007)

BD: When you go to work for those guys [at Pixar], boy, it's really impressive. It took us forever to get it, because they kept running through producers and writers, and somehow I only seemed to survive. People came on board and got fired, and I was always there. And finally they hooked up with Brad Bird. I guess they'd worked with him some before, and...he's really a smart guy. And now he's doing big feature films. I mean, big ones. He did one of the Mission: Impossible films that [Tom] Cruise did, and it's one of the really good ones. But he'll probably still go back to PIxar, since they do very interesting work there.

But it was very different for me, obviously. It takes a long time and a lot of money, a lot of stop and go. But I thought it was a nice job. I loved that movie. At that point - or at one point during the process of doing it - I was doing Death of a Salesman in London, and they flew over there and we did some of the recording over there. I guess I worked on that for four or five years off and on.

I guess you know that Patton Oswalt has gotten a lot of mileage out of a story about you.

[Cackles.] Oh, yeah. And that actually happened! I'm glad somebody got something out of it besides a couple of extra pounds!

Knight Of Cups  (2015)—“Joseph”

What was it like working with Terrence Malick?

Do you know what? I loved it. And some of the actors were very, very frustrated. Because Malick is a director who... What he does is, he writes the part's not really written. It's kind of indicated - something happens here and something happens here - and then what you do is, he explains to you before the scene goes and then says, "Roll the camera." He doesn't even use a clapper board. I don't know how the hell he keeps track of the takes and so forth. And then he says, "Improvise." And you improvise. I had a ball doing it, but some of the actors weren't crazy about it. And he's still working out this thing with his father and his brother. But I liked the guy. Anybody who can examine himself so carefully on the extremely expensive analyst couch that is a movie set... You have to admire them! [Laughs.] So I liked him and I admired him, and I wound up doing a lot of narration for the project.

I don't know where it is at this point, or if it'll ever be seen. But he is really a very, very interesting man. One of the most interesting and creative guys I've ever worked with. He does something as a creator which I admire. Actors always talk about this and directors always talk about this, throw the dice against the wall and see what happens. But he really doesn't. He doesn't really know what's going to come out at the end of the take, and he wants it to be something that he hadn't anticipated. He wants it to be something that he hadn't thought of. And sometimes actors have a real hard time with that. I had a lot of fun with it. I don't know ultimately what happened with it.

But he's really a great man and a very interesting artist. A legitimate artist. I can only say that about two people: him and Peter Greenaway. They have this... Well, in his case, it's an uncertain vision, and a huge amount of trust in the people he's surrounded himself with. Which, if you're in an art form which requires lots of different people, is the only way to be. So I thought it was interesting, but I don't know what's going to happen with the picture. I know Brad Pitt loved working with him, though. Interesting people find him very interesting. And then there are people who...shall be nameless. [Laughs.] But, I mean, what the hell's the point of being an artist if, in effect, you get a job and the director says, "Okay, do something," and you say, "Well, what do you want me to do?" When the man says, "Do something," do something! You may be right...and he may be a genius!

“Don the Bartender”—10  (1979)

BD: You know, I actually worked with Bo Derek twice. 

Oh, I know. That's next. 

I figured. [Laughs.] Well, with 10, first of all, you're talking about Blake Edwards. I mean, one of the great filmmakers. A brilliant guy. It's funny, George Segal was supposed to play that lead, but he had a fight with Blake about something. And Blake never hesitated: he went right to Dudley [Moore]. And, of course, Dudley became a huge star. And he was hilarious. We spent... I don't know how many weeks down in Mexico at some big resort, and a lot of it took place in this beautiful cocktail lounge where there was a piano. And Dudley was a wonderful pianist, so he would play, So for half the scenes, he would move over to the piano and start to play. And Blake changed the whole concept of the picture with that development. He was a really, really interesting guy. I was sorry to see him go. And Julie [Andrews] is just one of the most extraordinary people of our time. Seriously. I loved her. Still do love her. She's a great woman. Yeah, that was a nice picture.

“Big Tom Callahan II”—Tommy Boy  (1995)

“Red Finch”—Just Shoot Me  (1998-2003)

“Roy”—Rules of Engagement  (2009)

And now for the second time you worked with Bo.

Tommy Boy, yeah. That kid was a genius. It was a shame he was so self-destructive. I mean, you know, I... [Exhales.] I've been known to be a little self-destructive myself, but, boy, he was miles ahead of me. But a nice kid. And a wonderful family! He had a great family who he was very close to. His mother, his father, his brothers, his sister. But he was determined to pattern himself after John Belushi, and he did, right to the end. But he was very, very funny. A very funny kid. 

From what I've read, it seemed like he was always out to impress everyone. He legitimately just wanted to impress people by showing them what he could do. 

That's exactly what actors are! [Laughs.] That's what all actors do! Fucking Ian McKellen does the same thing! I mean, it may be a more sophisticated impression you're trying to create, but it's the same bullshit.

You clearly liked David Spade, too, since you played his dad on two different sitcoms after that.

Yeah, Spade's a good guy. And very talented, very funny. He can come up with that kind of wry, funny misplaced pompousness that he has within himself. It's a very clever little character he's created. People love him. We all knew that Chris was imploding, that he was going downhill, but I remember when I called Spade... I'd seen Chris in something, and he looked awful. This was a couple of months before he died. I said, "I saw Chris, and goddammit..." He said, "Look, I can't do anything! I've tried, and I can't do anything about it, so people have got to stop making me feel guilty about it, because he won't listen to me, either!" 

I know there was no end to the number of people who tried.

Yeah, I mean, everybody knew where it was going, everybody tried to talk him out of it, and...they couldn't. I mean, it was like with Phil. Phil Hoffman was sober for 20 years. He was the youngest person I've ever known who was in AA. I think he was in AA when he was 17 or 18. And he had 20+ years of sobriety. He was obviously always fighting it, you know. I mean, I have my own personal point of view about that. I think that Phil was convinced that if he could become a successful actor with money and awards, then it would all bring him to a point where he could be happy, where he could enjoy himself and his work. And when it didn't work out that way...

It never does, because happiness is not some roll of the dice, it's a switch you turn on inside yourself. You either say, "Well, I'm going to be happy," or you say, "I'm not going to be happy." And he said the latter. And it was such a complete total fucking waste. An infuriating waste. I did eight months with him in A Long Day's Journey into Night. He was an extraordinary force onstage. As he was himself. He just couldn't get rid of his demons. And sure enough, they showed up again, right out of the blue. Somebody called me up and said, "He's drinking again." I said, "He can't be drinking again!" And it was a hop, skip, and a jump from that to the bloated needle that was still in his arm when they found his body. 

“Sheriff Cobb”—Silverado  (1985)

BD: Yeah, that was fun. I always tell Kevin [Kline] when I see him that I beat him in that gunfight. But that wasn't what was in the script, so... [Laughs.] It was a nice picture. It was not a huge hit when it came out, but it became a cult picture. I think a cult picture is a picture that cost a lot of money that people love and nobody made any money on!

I know there's been talk for years about wanting to do a sequel to the film.

Oh, that's a funny story there. Six months or a year after the picture came out, the sequel conversation started. Because it obviously had legs. Producers hate pictures that have legs. They want to get it into the theater and they want to make their money in a month and get it the fuck out, because the next one is due. But this one had legs. Once people started to see it, they said, "Well, let's look at it again," and they started talking about a sequel.

So my agent, my beloved Susan [Smith], who's dead now, she called Larry Kasdan and said, "Well, Brian would certainly love to be in the sequel!" And Kasdan says, "But he got killed in the first movie!" And she never missed a step: she said, "Well, maybe he has a twin riding in from California!" [Laughs.] Agents can't be kept down. You can try, but you can't keep 'em down.  Anyway, it never got made. And when I die, I'll have it chiseled on my headstone...if I have a headstone... Well, I'll at least have a headstone, even if they burn me! But the epitaph will be, “It was a good idea, but it never got made.”