September 3, 1933 – Eileen Brennan:
“Actors are crazy or we wouldn’t be doing this.”
As a great big old Musical Theatre fan, I first knew her from her first major role, the title character in Rick Besoyan‘s tiny, but big musical Little Mary Sunshine (1959) a smart parody of operettas which ran for 1,143 performances Off-Broadway. She won an Obie Award for her portrayal of the show’s spunky, fluttery-eyed heroine. A year after the show opened, she complained to The New York Times that she had been ”hopelessly typecast as that kookie girl”.
Perhaps to prove everyone wrong, when Little Mary Sunshine closed, Brennan immediately took a job doing the national tour of The Miracle Worker, playing Helen Keller‘s gravely serious teacher, Annie Sullivan, a role originated by Anne Bancroft.
In 1963, Brennan received rave reviews as Anna in the City Center revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s The King And I. In 1964, she was cast as Irene Molloy, the young widow, in the original Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing.
Brennan was a stage actor from the 1950s, but it was as a largely comic presence in films from the 1970s and early 1980s that she was most loved. As the pitiless Captain Doreen Lewis, putting new recruit Goldie Hawn through her paces in the hit military comedy Private Benjamin (1980), she wore her trademark look: frizzy red hair, a clenched, sneering smile and an expression of withering incredulity. Then there was her signature smokey voice: a heard-it-all gripe paired with that seen-it-all face. It sounded like whiskey and an old Buick. It was unmistakably and undeniably hers.
Captain Lewis was the sort of role Brennan did best, doing a variation of it into the new century, when she made the first in a series of appearances as a crusty acting teacher on Will & Grace. Brennan:
“I love meanies. You know why? Because they have no sense of humor. If we can’t laugh at ourselves and the human condition, we’re going to be mean.”
She was born Verla Eileen Regina Brennan and grew up in Los Angeles. Her mother was silent film actor, and her father was a doctor. She attended Georgetown University where she was comedy star in the Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society. After Georgetown, she attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City where her roommate was the future The Golden Girls star Rue McClanahan.
Brennan’s work in theatre attracted attention in Hollywood. Carl Reiner asked her to audition for the role of Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, flying her from New York to Los Angeles; however, the role went to an unknown Mary Tyler Moore.
Brennan stayed and found work in television, first an adaptation of Maxwell Anderson‘s play The Star Wagon (1966), opposite Dustin Hoffman, and as a member of the original cast of the zany Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, alongside her future Private Benjamin co-star, Hawn . She made her film debut in the comedy Divorce American Style (1967) and then the part of a lifetime, a kindly but bored waitress in Peter Bogdanovich‘s masterpiece The Last Picture Show (1971).
Bogdanovich loved working with Brennan and cast her as a society matron in his Henry James adaptation Daisy Miller (1974) and as a singing maid in the misunderstood musical At Long Last Love (1975). She was just terrific as the brassy madam of a brothel in the Academy Award-winning con-man caper The Sting (1973). And she was one of a several female character actors who brought unusual shading to Jerry Schatzberg‘s Scarecrow (1973) starring Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Later in the 1970s, she smartly moved toward doing more comedy, including two films written by the late Neil Simon: the nutty whodunit spoof Murder By Death (1976) and the Humphrey Bogart homage The Cheap Detective (1978). She was the best thing in the underrated ensemble comedy Clue (1985).
Private Benjamin, though, gave her a career-defining role, as well as an Oscar nomination. Hawn’s comic fizz as the pampered Judy Benjamin was delightful, and the film was made to be a vehicle for her considerable charms. Yet, the key to that film’s success was the rain that Brennan poured down on Hawn’s parade. When Private Benjamin was turned into a television sitcom, Brennan went with it, playing the same role opposite Hawn’s replacement, Lorna Patterson. Brennan’s sourness was antidote to the sitcoms sweetness. Brennan received three Emmy Award nominations for the show, winning one. She received four more Emmy nominations, for her work in Taxi, Newhart, Will & Grace and thirtysomething.
Brennan left the television version of Private Benjamin in 1982, following an accident in Venice Beach in which she was hit by a car. Her injuries included both legs broken, a fragmented jaw, and all the bones on the left side of her face were also broken. During her slow recovery, Brennan became addicted to painkillers.
She returned to acting in 1984 in the sitcom Off The Rack but the show was cancelled after only six episodes and Brennan was admitted to the Betty Ford Centre for rehab. Brennan:
“I had reached the stage where I was taking anything I could get my hands on.”
After that, poor Brennan had a series of health problems and never seemed to have completely recovered from her injuries. While playing another comic tyrant, Miss Hannigan in the musical Annie, she fell off the stage and broke her leg. She also underwent treatment for breast cancer. Still Brennan continued to act, mostly in television, but she returned to the New York stage in the Public Theatre production of Martin McDonagh‘s The Cripple Of Inishmaan in 1998.
She reprised her The Last Picture Show role in the film’s sequel, Texasville (1990); and she starred in the drama White Palace (1990) as the fortune-telling sister of Susan Sarandon, who she had theatrical success in 1980 in the two-woman play A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking. She appeared in the third film version of Stella Dallas, Stella (1990) with Bette Midler.
It makes me sad to have lost Brennan too early, but not as sad as knowing her last major role was in something titled Miss Congeniality 2: Armed And Fabulous. That’s just not right.
Brennan left us for good in the summer of 2013, taken by cancer. She was 80-years-old. My sources tell me that they did not get along well on the set, but when Brennan passed, Hawn said:
“She was a brilliant comedian, a powerful dramatic actress and had the voice of an angel.”