This year’s Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award was a stellar event honoring a great actor. Among the high lights was honoree BRIAN DENNEHY being presented with the award by Pulitzer-Prize winning author WILLIAM KENNEDY, last year’s honoree. Below is the text of Kennedy’s speech about Brian Dennehy….
KENNEDY ON DENNEHY
I met Brian Dennehy 27 years ago at a place on the upper East Side where people from theater and movies and music and the mob, and once in a while a writer, rubbed elbows. I was working on a movie that year, and Brian had made, or would make, five movies that year. Two or three of my novels already were, or soon would be, under option for film and, during a long conversation, it turned out Brian knew the novels and wanted to play in one, or two, or three, of them, if they went forward as film. I had seen some of his work on TV and n film and I admired it, and in person he had considerably more than the normal allotment of charisma. He was also Irish, which can be a blessing. Most of the time. But I could very clearly see him playing some of the major characters in my books.
Alas, it never worked out. He was on my mind whenever one of my films seemed to be in the works, which was often. But, with one exception, they never worked out either.
Then in 2007 we were thinking of reviving the play I had produced at Capital Repertory Theater in Albany a decade earlier, and we asked Brian to come up for a staged reading that would be a preview, plus a fundraiser for the theater, and he came. In the years between our encounter in the upper East Side watering hole and our reunion at Cap Rep in Albany, Brian had become the new O’Neill actor – Long Day’s Journey into Night, Touch of the Poet, Desire Under the Elms, The Iceman Cometh, and, down the road, Hughie. People were beginning to call him the greatest actor I the American theater.
A nice development for me, and Capital Rep, and my play.
My play tells the story of Patsy McCall, the aging political boss of Albany, as he battles a New York Governor who, in 1944, is running for President and wants to break Patsy’s long-running, Tammany-style political machine to enhance his image as a gangbuster. The Governor is never named but a photo of Governor Thomas E. Dewey hangs on the wall during the play.
A few fine actors had played the role of Patsy, but Brian inhabited the man in a way that kept surprising me. He found the secret cunning in him, he found his charm, his attractiveness to women. Brian’s own acute intelligence and verbal dexterity became an enrichment of my dialogue. He also expressed patsy’s ruthlessness not just in the overt, scripted action, but in he eye, his smile, his shrug, even in his quiet gaze.
And this was only a staged reading.
Nothing about this behavior of Patsy was a surprise to me. I knew all these things were in him and I tried to express or suggest them when I wrote the play. What was new was how electric Patsy was, up there on the stage, no longer just a creature of my imagination spouting off and strutting and controlling everybody’s life. I’d known the real political boss who was his prototype, and I’d known his political machine since I was in the second grade – pitching a game of election cards after school, these cards carrying campaign pictures of the Mayor and the District Attorney and the County Judge. Politics starts early in Albany.
But this new Patsy – Brian created him as I’d never seen him.
I saw Brian interviewed on Charlie Rose, talking about his role in Death of a Salesman, and he said, when theater is done right it is the author speaking to us. But I must add that we don’t necessarily perceive the author’s intention without translation by a great actor, who also translates what’s not there, who reads between the author’s lines, who intuits, who invents, who imposes his own personality, his own wisdom, his own wit wherever he sees the need. Brian said this himself: “Great actors of Hamlet – they all play it differently, and they play it differently every night.”
I believe that the talent for doing this comes from the actor’s authentic sense of himself – knowing he’s like nobody else. In some deep center of his being, he knows exactly who he is and who else he might be – which is where the greatness comes in. And his performance, when we see it, is a verification of that. This is never the realistic, run of the mill performance we get from most actors – which we kiss off by saying, not bad, pretty good. This performance, when we see it, is of another order. We know that something excellent is happening here – a profundity of talent on display, or an unusual depth of understanding and expression of human behavior. Without any doubt there’s a singular presence up there on stage, and we relish it, we marvel at it, we want to applaud. And we do applaud.
And the actor we’re reveling in, relishing, applauding – tonight it’s that big fellow over there – Brian Dennehy.
— William Kennedy, October 18, 2010