Thursday, August 01, 2013

Remembering Eileen Brennan

Actress Eileen Brennan passed away a few days ago at the age of 80.

I didn't hear about it until a few minutes ago, and I feel I would be remiss if I did not say a few words. For the record, she actually died on Sunday; her death from bladder cancer was confirmed on Tuesday.

I think of many things when I think of Eileen Brennan.

Most folks probably think of her role in "Private Benjamin" — primarily the 1980 movie but also the TV show on which it was based — and I think of that one, too, but I think of other things as well.

I don't know when I first saw her in something. She was in a lot of TV shows early in her career so it may well have been there that I saw her — in Rowan & Martin's Laugh–In, perhaps. She was something of a regular on Laugh–In, and I used to watch it all the time.

But I have only general memories of her in Laugh–In. The first show I specifically remember seeing her in was an episode of All in the Family. She was trapped in an elevator with Carroll O'Connor, Roscoe Lee Browne and Hector Elizondo.

Up to that point, she had been seen almost exclusively on TV, but after she appeared on All in the Family, doors seemed to open for her in movies, and the next thing I remember seeing her in was the Oscar–winning film "The Sting."

Paul Newman and Robert Redford were the main attractions in that one, but Brennan provided essential support. Unfortunately, she wasn't even recognized for her work with an Oscar nomination.

For that matter, she wasn't nominated for her performance in "The Last Picture Show," either — which I did not see until I was older. Cloris Leachman, her co–star, was nominated, and she won.

But I did see "The Sting" when it was showing at the theaters — saw it more than once, in fact. As anyone who saw it will tell you, you just about have to see it twice. Too many things slip past you on the first go–around.

Brennan played an up–front kind of gal named Billie, the madam of a whorehouse, and I really liked her brief conversation with the investigator, Lt. Snyder (played by Charles Durning):
Billie: Who told you this guy was in here?

Lt. Snyder: Nobody, I just know what kind of woman he likes. Going to check all the joy houses 'til I find him.

Billie: Oh, well, maybe I could help you, if you tell me his name.

Lt. Snyder: I doubt it. Which way are the rooms?

Billie: Right through there. But I wouldn't go in there if I were you.

Lt. Snyder: What you are going to do, call the cops?

Billie: I won't have to. You'll be busting in on the chief of police just up the hall.

In the years after "The Sting," Brennan remained largely a TV performer. She wasn't a regular on any one show, but she made guest appearances on many and appeared in a few made–for–TV movies.

But then she appeared in one of my favorite comedies — "Murder By Death" — a Neil Simon spoof on popular mystery writers and movie detectives. Brennan shared the spotlight with the likes of Alec Guinness, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Truman Capote, Peter Falk, Maggie Smith and others.

She didn't have many lines as Tess Skeffington, the girlfriend of Sam Diamond (Falk), a parody of Sam Spade, but they were memorable.
Lionel Twain (Capote): I'm the greatest! I'm #1!

Sam Diamond: To me, you look like #2, know what I mean?

Dora Charleston (Smith): What DOES he mean, Miss Skeffington?

Tess Skeffington: I'll tell you later. It's disgusting.

She had an earthy quality, and she was a tough old bird, too.

A year or two after "Private Benjamin" was released, Brennan stepped into the path of an oncoming car and suffered several injuries that led to an addiction to prescription pain killers, which, in turn, led to dependence on antidepressants and antianxiety medication.

She beat them all, as well as breast cancer, and she was willing to talk about the experience, to share her insights with others. But eventually she was brought down by bladder cancer.

She will be missed.