An interview with Brian Dennehy, from Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star:
"'When you walk with giants, you learn how to take bigger steps.'
"That's how Brian Dennehy modestly explains his legendary Tony Award-winning performances in Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey Into Night, giving the credit to authors Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill.
"But the big steps of Dennehy's past are about to become positively huge, as he soon adds two more theatrical giants to his repertoire and revisits a third.
"In the space of two days next weekend at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Dennehy will open as the King in Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well as well as a double bill of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape and Eugene O'Neill's Hughie.
"It's a bill that would tax a man half his age, but Dennehy – who turns 70 on July 9 – is relishing the assignment. 'I've never done repertory theatre before in my life and it's certainly a challenge,' says Dennehy, unwinding in a Toronto bistro. 'But I love the Stratford Festival and everything about it. What a f---ing amazing place full of f---ing amazing people!'
"Bursts of blue language are not uncommon with Dennehy. He's a big, burly Irishman of a certain generation who grew up on Long Island and spent time with the Marines.
"But he's not as burly as he used to be, thanks to the Lap Band weight reduction surgery he underwent after a frightening bout of hypertension drove him out of Death of a Salesman for a few days in 1999.
"'This machine is all I've got,' he says, slapping the area around his heart. 'I've gotta take care of it.'
"That's another reason his hard-drinking days are long behind him and the Diet Coke he sips at is his beverage of choice nowadays.
"'Yeah, I drank a lot,' he says without affectation or drama. '"It was fun and then it wasn't fun any more. So I quit.'
"But Dennehy is aware of the legacy of drink and how it haunts many Irishmen, including his beloved author O'Neill.
"'He was one of those classic Irish alcoholics who got pissed off because he couldn't drink any more and that drove a lot of his work.'
"Hughie, for example, is a 1941 one-act play about Erie Smith, 'a small-fry gambler and horse-player' who is just coming off a five-day bender that he went on after Hughie, his favourite desk clerk at the crummy hotel he stays at, suddenly died.
"'His whole life has been an abject series of petty failures,' says Dennehy, 'but he always turns them into imaginary triumphs. It's a play about grief and so is Krapp's Last Tape.' A sunny grin spreads over Dennehy's face. 'Now I have a word to bridge the two plays.'
"Dennehy has performed Hughie several times before, always to great acclaim, and he calls it 'a series of conventional, if interesting, problems for the actor.'
"But Beckett, whose stygian nightmarish world Dennehy is entering for the first time, is something totally different.
"'I remember sitting with (actor) Patrick Magee in a bar someplace in New York many years ago,' Dennehy recalls. 'Magee was the first actor to ever portray Krapp and we were both in our cups and talking about the play. "Very dark," Paddy kept saying, "the play is very dark."'
"Dennehy snorts. 'Jesus, I should have listened to him.'
"Krapp's Last Tape finds a bitter old man on his 69th birthday, sitting alone and listening to tapes he has made over the years that allow him to review the wreckage of his life.
"'It's profoundly difficult,' admits Dennehy, 'which is as it should be, because it's a f---ing impossible part.
"'I feel like I've gotten a long way down the road in the last couple of weeks, but I don't know if it's the right road and there's no map available.'
"He is finding Stratford director Jennifer Tarver a real asset. 'I like balancing her fresh, new perspective against my pain-in-the-ass old-fart perspective.'
"But, in the end, Dennehy keeps coming back to the problem of what he calls 'the Beckett darkness.'
"When asked to compare it, for example, to the darkness found in O'Neill, he broods for a few seconds.
"'They both have a skull in their plays,' Dennehy theorizes, 'and the O'Neill skull grins . . . but the Beckett skull laughs out loud.'
"And then there's his third role: the King of France in Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, which is being performed on the giant Festival stage as opposed to the intimacy of the Studio Theatre where Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape are presented.
"How is he finding that experience? 'I use the image of a horse on ice,' he chuckles, 'because I feel like I'm slipping and sliding around. I'm faking, but I'm surrounded by people who know what they're doing, like Martha (Henry), (Stephen) Ouimette, (Juan) Chioran and (Tom) Rooney.
"'With those people on stage, I cover my ass and my bets.'
"Then there's another, purely technical issue. 'On the first day of rehearsal,' he relates, 'I said to (director) Marti Maraden, "You've got the big Brian Dennehy problem. I block out the sun."
"'"That won't be a problem," she said sweetly.'
"Dennehy laughs so loudly he chokes on his Diet Coke. When he has recovered, he continues.
"'Now, suddenly, it's getting to be, "Brian, when you say that line, move this way, and when you say the next line, move the other way." And I said "You mean like over toward Cleveland?"
"'The other night, I was wearing one of those orange golfing shirts and I'm sure I looked like a Wal-Mart store up there.'
"Despite his enthusiasm and apparent vigour, it must still be a strain for a 70-year-old man to perform three demanding plays in one day.
"'Something I learned a long time ago: Physical fatigue is the actor's friend. You don't want to go too far with that, but the great doctor is always the audience.
"'There are two counter-intuitive processes that take place in acting: stripping a lot of s--t away and assembling all kinds of things to hide behind.
"'When you're tired, you can't assemble those elaborate barricades between you and the audience and it's amazing how many great performances come out of that inability to protect yourself.'
"When looking at the big picture, Dennehy thinks of himself as a combination of his father and grandfather.
"'My father had a good sense of humour about a lot of things, including life, which I think I inherited. And he was devoted to the job he was doing (as an Associated Press wire-man). I'm like that, too.
"'But my grandfather was a crapshooter. When he was 12, he left Ireland on his own and moved to America on his own.
"'I'm a crapshooter, too. Give me a ticket and I'll be there. I don't see that changing any time soon, but time has a way of making those choices for you.'
"But for now, with three giant authors to increase his stride and the Stratford machine buzzing happily behind him, Dennehy concludes, 'I can't think of a place I'd rather be.
"'The great thing about an audience is that you walk out there in the dark, the lights go up and you gotta just shut up and do it. They paid their f---ing money and you better deliver. And the next night you gotta do it again.
"'This ain't a movie where you do it five times and they pick the best one. This is ultimately you and them and the words.
"'There's something primitive and satisfying about that. It's being alive and being a communicator on cue.'"