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Attention Is Being Paid

He's not the first actor who comes to mind for the role, but Brian Dennehy showed Broadway he was Willy Loman.

September 17, 2000|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a regular contributor to Calendar

"Death of a Salesman's" Willy Loman is among the most recognizable figures in American theater. Brian Dennehy is among the screen's most recognizable character actors. But putting the two men together may not immediately come to mind.

It does, however, if you're Robert Falls. The artistic director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre has proven many times over the years that Dennehy could portray considerably more than burly cops, serial killers and genial aliens.

Their "Death of a Salesman" comes to the Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday, capping a working relationship that goes back more than 15 years.

When Falls took over as artistic director of the Goodman in 1986, he immediately mounted Brecht's "Galileo" and cast Dennehy in the title role. "It's a play I wanted to do my whole life," Falls recalls, "but I never met an actor who had the size, sensuality and intellectual abilities."

Falls says Dennehy made an "astonishing" Galileo. So astonishing, in fact, that he brought Dennehy back to star in O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" and "A Touch of the Poet," or, as Falls puts it, "three monster roles in three monster plays."

Then a few years ago, Falls and Dennehy had dinner together when the actor visited Chicago from his farm in Connecticut. As they walked away from the restaurant, Falls says, he noticed something different about the "bigger-than-life, heroic, kingly actor."

"Brian was going to have knee surgery and he was hobbling along. I looked over at him, getting ready to turn 60, tired, his legs hurting him, and I had an image of Willy Loman."

The actor wasn't so sure. Not only had they both seen the play a dozen times, remembers Falls, but both knew Dennehy would be following in the footsteps of Lee J. Cobb, George C. Scott and Dustin Hoffman.

Dennehy, who inhabited Arthur Miller's salesman first in Chicago, then on Broadway, needn't have worried. His performance in what became "Salesman's" 50th-anniversary production won him a 1999 Tony Award. New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote that Dennehy played Loman "with majestic, unnerving transparency--[conveying] a grand emotional expansiveness that matches his monumental physique."

That physique is, after all, the first thing you notice about Dennehy. Wedged at a conference table after rehearsal, the 62-year-old actor looks even more imposing off-screen than on. His enormous shoulders are clearly those of a college football player, which he was.

Dennehy's the first to admit that his size has helped make him a popular casting choice for bad guys and the cops who pursue them. Leaning across the table, smiling, he says, "Look--what am I going to play? I'd love to play Nureyev, but I'm not the first name that leaps to mind."

So he plunges again and again into theater, where he started more than 30 years ago. Though his Broadway debut didn't come until 1995 with Brian Friel's "Translations," it was Dennehy's work in the '80s in Ron Hutchinson's play "Rat in the Skull," at Chicago's Wisdom Bridge Theatre, that first intrigued Falls.

Playwright Miller recalls seeing Dennehy in Peter Brook's production of "The Cherry Orchard" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1988 and being "quite surprised. I'd only seen him on television or in films, and it was a very sensitive and intelligent performance." Later, in Chicago to see Dennehy's work in "Salesman," Miller says he was both "happy and relieved. He's wonderful in the part."

Though Falls cast mostly Chicago-based actors in "Salesman," he brought in Elizabeth Franz from New York to play Willy's wife, Linda Loman. "He told me I was going to meet the [dramatic] match of my life," Franz says. "And it was true. You immediately fall in love with him. You want to support him and be his mate forever."

Franz, who also won a Tony for her performance in the show, is here bound to a man whose internal as well as external world is crashing around him. The emphasis in this production is on Loman's emotional life, and Dennehy plays him as a man burdened by mental as well as financial problems.

During rehearsals in Chicago, Dennehy says, he wanted to know more about such things as bipolar personality and depression. The Goodman dramaturges, he says, provided him with information from psychiatrists. The actor went on to incorporate assorted hand gestures, facial expressions and other mannerisms he says he has cut back over time.

"At some point, you try to distill it, and some of that went away," Dennehy says. "But some of it stayed. There's the whole sense of fragility, of the world becoming a darker place and a place he doesn't recognize or understand anymore."

Although Falls says that Dennehy offered to step aside for a "bigger star" when the show was headed for Broadway, Falls demurred. Dennehy took the stage exactly 50 years after Cobb's debut as Loman at the Morosco Theatre on Feb. 10, 1949. "Salesman" would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for the then-33-year-old Miller and be performed continually throughout the world.

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