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Richard Crenna, 75; Actor Made Transition From Comedy to Drama

January 19, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Richard Crenna, who gained fame on TV's "Our Miss Brooks" and "The Real McCoys" and made a successful transition from comedy to drama on television and in movies such as "The Sand Pebbles" and "Body Heat," has died. He was 75.

Crenna, a former child radio actor who began his more than six-decade career in the late 1930s, died Friday of pancreatic cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, his wife, Penni, said Saturday.

Television viewers were introduced to Crenna as Walter Denton, the squeaky-voiced, not-so-bright high school student on Eve Arden's "Our Miss Brooks," when the popular radio series moved to TV in 1952.

Crenna had made a career playing Walter and what he later called "all the idiot adenoidal kids" on radio, including Oogie Pringle on "A Date with Judy," Beasey on "The Hardy Family" and Waldo on "Burns and Allen." He also played Bronco, a slightly older variation of his standard character, on "The Great Gildersleeve."

By the time he left Walter Denton behind in 1956 after appearing in the "Our Miss Brooks" feature film, Crenna, the perpetual juvenile, was pushing 30.

In 1957, he graduated to an adult role as the married Luke on "The Real McCoys." The popular comedy series starring Walter Brennan as the lovably cantankerous McCoy patriarch whose West Virginia clan moves to a farm in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley ran for six seasons.

A tearful Kathleen Nolan, who played Luke's wife, Kate, until the final year of the show and was a close friend of Crenna for more than 50 years, said Saturday that he "was just the best there was.... He was the best actor that I ever worked with, ever.

"The fact that over his entire career, with all the tabloids and all the garbage out there, there has never been one negative thing said about Richard Crenna -- that is pretty phenomenal," the veteran stage and television actress said.

Crenna made the break from comedy to drama in 1964 as the star of "Slattery's People," a weekly series in which he played an idealistic, reform-minded state legislator.

The show was canceled before the end of its second season, but its demise had a distinct upside for Crenna: It allowed him to accept a high-profile role as the humorless and unexpectedly courageous gunboat captain in director Robert Wise's 1966 epic drama "The Sand Pebbles," starring Steve McQueen.

Roles as a criminal who terrorizes a blind Audrey Hepburn in "Wait Until Dark" and as one of three astronauts trapped in an orbiting lab whose rockets won't fire in "Marooned" soon followed.

In the 1980s, Crenna played critically acclaimed supporting roles in the film noir hit "Body Heat" (as Kathleen Turner's strong-yet-doomed husband) and the coming-of-age movie "The Flamingo Kid" (as the slick and dishonest gin-rummy champ at a posh Long Island beach club who takes star Matt Dillon under his wing).

Director Was a Fan

"I've always been a very good fan of his and was happy to get him in 'Flamingo Kid,' " said director Garry Marshall. "Matt Dillon was 19 and all over the place, and Richard helped him so much -- just solidified him as an actor. Richard knew his way around a joke and did it honest; that's more important."

Crenna, Marshall said, was equally adept at comedy and drama.

"He was one of the rare ones that could do both and also be a human being off the set," said Marshall, who socialized with Crenna. "I think he had success both as an actor and as a dad to his children.

"He was one of the few gentlemen I met in the business."

For Crenna, the attention he received for delivering a good performance was important, but, he observed at the time of his "Flamingo Kid" success, "what matters more is to keep working."

Crenna's name was nearly a symbol for made-for-television movies as they gained artistic prominence. In 1985, he received an Emmy as outstanding actor in a limited series or special for "The Rape of Richard Beck," in which he played a sexist, macho cop whose attitudes about rape undergo a dramatic change after he is sexually attacked.

He played another tough cop -- New York City Det. Lt. Frank Janek -- in the 1985 TV movie "Doubletake" and in six sequels.

And, opposite Sylvester Stallone, Crenna memorably appeared as Col. Trautman, Rambo's former Vietnam War commander, in three of the most profitable big-screen action movies of the 1980s: "First Blood," "Rambo: First Blood Part II," and "Rambo III."

"This film series has given me the kind of recognition I've never before had as an actor," Crenna, then 60, told The Times in 1987. "I feel like I'm part of a cult happening. It's like being a part of the Woodstock of the '80s on the big screen."

Over the years, Crenna made three short-lived returns to television situation comedies: "All's Fair" with Bernadette Peters (1976-77), "It Takes Two" co-starring Patty Duke (1982-83) and "Pros and Cons" opposite James Earl Jones (1991-92).

But mostly he stuck with drama -- to the point that many young producers and audience members were unaware of his background.

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