Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Walter Brennan—The Hillbilly Who Wasn’t

Walter Brennan as Judge Roy Bean with Gary Cooper in The Westerner.

Walter Brennan, the most honored character actor in Hollywood history and often cast as hicks, cowboys and toothless codgers, was born on July 25, 1894 in Lynn, Massachusetts.  In real life he was anything but a hick—he was a well educated New Englander with a keen business sense.   
He was one of three children born to lace curtain Irish immigrants and raised in Swampscott.  His father was a successful engineer and inventor.  Young Walter meant to follow in his father’s footsteps by training at Rindge Technical High School in Cambridge.
While still in school, to his family’s disapproval, he became interested in the theater and began to occasionally perform in vaudeville at the age of 15. He continued acting, off and on after graduating, perfecting a comic routine as a stutterer which he would later use in some of his earliest speaking roles in movies as comic relief.
Brennan also took jobs as a bank clerk, and even as a lumberjack.  But prior to enlisting in the Army for World War I, he was back in the theater, touring with a third rate musical company. 
After front line service in France in the Field Artillery, he immigrated to Guatemala where he operated a small pineapple plantation.
In 1920 Brennan married Ruth Wells who stayed by his side until his death 54 years later.  He moved to Los Angeles in the early 1920’s and began speculating, very successfully, in real estate.  He was soon a wealthy man.
But with time on his hands and the acting bug itching, Brennan began working as an extra in pictures and occasionally even as a stunt man.  By late in the decade he was getting small walk on parts as well and sometimes, if rarely, got screen credit.  But he never shied from continuing to take work as an extra, unlike many actors who came to regard that as beneath them.  In fact he would continue to do so well into the 1930’s when he was beginning to get established as an actor.
The Los Angeles real estate bubble burst after the 1929 Stock Market Crash and Brennan was wiped out.  He then had to rely on his film appearances, which he pursued relentlessly.  By the early 30’s he was beginning to establish a persona.  Because of his thinning hair, slender build and the loss of most of his front teeth in a 1933 auto accident, Brennan found himself routinely cast much older than his years.  Completely un-vain he would work without his dentures if a part required it.  He played an astonishing range of parts, but his appearance got him cast more and more frequently in westerns or as some kind of rustic.
In 1936 Brennan got his first co-starring role, billed third after Chester Morris and Lewis Stone in the original version of the western The Three Godfathers. More and more important roles soon came his way.  Later that year he was cast as lumberjack Swan Bostrom in the troubled production of Come and Get It based on Edna Ferber’s novel and directed by Howard Hawks, who was fired, and William Wyler who reluctantly completed the film.  Not a great critical success, it was a hit at the box office.  Brennan was nominated for the first ever Best Supporting Actor Academy Award and walked away with the trophy.
A parade of memorable roles followed and he was awarded the Best Supporting Actor Oscar two more times within the decade, for the race track drama Kentucky with Loretta Young and Richard Greene in 1938 and as Judge Roy Bean with Gary Cooper in 1940’s The Westerner. After the third win, the Academy ended voting privileges for member of the Screen Extras Guild who tended to come out en-mass to vote for the actor who had toiled so long among them. As a result, when Brennan was nominated again the next year for one on his best remembered parts, the preacher/shop keeper who counseled Cooper’s Sergeant York, he failed to take home the statue.
Despite many more memorable parts he was never nominated again.  But his three Oscars tie him with Jack Nicholson for the most awards ever given to a male actor.
He worked frequently with Cooper, who regarded him as his favorite co-star.  Their other films together included The Cowboy and the Lady, Meet John Doe, The Pride of the Yankees and Task Force.
Other memorable films of the late ‘30’s and early ‘40’s included Cecil B. DeMille’s original The Buccaneers; as Muff Potter in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; as the befuddled professor in They Shall Have Music; and Stanley and Livingston and Northwest Passage both with Spenser Tracy.

By the late 40’s Brennan was aging into the roles he had been playing for a decade and turning in some of his best performances.  In 1944 he played the thirsty side kick to Humphrey Bogart in To Have and to Have Not. Two years later he played one of his few villains as Ike Clayton opposite Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine.  In 1948 he made his first appearance with John Wayne as his side kick Nadine Groot in Red River. That’s a pretty impressive trifecta of film classics right there.

Unlike some leading men, character actor Brennan was able to roll along with a successful and busy career for the rest of his life.  In the ‘50’s he appeared in Along the Great Divide with Kirk Douglas, The Far County with James Stewart, re-teaming with Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock, with rare top billing in the boy and dog yarn Good Bye, My Lady, and most memorably of all as Stumpy in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo with Wayne and Dean Martin.

Always eager to work, Brennan had no qualms about also jumping into the new medium of television.  He appeared regularly in  popular anthology programs like The Schlitz Playhouse Ethel Barrymore Presents, Cavalcade of America, Ford Television Theater, Zane Gray Theater, and Colgate Theater.

In 1957 Brennan began playing the part for which a generation most remembered him, as Grandpa McCoy on the comedy series The Real McCoys which costarred Richard Crenna.  The show ran for five seasons on CBS and for a final year in 1963 as The McCoys on ABC.  He went on to star in three more TV series—The Tycoon in 1965 in the completely different title role, The Guns of Will Sonnet from ’67-’69, and From Rome With Love in 1971.

All the while he continued to guest star on other TV shows and continue to act in movies, by then playing almost exclusively eccentric old men.  Among his more popular late career roles were in Support Your Local Sheriff with James Garner and the two Over the Hill Gang TV movies.

Brennan also had a late career recording career. He recorded two albums of semi-spoken word songs in his old codger persona, The Dutchman’s Gold in 1960 and Old Rivers in ’62.  The title song from the second album climbed to Number 5 on U.S. pop charts.

Active until the end of his life, Brennan’s last film was the forgettable Smoke in the Wind in 1975 which was directed by his son Andy.

Brennan died later that year on September 20 of emphysema at his Oxnard, California home.

In his fifty year career he appeared in 239 known film and television roles and probably appeared in dozens more films as an extra that are unknown. That’s what is called a working actor.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post - watching Walter Brennan as a 44-year old playing an octogenarian in Kentucky made me curious about the actor. There are other biographies of Walter Brennan, but so far, yours is the most fun!