One of the most immediately recognizable character actors of the 20th century, Walter Brennan enjoyed a four-decade career playing colorful, often sage older men in a vast array of legendary films, including "Kentucky" (1938), "The Westerner" (1940), "To Have and Have Not" (1943) and "My Darling Clementine" (1946). Damaged vocal chords and false teeth allowed him to play elderly men while still in his forties, which Brennan imbued with a rascally charm that made him an immediate favorite among moviegoers. After toiling in bit parts for a decade, he claimed his first Oscar as Frances Farmer's father in "Come and Get It" (1936), then repeated the feat as a curmudgeonly horse owner in "Kentucky" (1938). His third Oscar came with one of his most memorable turns as the corrupt Old West judge Roy Bean, who in Brennan's capable hands, was equally winning and frightening in "The Westerner" (1940). He soon became a fixture of screen Westerns, including "My Darling Clementine" (1946) and "Red River" (1948), before moving to television for the popular "Real McCoys" (ABC, 1957-1962). The series extended his career for another two decades, as did films like "Rio Bravo" (1959), "How the West Was Won" (1963). Still active into his seventh decade, Brennan died in 1974, leaving behind a storied legacy of screen roles that enshrined him as one of the most memorable character actors in Hollywood history.
Born July 25, 1894 in Lynn, MA, Walter Andrew Brennan was the second of three children by engineer William John Brennan and his wife, Margaret. As a boy, he studied engineering at Rindge Technical High School in Cambridge, MA, but fell in love with acting after appearing in several school plays. After graduation, Brennan worked in vaudeville while holding down various odd jobs until 1917, when he enlisted to serve in World War I. While there, he suffered an injury to his vocal chords from exposure to mustard gas that left him with his screen trademark: a distinctively reedy, high-pitched voice that became a favorite for celebrity impersonators for decades. Following his discharge, Brennan raised pineapples in Guatemala before heading for Los Angeles, where he became involved in the real estate market. However, the crash of California land values in 1925 wiped out his earnings, forcing him to seek out work as an extra in silent features.
For the next decade, he toiled in background roles or uncredited bit parts in such films as "The Invisible Man" (1933) and "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935). More often than not, he was cast as characters years, if not decades older than his actual age, thanks in part to the loss of his teeth in a 1932 accident. Already lanky, balding and sporting his quavering voice, he could transition from younger characters to elderly codgers simply by removing his dentures. Brennan received his big break with 1935's "The Wedding Night," which was intended as a vehicle for its star, Anna Sten. However, audiences were more impressed with Brennan's comic turn as an eccentric cab driver - so much that he was soon signed to a contract with producer Samuel Goldwyn. The following year, he won the first of his Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor as Frances Farmer's widower father in "Come and Get It," a drama begun by Howard Hawks but completed by William Wyler. The win boosted him to the inner circle of Hollywood character actors, where he worked steadily with such directors as John Ford in "Three Godfathers" (1936), Fritz Lang in "Fury" (1936) and Cecil B. De Mille in "The Buccaneer" (1938), playing colorful sage advisors to the film's leads, or prickly older men who could be swayed by appealing to their better nature. In 1938, he won his second Oscar as Loretta Young's embittered uncle, who overcame his grievances towards her beau (Richard Greene) after he trained their horse to win the Kentucky Derby.
After enjoying substantive roles in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1938), "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" (1939) and "Northwest Passage" (1940), Brennan captured his third Academy Award as Judge Roy Bean, the notorious real-life hanging judge of the American West, whose iron-fisted rule was challenged by drifter Gary Cooper in "The Westerner" (1940). Though Cooper was initially reluctant to take the part, fearing that he would be overshadowed by Brennan's performance, the two actors made for such an effective screen team that they appeared together in four subsequent films, including "Meet John Doe" (1940), "Sergeant York" (1941), which earned Cooper the Oscar and Brennan his fourth nomination, and "Pride of the Yankees" (1942). By this point, Brennan was so well-regarded by critics and audiences that he became one of the first character players to move up to a leading role, playing a fugitive who befriended young Dana Andrews in Jean Renoir's American feature debut, "Swamp Water" (1941). However, he was soon back in character parts, lending expert support as Humphrey Bogart's alcoholic sidekick in "To Have and Have Not" (1943) and stealing scenes from Bob Hope - no easy task - as a dimwitted but loyal tattooist in "The Princess and the Pirate" (1944). In 1946, he played against type as the genuinely frightening Old Man Clanton, leader of the brutish rustler family who faced down Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) at the O.K. Corral in "My Darling Clementine" (1946).
Brennan was a constant presence in A-picture Westerns throughout the late '40s and early '50s, giving expert turns opposite John Wayne in John Ford's "Red River" (1948) and Kirk Douglas in Raoul Walsh's "Across the Great Divide" (1951). There were occasional forays to the modern day, most notably as a sympathetic town doctor in John Sturges' "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1955), but for the most part, Brennan was as essential a part of the Hollywood Western as Monument Valley, horses and sagebrush. In 1957, he moved to television to play the patriarch of a sprawling mountain family in the comedy "The Real McCoys," which proved to be one of the more well-loved projects of his entire career. The 63-year-old Brennan found himself not only more popular than ever, but in high demand again as a character player. He reteamed with John Wayne for one of his best roles as the gimpy but determined deputy in Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo" (1959). He even enjoyed a brief but improbably successful second career as a recording artist with the spoken word singles "Dutchman's Gold" (1960) and the maudlin "Old Rivers," which reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962. The following year, he again played against his grandfatherly screen presence as the vicious leader of a river pirate gang in "How the West Was Won" (1963).
When "The Real McCoys" left the airwaves in 1963, he returned to series work the following year as the star of "The Tycoon" (ABC, 1964-65), a sitcom about a cantankerous millionaire with a penchant for helping those in dire financial straits. Produced by Danny Thomas and Aaron Spelling, the show failed to attract the same audience numbers as "McCoys," but did little to affect Brennan's popularity. He had remained consistently active on film since the silent era, and continued to land major supporting roles in features throughout the 1960s, including a comic version of his Old Man Clanton role in "Support Your Local Sheriff" (1969) with James Garner. In 1969, he joined fellow Western character players Chill Wills, Edgar Buchanan and Andy Devine in "The Over-the-Hill Gang" (ABC), a popular made-for-TV Western-comedy about a trio of elderly gunfighters who aid a young newspaper editor's crusade to clean up their town. It spawned a sequel, "The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again" (ABC, 1970), the following year.
In addition to his successful screen career, Brennan was one of Hollywood's wealthiest performers. He had continued to invest in real estate after his initial failure in the 1920s, including a 12,000-acre ranch in Northern California overseen by his sons Arthur and actor-producer-director Andrew. Brennan also reaped significant rewards from "The Real McCoys" through his partnership with producer Irving Pincus. But in addition to his financial status, he had also developed a reputation as one of the entertainment industry's most hawkish conservatives. In interviews, he voiced his belief that Communist forces were behind the civil rights and anti-war movements, and reportedly expressed glee on the set of his final series "The Guns of Will Sonnett" (ABC, 1967-69) upon hearing the news that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated. In 1972, he supported the presidential campaign of ultra-conservative California Congressman John Schmidt over that of Richard M. Nixon, whom he believed was too moderate a Republican. Brennan continued working into the mid-1970s, joining the cast of the failed family sitcom "To Rome with Love" (CBS, 1970-71) in its final season. He made his final screen appearance in "Smoke in the Wind" (1975) a low-budget Western co-directed by his son Andrew. He died a year before its release in theaters, succumbing to emphysema at the age of 80 on Sept. 21, 1974. At the time, he was preparing to take the lead in the Disney live-action feature "Herbie Rides Again" (1974), but proved too ill to take the assignment, which was subsequently rewritten for another venerable, well-loved performer, actress Helen Hayes.
By Paul Gaita