Family & Companions
A distinctive American character actor with roots in Broadway musicals, Eileen Brennan was best known for her Oscar-nominated supporting role as an unrelenting drill sergeant in the fish-out-of-water comedy "Private Benjamin" (1980). Prior to that high-profile accomplishment Brennan spent the 1970s working with distinguished directors like Peter Bogdanovich and George Roy Hill, for whom she offered up stellar supporting roles as sharp-tongued, world-weary dames in "The Last Picture Show" (1971) and "The Sting" (1973). The smoky-voiced comedienne whose silent film star features made her a natural for such period pieces, also had memorable roles in zany parodies including the sketch-comedy show "Laugh-In" (NBC, 1968-1973) and Neil Simon's "Murder by Death" (1976) before her "Private Benjamin" success launched a steady small-screen career. Brennan earned multiple Emmy nominations for her central role in the film's sitcom spin-off and went on to appear in scores of television comedies and movies-of-the-week where her unique wit and feisty persona were always a welcome addition. After years of successfully battling breast cancer, Brennan died in 2013 of bladder cancer, with her tenaciousness remaining only part of her considerable legacy.
Brennan was born Sept. 3, 1932, and raised in Los Angeles by her mother, a former silent film actress, and her doctor father. At Georgetown University in Washington D.C., she first began to make a name for herself as a comedienne with the college's Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society. She appeared in a number of productions there before going on to further shape her talent at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York in the mid 1950s. From a number of off-Broadway roles, Brennan quickly jetted into the forefront of the New York Theater scene with her starring role in the musical "Little Mary Sunshine," a tongue-in-cheek send-up of old fashioned musicals that also wryly poked fun at modern society. Brennan earned an Obie Award for the performance, as well as Theater World recognition as a "Promising New Personality." Over the next several years, Brennan toured with a production of "The Miracle Worker" in the role of Annie Sullivan and appeared in the musicals "The King and I" and "The Student Gypsy," which marked her Broadway debut.
In 1964, Brennan returned to Broadway where she originated the role of Irene Malloy in the musical "Hello, Dolly!" starring Carol Channing and Charles Nelson Reilly. She spent nearly two years with the production before segueing into screen work with a character role in the sex comedy "Divorce American Style" (1967) and recurring appearances on the irreverent variety show "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," where her zippy comic timing found its first nationwide audience. When Brennan's focus shifted to film in the 1970s, however, it was not cheap laughs she brought to the big screen, but rather her offhanded, cynical sass as a "tough broad." In the first of many collaborations with director Peter Bogdanovich, Brennan gave a memorable performance as a weary but wise lunch counter waitress in a tiny Texas down in "The Last Picture Show" (1971), based on the novel by Larry McMurtry. After she earned a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actress for that role, she returned to the screen with a larger part as a smart, sassy brothel owner who colludes with a Depression-era con man (Paul Newman) in the 1972 Oscar-winning Best Picture, "The Sting" (1973).
Brennan was called upon again by Bogdanovich for a key role in "Daisy Miller" (1974), which was a critical and commercial disappointment, though the actress was singled out for her stellar performance as a carefully composed 19th century society matron threatened by the arrival of a fresh young face (Cybill Shepherd). The following year, Brennan's affinity for tough but good-hearted working women of classic Hollywood musicals and film noirs made her an excellent choice to appear in Bogdanovich's musical "At Long Last Love" (1975), though sadly that film was an even bigger failure. She rebounded by bringing her strength for playing old-style dames to Neil Simon's hilarious ensemble mystery spoof "Murder by Death" (1976), a box office success, and Simon's less successful follow-up, "The Cheap Detective" (1978). In 1980, the actress scored her biggest commercial and critical success with her performance as a tough U.S. Army Captain with little tolerance for a dainty new recruit (Goldie Hawn) in "Private Benjamin" (1980).
Brennan earned a supporting Oscar nomination for her cartoonish, prickly characterization. So identifiable did the role become, she reprised it in the primetime adaptation of the show, "Private Benjamin" (CBS, 1981-83) and earned an Emmy Award. Brennan disappeared at the height of her visibility, however, after she was hit by a car and required several years of rehabilitation. She was later quite open about the dangers of becoming addicted to prescription painkillers, after having already battled alcoholism during the 1970s. When the actress returned to screens in 1985, she eased back into her niche of historic satire with an appropriate sounding role in "Clue" (1985), a dark-humored adaptation of the classic board game, but comedy fans were not interested in that brand of humor by the mid-1980s.
Subsequently, Brennan found the most success in the 1980s and 1990s on television, where she earned Emmy nominations for recurring roles and guest spots on sophisticated comedies like "Newhart" (CBS, 1982-1990), "Thirtysomething" (ABC, 1987-1991) and "Will and Grace" (NBC, 1998-2006). While appearing steadily in dozens of made-for-TV movies ranging from domestic melodramas "Precious Victims" (CBS, 1993) to family comedies "Freaky Friday" (ABC, 1995), Brennan occasionally made supporting appearances on film, notably in Bogdanovich's "Picture Show" sequel, "Texasville" (1990), as well as the horror comedy "Jeepers Creepers" (2001) and the comedy "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous" (2005). Effectively retiring after 2006, Brennan lived out her final years quietly, a somewhat ironic shift for such a memorable and scene-stealing screen star. Following her death in 2013, Brennan was fondly remembered online by numerous former collaborators, including "Clue" co-star Michael McKean.
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Stage acting debut, the title role in the Off-Broadway musical "Little Mary Sunshine"
Co-starred as Irene Molloy in original Broadway cast of "Hello, Dolly!" with Carol Channing and Reilly
Early TV appearance in support of Dustin Hoffman in "The Star Wagon" (PBS)
Feature film debut, "Divorce, American Style"
Regular role on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In"
Appeared as Genevieve, the world-weary waitress, in "The Last Picture Show", directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Portrayed Paul Newman's landlady in "The Sting"
Co-starred in the NBC miniseries "The Blue Knight"
Reteamed with Bogdanovich for "Daisy Miller"
Had singing and dancing role in Bogdanovich's disastrous "At Long Last Love"
Offered amusing turn in "Murder By Death", scripted by Neil Simon
Delivered a powerful turn as the mother of drug-addicted son in "The Death of Richie" (NBC)
Played leading role of Felicia Winters on the short-lived ABC sitcom, "13 Queens Boulevard"
Played leading role of Kate Flanagan on the short-lived ABC sitcom, "A New Kind of Family"
Earned Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her turn as the hardnosed army captain in "Private Benjamin"
Was struck by a car and seriously injured
Resumed acting career near the end of the year after recovering from her injuries
Cast as Mrs. Peacock in the film version of the board game "Clue"
Reprised role of Genevieve in "Texasville", the sequel to "The Last Picture Show"
Cast as a candy store owner in "I Don't Buy Kisses Anymore"
Portrayed the unsuspecting mother of a serial killer in "Poisoned by Love: The Kern County Murders" (CBS)
Had small role of a defrocked nun in "Reckless", adapted from Craig Lucas' stage play
Played the principal in the ABC/Disney remake of "Freaky Friday"
Portrayed another nun, this time the Mother Superior. in the comedy "Changing Habits"
Returned to the NYC stage as the mother in Martin McDonagh's "The Cripple of Inishmaan"
Had supporting role in the horror film "Jeepers Creepers"
Had a recurring role as Zandra on the NBC comedy "Will and Grace"; received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy series (2004)