One encounter during high school forever changed the course of award-winning actor Brian Dennehy’s life. While attending Chaminade High School in Mineola, New York, the future movie tough guy’s football coach, Chris Sweeny, also happened to be the schools drama teacher.
“Chris Sweeny was a huge influence in my life,” he said. “He was a man of extensive interest. He had been in the Army [during the Korean War] and, as it turned out, he loved the theater. I remember he had a wonderful, dramatic voice. At this private, Catholic high school, he was a different kind of influence on all of us.”
Coach Sweeny, now long retired, recognized early on the potential of the large, gregarious Dennehy. While starring for the Flyers as an offensive and defensive tackle, Dennehy earned a reputation as a “character” on the team. Sweeny saw in him something special and untapped. It would be a realization that would ultimately set Dennehy on the path to become a great actor.
“I always like to have a blast and clown around and make people laugh and have fun. Coach Sweeny picked up on that,” he said. “One day, he said to me ‘Dennehy, as a football player, you’d make a great actor.’ It was obviously something prophetic. He started a theater group, which the school had never had. It would be years before I actually could call myself an actor though.”
Despite all his success – Dennehy was a very good player on the field, an extremely intelligent student, and had a rugged work ethic – he admittedly lacked any real focus or direction in life. His grades earned him admission to Columbia University, where he was thrust into a starting role on both offense and defense for the Lions.
“I was starting at Columbia as a sophomore and we only won one ball game,” he said. “We actually won one game each year for my first two seasons. I enjoyed my time there, but I have to say this about my experience though: I was totally undisciplined as a student, but I had a wonderful time there at Columbia. It’s right there in the heart of New York City. Unfortunately, I was a stupid kid and unfocused.”
In the summer of 1957, heading into his senior season, Dennehy was “in trouble” as he puts it academically. He did, however, receive a letter from the Green Bay Packers asking if he would be interested in coming to a summer camp with the team.
“They offered to give me a train ticket out there and a little money,” he said. “So, I go home all beaming and I show this letter I got from the Packers to my father and I asked him what he thought. My father said, ‘Believe me, you’re not good enough to play in the NFL. If you go out there, you’re just going to get your head kicked in. By that time Columbia – and they were very nice about this – said I need to take some time away to get my head straight. After that, I ended up in the Marine Corps, so, that was that. I wish I would have kept that letter though.”
As it would turn out, the game of football was not quite done with Dennehy. While stationed in at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and later while stationed in Okinawa, Dennehy played football for the corps. In 1962, his team defeated the arch rival Army squad in the Sukiyaki Bowl.
“We had a lot of good officers on our team who played football and were really good,” he said. “We beat the Army team that came down from Korea, which made all of us very happy. That’s something they can never take away from me.”
He got out of the service in 1963 and was re-admitted back into Columbia. He worked a number of odd jobs, including driving a truck and working with primitive computers at a bank, while finishing his degree. Ultimately, the words of Coach Sweeny came back to him while reading the advertisement for an audition for plays in New York City.
“I was working all of these jobs that bored me to death and going to school and well, things just happen as they say,” Dennehy explained. “Some young agent in New York saw me do something and wanted to represent me and things just kind of went from there. Life takes you places, you’ve just got to be open to it and ready to go with it.”
Dennehy briefly tried his hand at football, being offered a shot with the Westchester Crusaders of the semi-professional Atlantic Football League. However, by that time, the acting bug had firmly took hold and it was time for him to relegate his football proclivities solely to fandom.
“I was there in Westchester for two days, I had three kids at the time and I realized this was just not going anywhere,” he said. “I was out of shape and that was the end of it at that point, I knew. But, again, I won the Sukiyaki Bowl, so that’s probably the big highlight of my football playing career.”
However, things ultimately turned out alright for Dennehy. He got his big break in acting with a part in the Burt Reynolds football film Semi-Tough in 1977 and his since gone on to star in such films as Cocoon, First Blood, Tommy Boy, Silverado, and countless others. Looking back over his long career, he is still able to draw a clear path from football to acting success.
“The thing about football, aside from all the aches and pains that it gave me, was the sense that life is tough and hard and really painful, but you can deal with it,” he said. “You can get up, literally some times, after getting knocked down and go back and go at it again. You try again and again. There’s a real lesson there. If you have the discipline to keep going back into a situation that is painful knowing its going to be painful, you will ultimately get over it. That’s what I got from football.”