On his IMDB page, Brian Dennehy is quoted as saying that the odds of an elderly actor winning a "tremendously fascinating part" in movies or television are "almost negligible." But in theatre, he adds, "there are still things to do, very interesting, very profound things."
As it happens, Dennehy's own career offers a powerful confirmation of that thesis. He is best known, of course, for his work in film (The Belly of an Architect, The Next Three Days, Presumed Innocent, Tommy Boy, Romeo + Juliet, Cocoon and Silverado) and television (30 Rock, Law & Order, The West Wing, Miami Vice), and various series and miniseries. But in the last 15 years, Dennehy has won two Tony awards for best actor (for Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey Into Night ), and earned critical and popular acclaim for stage appearances in Hughie, Krapp's Last Tape, Desire Under the Elms, The Iceman Cometh, Galileo, Inherit the Wind, and The Homecoming.
Now, on the eve of his 75th birthday, he may be poised for another action d'eclat, playing Pozzo in the Stratford Festival production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The show, directed by Jennifer Tarver, opens Thursday night.
"I'd like to say I'm filled with excitement and nervousness about the opening," Dennehy said in an interview Wednesday. "But there's just been too many … openings over the years. I'm just desperately trying to be sure that I reasonably know my lines."
He's also spent a fair bit of time coming to grips with Beckett, arguably the 20th century's most important playwright.
With the material prosperity that has suffused Western life in the past six decades, Godot, he concedes, has become something of a literary artifact. But what's often overlooked, Dennehy suggests, is the play's historical context – the literally blighted landscape of the post-Second World War world. Although Godot was written in the early 1950s, Beckett had started thinking about it in the late 1940s, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the bombings of Dresden and Coventry.
"This was a world that had literally gone crazy," Dennehy says, "and even the mysterious atmosphere of the play reflects, I think, Beckett's contemporary surroundings." The playwright himself had some modest involvement with the French Underground and, at one point during the war, found himself on the run, pursued by the French secret police (on behalf of the Nazis). "The bones of that experience are in the play."
Dennehy is spending his third season at Stratford. He appeared in 2008 in Hughie, Krapp's Last Tape (also directed by Tarver), and All's Well That Ends Well, and returned in 2011 for Twelfth Night and The Homecoming. In Godot, Dennehy is appearing with Stephen Ouimette as Estragon, Tom Rooney as Vladmir – "two of the best actors I have ever seen, anywhere, any time" – and Randy Hughson as Pozzo's servant, Lucky. "I've seen 25 productions of this play, and Randy is the real revelation – what he does with Lucky is completely unique."
Dennehy says he's been studying Beckett for almost 40 years. One of the difficulties of staging Godot is that there are at least five versions in circulation. The playwright, Dennehy says, was constantly revising. When Steve Martin and Robin Williams mounted a version of the play in 1987, Beckett was still alive "and they were constantly on the phone to him asking if they could make changes. And he said, 'do whatever you want.' Now, the estate is so tight-ass you can't change a thing."
The theme of Godot, he maintains, bears some relationship to Krapp's Last Tape, which he considers the playwright's most accessible play. In Krapp's, "life is a slapstick joke. You work, you scheme and you lose, because you inevitably die. You always slip on the banana peel." In Godot, similarly, life is an absurdity. "It's a complete accident. And the more important people think life is, the funnier they become. Art, politics, it's all a joke."
The word Godot, he says, is a French twist on an Irish slang word for God – Goddo. "So these guys, Vladimir, Estrago, they're waiting for answers. What the hell does this all mean? When will God come and part the curtains on the mystery. But it's a joke, a really black-Irish joke. Because if he's not coming now, after the Holocaust and all the rest, when will he ever come, Beckett's answer is he's not only not coming, he's not even home."
It's a bleak conceit succinctly captured in Pozzo's last speech: "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."
That, Dennehy insists, "was certainly Beckett's point of view. The play is an extremely agile knife-job on life – on hope, expectations, ambition, love, on all the things we hold dear." And against the on-rushing darkness, there is only one logical response – laughter.
Waiting for Godot runs through Sept. 26 at Stratford's Tom Patterson Theatre.