One of the most endearing and loveable American character actor of all times, Walter Brennan had an astoundingly successful career that spanned five decades in the motion picture industry. Every lover of classic cinema at least knows him as a perennial "that guy" and Brennan is most often associated with playing curmudgeonly coots and comedic yokels. Yet his range was immense and he became the first actor to claim three academy awards and is to this day the only actor to ever win three awards for best supporting role. Brennan was a very loved and respected person in the industry, though towards the end of his life he became increasingly more conservative and out of place in the rapidly changing political and cultural environment of the 60's. Brennan died of emphysema in 1974 at the age of eighty.
Brennan's output is simply awe inspiring. One only needs to glimpse briefly through his IMDB page to see a wealth of classic films from every conceivable genre. Three roles of his in particular have been dear to my heart, all three directed by my all-time favorite director, Howard Hawks. The first was in Hawk's wonderful To Have and Have Not. The film is, of course, justifiably legendary due to the on- (and off) screen chemistry of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall but Brennan adds some fantastic spice to the mixture as Bogart's alcoholic first mate Eddie. Brennan takes a character which could easily have been reduced to comic relief and fills him with humanity, pathos and a sense of history. Bogart's character, "Steve," alternately pities and loves Eddie and some of the interplay between them is a mixture of the hilarious and the tragic.
The second role came in Hawk's classic Red River, an almost Shakespearean drama set in the old West about a ruthless cattle boss played by John Wayne who tries to move his enermous herd of cattle from Texas to Missouri. Along for the ride are his adopted son, played by Montgomery Clift, and his old compatriot and conscience, an old trail-hand and cook played by Brennan. The performance is definitely among Wayne's best, a portrait of a towering, frightful man who slowly loses his soul because of pride and greed yet who is nonetheless capable of great and selfless good. It is an extremely nuanced and sensitive performance and in some ways it relies on the interplay between Wayne and Brennan. Brennan's role is truly a supporting role, one which makes the other actors around him better and the characters they play more interesting and deep, even though we never learn very much about the character Brennan himself is playing. On a somewhat sad note, Wayne and Brennan treated their co-star Clift very poorly on the set of the film, refusing to interact with him between takes due to his homosexuality (the film was made in 1946 - though not released until 1948).
Brennan and Montgomery Clift in Red River
Finally we have my favorite Brennan role of all times and perhaps the most quintessential old yokel role ever seen in a movie. Brennan's performance has been spoofed, imitated and referenced thousands of times throughout pop culture and it remains among his most funniest and interesting portrayals. The role is that of Stumpy in Howard Hawk's Rio Bravo, perhaps my favorite film of all times. The camaraderie and pure joy shared between the four lead actors, John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Brennan is absolutely wonderful, making the film a perfect example of what Quentin Tarantino humorously termed "hang out movies," i.e. films whose characters you identify with and like so much that revisiting the film is like revisiting old friends. Few things give me more joy than spending a lazy afternoon with these guys, along with the delectable Ms. Angie Dickinson (whose legs remain among God's most impressive creations). Brennan is both funny and sad as an old man who has lost most of both his land and his pride to the villainous Nathan Burdette. The plot of the film revolves around Wayne arresting Burdette's brother and the elder Burdette laying siege to the jail with Wayne facing an entire army of gunmen with only a drunken buddy (Martin), a hotshot gunfighter (Nelson) and a crippled old man (Brennan) at his side (the plot was later reworked by John Carpenter as the basis for his extraordinary Assault on Precinct 13). The four of them prove to be more than the bad guys bargained for, though, as the film ends in a spectacular shootout with Brennan chucking dynamite sticks at the bad guys which Wayne explodes by shooting them mid-air with his rifle. The film is funny, exciting, romantic and filled with wonderful dialogue and acting. First and foremost, though, it is an ode to friendship, bravery and selflessness, grounded in the belief that human beings are fundamentally good (Hawks meant the film to be a kind of anti High Noon. In that film the sheriff must beg the townspeople for help yet everyone abandons him in the end. In Rio Bravo most of the characters are willing to sacrifice their well-being by helping Wayne but he refuses their help because he doesn't want them to get hurt).
Brennan, Wayne and Dean Martin (suffering from what looks like an epic hangover) in Rio Bravo
Please join me in raising a glass of Power's Irish whiskey to the late, great Walter Brennan. I hope most of our readers have had the opportunity to see one of his many wonderful roles and if not there is certainly a great wealth of options to choose from.