“A Real American Character: The Life of Walter Brennan” (University Press of Mississippi), by Carl Rollyson
How could an actor win three Oscars in five years yet be all but forgotten? Overexposure and late-career typecasting as a cranky or kindly grandpa ultimately clouded character actor Walter Brennan’s important contributions to some of Hollywood’s better Golden Age films.
That’s Brennan as the menacing Judge Roy Bean in 1940’s “The Westerner.” The parson who welcomes Alvin York (Gary Cooper) to church in “Sergeant York” (1941)? Brennan again. The spice in two of John Wayne’s top movies, “Red River” (1948) and “Rio Bravo” (1959), comes from Brennan’s efforts. Although rarely a villain - he was Henry Fonda’s nemesis in “My Darling Clementine” (1946) - Brennan could do much more than play lovable old coots.
By the time he starred in the TV sitcom “The Real McCoys” (1957-1963), that’s how the public had grown to prefer Brennan - cantankerous with a streak of kindness. Off-screen, however, that streak also carried a stain of racism and political paranoia.
Author Carl Rollyson’s biography “A Real American Character: The Life of Walter Brennan” focuses on a hard-working performer who found his niche and stayed with it for a half-century. His darker side is played down almost to the point of afterthought.
Brennan (1894-1974) was a self-taught actor who developed a talent for mimicry during a hardscrabble early life. He was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, began working odd jobs at age 11 and found little use for school. A combat veteran of World War I, Brennan survived a mustard gas attack in France that cost him some teeth - a plus, it turns out, when he began to specialize in playing older men. He eventually maintained a wide collection of dentures to fit any role.
While he drifted from job to job after the war and traveled west, Brennan retained a keen eye for the people around him. He would incorporate their expressions, accents and mannerisms while looking for work as a movie extra. Through sheer diligence he eked out a living for his wife and three children, eventually drawing attention with his ability to enliven bit parts.
Brennan’s breakthrough role in the Howard Hawks potboiler “Barbary Coast” (1935) led to a 10-year contract with producer Samuel Goldwyn and bigger and better parts - then three Oscars for “Come and Get It” (1936), “Kentucky” (1938) and, two years later, “The Westerner.”
“If you’re not the star, you don’t get the blame if it’s a lousy picture,” Brennan observed with the craftiness of one of his characters. “They always blame the star. They say, ‘But that old man was great!’ That’s how I keep going.”
Rollyson has no trouble praising Brennan as an actor but is nearly silent when it comes to judging his subject’s fringe political views and racial attitudes. Brennan’s sudden outspokenness in the 1960s, Rollyson suggests, was a response to becoming a weekly TV star whose opinions were sought on the issues of the day. Brennan didn’t like the changes he was seeing in Hollywood and the rest of the country, and said so.
The author describes Brennan’s “fierce opposition to godless communism” and reports that he branded people as communists if, for example, they supported John F. Kennedy for president or didn’t vote for Richard Nixon for governor. He enjoyed the company of segregationists and members of the John Birch Society. A Roman Catholic, he publicly bemoaned what he viewed as the culture’s shift away from religion and patriotism.
The man once designated the nation’s grandfather also used other ethnic slurs, according to Rollyson, and thought that the Watts riots could have been stopped “with a machine gun.” He opined that “all this trouble with … the Negroes is caused by just a few of them” and later expressed satisfaction in the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Meanwhile, Brennan’s home included a bunker stocked with weapons and food in anticipation of a Soviet invasion.
This side of Brennan doesn’t appear in Rollyson’s book until it’s nearly over, but it’s hard to believe that the actor came to such views late in life. His biographer’s attempts at context - Brennan wasn’t the only conservative, wasn’t the only religiously observant actor, wasn’t the only anti-communist in Hollywood - sound too much like excuses.
A real American character? Rollyson’s subtitle carries more than a touch of irony. Fortunately, Walter Brennan’s best performances outlive his political persona, the least appealing of his many faces.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).
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