Childhood & Early Life
Brennan was born on July 25, 1894, in Lynn, Massachusetts, to Margaret Elizabeth (née Flanagan) and William John Brennan, an engineer. Their family was of Irish descent and he was second of the three children.
He studied engineering at ‘Rindge Technical High School’ in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Interested in acting, he participated in many school plays and also worked in Vaudeville. After graduation, he did different jobs, such as that of a bank clerk. In 1917, he joined the US Army as a private in the ‘101st Field Artillery Regiment’ and served for 2 years in France, during ‘World War I.’
Post war, Brennan briefly took up the job of a financial reporter, then moved to Los Angeles, California and dealt in real estate. He earned well, but lost almost everything during 1925 land slump.
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The crash of real estate market compelled him to look for work as an extra and a stuntman. He worked for $7.50 a day at the ‘Universal Studios’ and for the next decade appeared in a number of movies. He worked in background or unaccredited minor roles in various films including, ‘The Calgary Stampede’ (1925), ‘One Hysterical Night’ (1929), ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933), and many more.
In 1932, while shooting for a fight scene, another actor kicked Brennan hard in the face and the he lost most of his teeth, forcing him to use a set. By removing the denture, he could take up roles much older than his age, which increased his range of work.
In 1935, Brennan got a small part of a taxi-driver in producer Samuel Goldwyn’s ‘The Wedding Night.’ His characterization in the minor role led to expansion of his part and signing of a contract with Goldwyn. He got small speaking parts in ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935), ‘Spring Tonic’ (1935), ‘Welcome Home’ (1935), and few more.
He graduated to little larger roles with director Howard Hawks’ ‘Barbary Coast’ (1935). He went on to work in total 7 films with Hawks. The role that brought him recognition and award was that of a Swedish Lumberman ‘Swan Bostrom’ in the period film, ‘Come and Get It’ (1935). The direction of this film was started by Hawks and completed by William Wyler. Brennan won his first ‘Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor’ for this performance as the leading lady Frances Farmer’s widower father.
After his ‘Oscar’ win, Brennan got a chance to work with directors such as John Ford in ‘Three Godfathers’ (1936), Fritz Lang in ‘Fury’ (1936), and Cecil B. De Mille in ‘The Buccaneer’ (1938). In the ‘Three Godfathers,’ he played one of the three title characters. In 1937, he got his first lead role in ‘Affairs of Cappy Ricks’ (at ‘Republic Pictures’) and then a co-starring part in ‘Wild and Woolly’ (at ‘Fox’).
Brennan’s portrayal of an embittered elderly horse-farm owner in David Butler directed film ‘Kentucky’ (1938), won him his second ‘Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.’ He got to play somewhat bigger, substantial roles in films including, ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ (1938), ‘Northwest Passage’ (1940) and few other. He got a top-billing in 1940’s ‘Maryland,’ directed by Henry King.
His portrayal of a corrupt ‘Judge Roy Bean,’ alongside Gary Cooper, in 1940’s ‘The Westerner’ earned him his third ‘Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.’ The ‘Brennan and Cooper team’ proved successful and the two featured together in more such films as, ‘Meet John Doe’ (1940), ‘Sergeant York’ (1941), and the biopic of Lou Gehrig, 1942’s ‘Pride of the Yankees.’ His role of ‘Pastor Rosier Pile’ in ‘Sergeant York’ fetched him fourth ‘Oscar’ nomination.
Brennan played lead role (of a fugitive) in ‘Swamp Water’ (1941), directed by Jean Renoir and in ‘Home in Indiana’ (1944), directed by Henry Hathaway. His role of chatty ‘rummy’ Eddie’ in ‘To Have and Have Not’ (1944) and belligerent cattle-hand ‘Nadine Groot’ in ‘Red River’ (1948), both directed by Hawks, brought him appreciation.
Stepping away from his usual ‘lovable old man’ roles, he portrayed heartless, brigand leader ‘Old Man Clanton’ in John Ford’s ‘My Darling Clementine’ (1946). He supported John Wayne in another notable film by Howard Hawks, ‘Red River’ (1948).
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Brennan’s other remarkable roles include that of a compassionate town doctor in John Sturges’ ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ (1955), as ‘Grandfather Dinwitty’ in Joseph Pevney’s rom-com ‘Tammy and the Bachelor’ (1957), and one of his best role as a ‘determined jailhouse keeper’ in Howard Hawks’ ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959). He played the lead in 1957 hit movie ‘God is My Partner.’
During 1950s Brennan began working on TV. He guest starred in a number of anthology series and also was a judge on ‘ABC’ series ‘Jukebox Jury.’ He became a very popular TV personality after starring as mulish west Virginia patriarch, ‘Amos McCoy,’ in the hit sit-com series, ‘The Real McCoys,’ which ran for 6 seasons and 224 episodes from 1957 to 1963. Brennan was also co-producer of the series.
His other series were, ‘The Tycoon’ (1964) and ‘The Guns of Will Sonnet’ (1967-1969). He also starred in Disney Production’s’ fantasy film ‘Gnome-Mobile’ (1967) and ‘The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band’ (1968).
Brennan also enjoyed a brief, but successful singing career with 4 ‘Billboard Hot 100’ singles, including ‘Old Rivers’ (1962) which remained on the charts for 11 weeks and peaked at number 5. His other popular single was ‘Dutchman’s Gold’ (1960).
His last movie was Joseph Kane’s western, ‘Smoke in the Wind’ which was co-directed by his son Andrew and was released after his death.
Family & Personal Life
Brennan married Ruth Caroline Wells in 1920 and the couple had 3 children, a daughter, Ruth Caroline Brennan and 2 sons, Arthur ‘Mike’ and Andrew ‘Andy’ Brennan. Brennan owned a working, 12,000 acres cattle ranch, ‘Lightning Creek Ranch,’ near Joseph, Oregon and also ran several other businesses in the area.
During later years, Brennan faced some controversies because of his ‘Conservative’ political views. He believed and stated in interviews, that the ‘anti-Vietnam war’ and the ‘Civil rights movements’ were funded by oversees communists.
On September 21, 1974, at the age of 80, Brennan died of emphysema at Oxnard, California, and was interred at San Fernando Mission Cemetery, Los Angeles.
Brennan has a star on the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’ on 6501 Hollywood Boulevard. In 1970, he was inducted into ‘Western Performers Hall of Fame’ at ‘National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’ in Oklahoma City.