Brian Dennehy, Stud of Broadway? He Drives Lady Theatergoers Wild

True fact: Many, many women say that they would not kick Brian Dennehy out of bed.

To wit: a balmy Saturday night around 11 P.M., outside the stage door of the Eugene O’Neill Theater. It was two days before Mr. Dennehy and Death of a Salesman would sweep the Tony Awards. Dozens of women were lined up behind two barricades, clutching programs from Salesman . Big, poufy beauty-parlor hairdos, median age 50. They were waiting for Brian Dennehy, their big man, their wide-bodied Willy Loman–he could eat Dustin Hoffman for breakfast!–who lumbers across the stage each night on his plastic knees. One woman, who said she had come in from Blue Point, L.I., to see the show, gripped the barricade, turned to the woman beside her and announced, “He’s a Long Island boy. Went to Chaminade. One of our famous boy’s Catholic schools.”

Vicki Lucachick, a 55-year-old woman from Los Angeles, said she’d gladly permit Mr. Dennehy to eat crackers in bed. “Sorry, dear,” she said, turning to her husband, a slender man inablueblazer. “There’s something very attractive about him. My husband knows that I love him. It’s hard to explain what it is. There’s just this, this manliness .”

Heidi Higgins, a robust woman from Rockland County, gestured toward her fiancé, who shares a rhinocerotic body type with Mr. Dennehy. “He knows about my infatuation. That’s why he got the tickets,” she said. “I’m a bigger woman and I prefer bigger men.”

At 11:15, a sound like an Apache battle cry came from the back of the crowd. “There he is!” Out swaggered Brian Dennehy, all 6 feet 2 inches of him, three bills easy, in pale blue jeans and a beige linen jacket, doing his best to stifle his proud Irish smile. The women pushed against the barricade. Several stood on tiptoes. Mr. Dennehy carried his own pen and began signing programs. He looked at the programs as he signed. The women kept their eyes fixed on his face.

Then one woman, a slight, 40-ish woman, did something they all wanted to do. “Can I hug you?” she asked, tentatively. He wrapped his arms around her, and for a moment she was invisible, enveloped in Dennehy flesh. Mr. Dennehy released her–she beamed–then, after yukking it up with a cop, he ducked his massive head into the waiting town car.

Brian Dennehy is a new breed of Broadway matinee idol, a man who appeals to the kind of women who buy most of the tickets to Broadway shows.

“It’s about fuckin’ time,” said Mr. Dennehy’s agent of 22 years, Susan Smith, a pleasant woman who seems to swear a lot. “We’ve got this idea of matinee idol all ass-backwards. It’s been these 12-year-old boys with no brains in their heads who emote nothing. Brian is that old-fashioned sense of what a man is, for those people that might have seen Spencer Tracy or Gary Cooper.”

Indeed, the Midwestern tourists and Long Island matinee ladies who can afford Broadway’s $70 tickets can only imagine sending Leonardo DiCaprio to his room, not inviting him to theirs. In 1997, women made up 60 percent of Broadway audiences, and, on any given night, only 12 percent of the audience is from Manhattan. And the Manhattanites are more likely to be lusting after pansexual Alan Cumming in Cabaret or Kevin Spacey as the lithe and smooth Hickey in The Iceman Cometh . Actors with the kind of bodies they see in the gym every morning.

Tastes run different on mainstream Broadway. A group called the Michael Crawford Phantom Movie Campaign says that they will boycott a movie version of Phantom of the Opera if Warner Brothers casts sexy Latin actor Antonio Banderas, and not Mr. Crawford, in the Phantom role. “Banderas is not a musical star, just a pretty face … What is needed is an exciting voice and gobs of sex appeal, which is M.C.,” wrote Geri A. Mellgren-Kerwin, on the campaign’s Web page.

If you ask Elizabeth Franz, who won the Tony as Linda Loman in Salesman , about the 60-year-old Mr. Dennehy’s sexual power, she will tell you it comes from his vulnerability.

“When you really get to know him, you realize how insatiable he is,” said Ms. Franz. “He needs so much approval, but he has this incredible exterior. He needs help, he needs protection, and he needs to be taken take care of.”

And there are plenty of women eager to do so. Joyce Breach, a nightclub singer in her 50’s who has seen Salesman three times, the way teenage girls kept going back to see Mr. DiCaprio in Titanic , summed up her feelings as she watched Mr. Dennehy from the audience. “I would characterize it as steam heat,” she said.

‘Down and Out’

Ground zero of the suburban theater ladies is the Joan Hamburg Show, the Wednesday morning radio show on WOR-AM that broadcasts upstairs at Sardi’s, with a studio audience of about 200. They watch the show, eat lunch, then trundle over to the matinees. Mr. Dennehy was the third guest on June 2. The ladies had given Art ‘s George Segal a nice reception, and Night Must Fall ‘s Matthew Broderick got the cheek pinching. But, said Ms. Hamburg, “When Brian came in, those women stood up . They went crazy. Everything he said, they laughed. They were thrilled. I’m telling you, they were thrilled! I’ve had all the celebrities on. But with this huge room, his personality is so pervasive, you could here a pin drop. You never see that.”

Of course, there is a long tradition of portly guys getting the girls: Henry VIII, the Three Stooges’ Curly Howard, Jackie Gleason, Luciano Pavarotti. “You know if a chubby guy wakes you up at 6:30 in the morning, it’s not to go running,” said Carrie Snow, a writer in her 40’s living in Los Angeles who has had a crush on Mr. Dennehy even before he played a chunky alien in Cocoon .

Who is the real Brian Dennehy? As a young father, he worked as a meatpacker and a truck driver. He’s an ex-Marine and politically conservative, an avid reader of the American Spectator who did stump work for Al D’Amato’s failed Senate campaign. He has health problems–two years ago, he had both of his bum knees replaced with plastic ones, and in March, during the Salesman run, he was hospitalized for “exhaustion,” something that initially seemed like a heart attack. “It was going out after the show and eating late and not getting enough sleep,” said Lisa Protzmann, Mr. Dennehy’s personal assistant at the O’Neill. She quipped, “Every restaurant in New York has been alerted not to let him drink too much.” Said his agent, Ms. Smith: “Brian’s had an extraordinary life, and he probably wouldn’t change five minutes of it. But sometimes you pay for an extraordinary life, and he may be doing that at this juncture.”

By the way, he’s been married for 11 years to his second wife, Jennifer, a 42-year-old Australian brunette whom he met on the set of Return of the Man From Snowy River , on which she worked as a costume designer. They live in the sticks in Connecticut with their two young kids.

Just a couple of years ago, Mr. Dennehy wasn’t signing many autographs. He was most often seen in TV ads, lurking in a dark suburban hedge, motioning toward a light in a bathroom and intoning, “She woke up with heartburn.”

Before Salesman , said Ms. Franz, “Brian was down and out, in a way. He says he wasn’t even doing B movies, he was doing C movies, because he had saturated the movie business. And then this came along.”

“Frankly, if Gene Hackman had taken early retirement and Bob Duvall wasn’t the brilliant actor that he is, Brian’s career would have emerged on a different plane,” said Ms. Smith.

Broadway does wonders for a flagging career. Women are also swooning over Tom Wopat ( The Dukes of Hazzard ) in Annie Get Your Gun and Richard Chamberlain in The Sound of Music . Ms. Protzmann, Mr. Dennehy’s assistant, estimated that Mr. Dennehy receives three to five letters a day from smitten women who range from college age to middle age. Many of the letters include photographs and dinner invitations. One woman wrote that her widowed mother had built a shrine devoted to the actor, centered around an autographed napkin. The woman wrote that her mother had become accustomed to referring to Mr. Dennehy as her imaginary husband.

A friend of Ms. Protzmann’s mother, when she heard about the young woman’s job, asked Ms. Protzmann to pass a message to the star. “‘I want you to tell him for me that I think he’s very, very sexy,'” Ms. Protzmann recounted. “And she had this really saucy look in her eyes, you know, she kind of raised one eyebrow. I was really shocked.”

One irony is that Mr. Dennehy was not cast for his sex appeal. “Of course, sex is a huge concern of producers, but they don’t generally do a casting call for that,” said casting director Barry Moss, who cast Jekyll and Hyde and Footloose . “They have people in mind who are known commodities. You’ll hear them saying, ‘Names, names, names! We need names!'”

Sean Cummisky, who monitors the comings and goings at the backstage door at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, said that Mr. Dennehy’s phalanx of women was actually not the largest he had seen. That distinction belongs to Lucy Lawless, star of TV’s Xena: Warrior Princess , who attracted a screaming, largely lesbian throng of 1,000 to the backstage door on her closing night playing Rizzo in Grease two years ago. Mr. Cummisky said he was taken by surprise by Mr. Dennehy’s female fans, how they would try to one-up each other by claiming they’d been fans longer, or seen more of Mr. Dennehy’s movies, or traveled the furthest to see Salesman . They ask Mr. Cummisky what Mr. Dennehy is like in private, if he’s faithful to his wife, and if they’ll be able to get a picture taken with him. “After they get the picture, they’ll be like, ‘Ooooh! ‘” he said. “It’s like a really obsessed fan kind of thing. I don’t see him as a sex model. And it’s not only older women. You see some women about 30 years old out there.”

An hour after winning his Tony Award for best actor, Mr. Dennehy was standing with Ms. Smith in the middle of Les Pyrénées restaurant. He was wearing a tuxedo he bought at Rochester Big and Tall, and scarfing down bow tie pasta with pesto, trying to avoid the question of what it’s like being Broadway’s biggest stud. “Oh, please,” he said, between bites of a crusty roll. “I’ve had so many women come up to me and say, ‘You know what, you remind of my father,'” he said, laughing. “Draw what sexual conclusions you wish from that, but I think that women find me a comforting, maybe powerful presence, and I don’t think it goes any farther than that. Because every time I’ve been available for contacts, there didn’t seem to be anybody there.”

He paused. Chewed. “Well, not that I was terribly lonely,” he said. He looked at his agent. “Susan was funny. I used to go out with all these models, and I’d say, ‘Susan, what do you think?’ And Susan would say, ‘She’s dumb as a fuckin’ post.’ And I says, ‘Yeah, but what does that got to do with anything?'”