Richard Crenna, 75; Actor Made Transition From Comedy to Drama

Times Staff Writer

Richard Crenna, who gained fame on TV's "Our Miss Brooks" and "The Real McCoys" and made a successful transition from comedy to drama on television and in movies such as "The Sand Pebbles" and "Body Heat," has died. He was 75.

Crenna, a former child radio actor who began his more than six-decade career in the late 1930s, died Friday of pancreatic cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, his wife, Penni, said Saturday.

Television viewers were introduced to Crenna as Walter Denton, the squeaky-voiced, not-so-bright high school student on Eve Arden's "Our Miss Brooks," when the popular radio series moved to TV in 1952.

Crenna had made a career playing Walter and what he later called "all the idiot adenoidal kids" on radio, including Oogie Pringle on "A Date with Judy," Beasey on "The Hardy Family" and Waldo on "Burns and Allen." He also played Bronco, a slightly older variation of his standard character, on "The Great Gildersleeve."

By the time he left Walter Denton behind in 1956 after appearing in the "Our Miss Brooks" feature film, Crenna, the perpetual juvenile, was pushing 30.

In 1957, he graduated to an adult role as the married Luke on "The Real McCoys." The popular comedy series starring Walter Brennan as the lovably cantankerous McCoy patriarch whose West Virginia clan moves to a farm in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley ran for six seasons.

A tearful Kathleen Nolan, who played Luke's wife, Kate, until the final year of the show and was a close friend of Crenna for more than 50 years, said Saturday that he "was just the best there was.... He was the best actor that I ever worked with, ever.

"The fact that over his entire career, with all the tabloids and all the garbage out there, there has never been one negative thing said about Richard Crenna -- that is pretty phenomenal," the veteran stage and television actress said.

Crenna made the break from comedy to drama in 1964 as the star of "Slattery's People," a weekly series in which he played an idealistic, reform-minded state legislator.

The show was canceled before the end of its second season, but its demise had a distinct upside for Crenna: It allowed him to accept a high-profile role as the humorless and unexpectedly courageous gunboat captain in director Robert Wise's 1966 epic drama "The Sand Pebbles," starring Steve McQueen.

Roles as a criminal who terrorizes a blind Audrey Hepburn in "Wait Until Dark" and as one of three astronauts trapped in an orbiting lab whose rockets won't fire in "Marooned" soon followed.

In the 1980s, Crenna played critically acclaimed supporting roles in the film noir hit "Body Heat" (as Kathleen Turner's strong-yet-doomed husband) and the coming-of-age movie "The Flamingo Kid" (as the slick and dishonest gin-rummy champ at a posh Long Island beach club who takes star Matt Dillon under his wing).

Director Was a Fan

"I've always been a very good fan of his and was happy to get him in 'Flamingo Kid,' " said director Garry Marshall. "Matt Dillon was 19 and all over the place, and Richard helped him so much -- just solidified him as an actor. Richard knew his way around a joke and did it honest; that's more important."

Crenna, Marshall said, was equally adept at comedy and drama.

"He was one of the rare ones that could do both and also be a human being off the set," said Marshall, who socialized with Crenna. "I think he had success both as an actor and as a dad to his children.

"He was one of the few gentlemen I met in the business."

For Crenna, the attention he received for delivering a good performance was important, but, he observed at the time of his "Flamingo Kid" success, "what matters more is to keep working."

Crenna's name was nearly a symbol for made-for-television movies as they gained artistic prominence. In 1985, he received an Emmy as outstanding actor in a limited series or special for "The Rape of Richard Beck," in which he played a sexist, macho cop whose attitudes about rape undergo a dramatic change after he is sexually attacked.

He played another tough cop -- New York City Det. Lt. Frank Janek -- in the 1985 TV movie "Doubletake" and in six sequels.

And, opposite Sylvester Stallone, Crenna memorably appeared as Col. Trautman, Rambo's former Vietnam War commander, in three of the most profitable big-screen action movies of the 1980s: "First Blood," "Rambo: First Blood Part II," and "Rambo III."

"This film series has given me the kind of recognition I've never before had as an actor," Crenna, then 60, told The Times in 1987. "I feel like I'm part of a cult happening. It's like being a part of the Woodstock of the '80s on the big screen."

Over the years, Crenna made three short-lived returns to television situation comedies: "All's Fair" with Bernadette Peters (1976-77), "It Takes Two" co-starring Patty Duke (1982-83) and "Pros and Cons" opposite James Earl Jones (1991-92).

But mostly he stuck with drama -- to the point that many young producers and audience members were unaware of his background.

"I have had people say to my agent, 'Will he do comedy?' " Crenna told The Times in 1990. "Outside of the Hollywood people who came up through TV, the newer people are unsure that the majority of my career has involved comedy."

A Los Angeles native, Crenna was the son of a pharmacist father and a mother who managed a number of small hotels the family owned, including one at 8th and Flower streets, where Crenna lived for more than 15 years.

While attending Virgil Junior High School, he signed up for drama class, but only "because I'd already taken wood shop," he once recalled. "Besides, I noticed that all the prettiest girls were in dramatic class, and also the goof-offs. That was for me."

One day, he recalled, "a teacher came on the playground to say they were auditioning for a radio show, 'Boy Scout Jamboree,' " at the nearby KFI-AM radio studio. Nine of his classmates, including future comic Mort Sahl, were hired to become "The Beaver Patrol."

Playing the kid "who did everything wrong," Crenna was paid a quarter a week.

"It was supposed to be for our lunch," he recalled. Eventually, his salary was raised to $1 -- to cover both transportation and lunches. He remained on "Boy Scout Jamboree" for 11 years, but it was just one of a slew of radio shows he worked on.

"Dear John," starring Irene Rich, was his first continuous dramatic network show. He played a bellboy.

"When I auditioned for the part, my mother gave me 25 cents -- 10 for each way on the bus and a nickel to call her when I got the part," he recalled in 1964. "She never doubted I'd get it; she had faith in me."

Unlike the stereotypical stage mother, he said, his mother never accompanied him to the radio studios. "I rode the buses alone. All the money I earned was put away for me; my parents never touched a penny."

After school, as a teenager and later while attending USC, Crenna worked as many as eight shows a week -- including "Gunsmoke," "Red Ryder," "One Man's Family" and "I Love a Mystery."

"He was just an absolutely magnificent actor," recalled actress Janet Waldo, a longtime friend who met Crenna in the 1940s, a time when she was the star of "Meet Corliss Archer" and Crenna "was still having a problem with acne."

They occasionally worked together in radio and also appeared together in a classic "I Love Lucy" episode, in which they played teenagers who have mad crushes on Lucy and Ricky and the Ricardos try to thwart the youngsters' unwanted attention by portraying themselves as unappealing oldsters.

"It was always fun to work with Dick," said Waldo. "He's the kind of guy everybody wanted to be with."

Crenna began playing his signature Walter Denton role on "Our Miss Brooks" in 1948, and when the show transferred to television four years later, Arden insisted that Crenna continue as Walter.

"I was really too old, and at first I refused," he told The Times in 1968. "But Eve has great loyalty to her fellow workers, and she likes to keep them around."

After "Our Miss Brooks" moved to television, Crenna began fighting to ensure that he and other actors received residuals for their work. In so doing, he took on Screen Actors Guild President Ronald Reagan.

"Radio actors always got residuals, but TV actors didn't," he told The Times several years later. "I felt that residuals meant more employment, not less. Reagan didn't want to face the issue at first. Finally, we won."

At the time of his death, Crenna was a member of the Screen Actors Guild board of directors. Actress Sally Kirkland, who had acted with Crenna in the 1975 film "Breakheart Pass" and worked with him on the SAG board until her term ended last August, said Saturday that "in the last three years, he was just a saint for the union.... He stood up for 98,000 actors ... and during the strike he came out on the strike line over and over and over. And this was a man who worked. His humility was such an example to all actors."

While continuing to work as an actor, Crenna carved out a successful side career as a television director. He began by directing commercials for "The Real McCoys," then started directing episodes.

Crenna once recalled that Walter Brennan asked him why he wanted to direct, saying, "It's so much work; why not let somebody else do it?"

"I told him the idea hit me literally out of sheer boredom of being involved in a successful series," said Crenna.

"We were in the fourth year of 'McCoys,' and I felt it would stimulate me to be included creatively in it, since my character of Luke was limited in what he said and did. 'If that's the way you feel,' Walter said, 'take a shot at it.' Without his approval, I couldn't have done it. I ended up directing 30 segments in the following two years."

Producing, Directing

Crenna also directed episodes of the mid-1960s sitcoms "Wendy and Me," "No Time for Sergeants" and "The Andy Griffith Show." He continued directing series pilots and dramatic series, including "Lou Grant," into the 1980s.

He was also a producer, forming his own company to co-produce "Slattery's People" and other shows, including the 1970 sitcom "Make Room for Granddaddy," starring Danny Thomas.

But at heart, Crenna was always an actor.

He enjoyed playing a variety of characters, including the title role of Ronald Reagan in the 2001 Showtime drama "The Day Reagan Was Shot." In recent years, he also appeared as Tyne Daly's love interest on the CBS dramatic series "Judging Amy."

"At first, when I was younger, I would always think, 'Well, I've got to develop some persona that people understand, so that if it's going to be a Dick Crenna film they're going to know what it is,' " he told the Kansas City Star last year. "But I think the reason I've been able to survive is, they haven't figured out yet who I am."

In addition to Penni, his wife of 47 years, Crenna is survived by a son, Richard Anthony Crenna of Encino; two daughters, Seana of Playa del Rey and Maria of Studio City, and three granddaughters.

Funeral services are being planned.

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