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From the Archives: Walter Brennan, Oscar Winner, Dies

From the Archives: Walter Brennan, Oscar Winner, Dies
Richard Crenna and Walter Brennan in "The Real McCoys." (File photo)

Walter Brennan, for more than 50 years one of Hollywood's most renown character actors, died Saturday at St. John's Hospital in Oxnard. He was 80.

A three-time Academy Award winner, Mr. Brennan succumbed at 4:30 p.m. from complications stemming from a long battle with emphysema.

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He had entered the hospital July 25, his 80th birthday, and his condition had worsened steadily since then. For the last two weeks it had been listed as poor, according to a hospital spokesman.

Mr. Brennan spent the last years of his retirement on a 12-acre ranch outside Moorpark, in Ventura  County.

Funeral services are pending.

The career that was to make Mr. Brennan perhaps the world's most successful motion picture character actor—and even a star—began almost by accident, before World War I.

Mr. Brennan was born July 25, 1894, in Swampscott, Mass. His father was an engineer, intended his son for the same profession, and duly enrolled him in 1914 at Rindge Technical School, Cambridge, Mass., which was then a sort of prep school for M.I.T.

But there was an amateur acting society at Rindge.

"I passed all my regular subjects," Mr. Brennan recalled, "But more and more I found my thoughts occupied by that extracurricular activity of mine, the acting club. Trouble was, I just didn't know how to tell my father I would rather spout lines than plot stress curves . . ."

World War I solved the dilemma temporarily. As soon as the United States declared war, Mr. Brennan enlisted. He served two years in France.

Home again, he still delayed his professional acting debut, working for some time as a financial reporter on a newspaper in Boston. But finally he decided to take the plunge.

Aided by his fiancee, Ruth Wells, he finally mustered the nerve to tell his family — and hers — of his dreams. Neither family was pleased, and the girl's father declined to bless their forthcoming marriage. They were married anyway, and headed for California in the early 1920s.

Mr. Brennan said they had an old touring car that ran fairly well but was a bit sketchy on shelter. During a rainstorm, with the top flapping and side curtains coming loose, an extra strong gust ripped the top wide open over the driver's seat.

"But my new wife was equal to the situation," Mr. Brennan said. "She stuck an umbrella up through the rip, opened it, and away we went again. I think that bit was used in two or three comedy films . . ."

Things didn't get better too quickly when the young couple arrived in Hollywood, either.

The town was thronged with hopeful actors. Mr. Brennan joined the long lines outside casting offices and there made the acquaintance of a young Montanan named Gary Cooper, who was having the same kind of trouble.

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"I finally got a break," Mr. Brennan said, "but only because I knew how to make a jackass of myself . . ."

The break came because a donkey refused to bray. Mr. Brennan, who had just made a fruitless call on a casting director, saw the film crew trying to get a bray out of the beast and offered to produce the sound himself. But only if he also got a bit part in the film.

The director agreed, gladly, and Mr. Brennan emitted his first onscreen characterization: a raucous "Hee-Haw."

"I guess," he said later, "it sorta set the tone . . ."

He worked after that, from time to time, in a series of motion pictures. But the parts stayed small; sometimes no more than a wordless fall from a running horse.

His real breakthrough in film acting came with a 1935 role in "The Wedding Night," which won him a long-term contract with MGM. But Mr. Brennan said that, too, came as a piece of luck—though it didn't seem like it at the time.

"I got my teeth kicked out," he said. "That's what really did it."

The kick happened during a large fight scene in one of Mr. Brennan's earlier films. As directed, he had fallen to the floor during the fight and another actor accidentally planted a kick in his face that cost him all his front teeth.

"Luckiest break in the world," he said. "I got a set of false choppers, so I looked all right off the set. But when necessary I could take 'em out—and suddenly look about 40 years older."

"The part of Jenkins in 'Wedding Night' was a good one. But I was lucky again and followed it with the part of Old Atrocity in 'Barbary Coast.' That really set me up!"

Mr. Brennan never lacked for work after that.

Walter Brennan in "The Westerner."
Walter Brennan in "The Westerner." (File photo)

He won Academy Awards for best supporting actor in 1936 (for "Come and Get It") and 1938 (for "Kentucky"). But perhaps his best-known role was that of Judge Roy Bean (in "The Westerner," 1940) when he literally stole the picture from his old friend Gary Cooper, who played the leading role.

"Coop didn't mind. I guess," Mr. Brennan said. "Anyway, he was one of the first to congratulate me when I got my third Oscar for that job—and we worked together an awful lot after that."

Some of his other best-remembered films included "Three Godfathers," "Banjo on My Knee," "Nobody Lives Forever," "My Darling Clementine," "Red River," "The Wild Blue Yonder," "Bad Day at Black Rock," "The Far Country," "Tammy and the Bachelor," "Who's Minding the Mint?" and "Support Your Local Sheriff!"

In the late 1950s, he accepted his first television role, the part of Amos (Grandpa) in the The Real McCoys, one the most successful series of that era. He appeared in more than 200 segments before the show finally folded.

Two later series attempts, The Tycoon, and The Guns of Will Sonnett, were less successful. But Mr. Brennan continued seeking new worlds to conquer, doing a series of phonograph records including the now-classic "Old Rivers."

In addition to his wife, Ruth, Mr. Brennan leaves two sons, Michael, who manages the family ranch and other properties in Oregon and Andrew, an associate producer in films; a daughter, Ruth Lademan, and 14 grandchildren.

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