Born: July 9, 1938;

Died: April 15, 2020.

BRIAN Dennehy, who has died aged 81, was an American actor who excelled in character parts and took roles in nearly 200 films yet for much of his career was relegated to supporting roles. The exception was his theatre work, where he took on central parts in Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett and, above all, the work of two modern American masters: Eugene O’Neill, of whom Variety described Dennehy as “the foremost living interpreter”, and Arthur Miller.

Dennehy’s lead performance as Willy Loman in Miller’s Death of a Salesman in 1999 was described as the performance of his career; it won him a Tony award on Broadway and, on its transfer to London’s West End, an Olivier; he also received a Tony as Lead Actor for a 2003 production of O'Neill's Long Day’s Journey into Night. Both productions had originated at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, with which he had a longstanding working relationship.

He was seldom out of work on the big screen, where film fans came to see him as one of those performers – like Harry Dean Stanton, Philip Baker Hall, or Charles Durning – who could be relied upon to improve the quality of anything he appeared in (sometimes from a fairly low base).

He was perhaps best known as the vindictive sheriff in First Blood (1982), the first Rambo movie, and for his roles in the thrillers F/X and F/X2 (1986, 1991), but more representative work included his supporting roles in the Cold War mystery, Gorky Park (1983) and the Western, Silverado (1985).

A rare title role – and in a film quite unlike his usual Hollywood fare, whether humdrum or distinguished – came with Peter Greenaway’s highly stylised The Belly of an Architect, which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1987. In a performance entirely free of vanity, Dennehy played an architect obsessed with the work of the 18th century French architect, Boullée, attempting to mount an exhibition in Rome, while suspicious that he may be being poisoned by his wife or her lover.

A burly 6ft 3in, and a former Marine with a reputation as a hard-drinking hellraiser, Dennehy was happy to turn up as grizzled cops (frequently), corrupt public officials, alcoholic prosecution lawyers and world-weary working-class fathers in TV movies of variable quality, though he was never less than first-rate.

His early career on the small screen saw him pop up in Kojak, M*A*S*H*, Cagney & Lacey and Miami Vice as well as the unusual hat-trick of stints on Dallas, Dynasty and Knots Landing.

He won plaudits for his portrayal of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy in To Catch a Killer (1992) and was equally menacing as the cult leader Ervil LeBaron in Prophet of Evil the following year. Other real-life roles – on the right side of the law – that he starred in (and latterly directed) included half a dozen TV films based on the homicide detective Jack Reed.

The televised version of the Broadway Death of a Salesman brought him a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination.

Brian Manion Dennehy was born on July 9, 1938 at Bridgeport, Connecticut, into an Irish Catholic family. His father Edward worked for the Associated Press, and he grew up in Brooklyn, and then at Mineola, on Long Island, where he did a little acting at Chaminade High School.

In 1956, he enrolled in Columbia University in New York City on a football scholarship, but left after a couple of years to join the Marines, in which he served until 1963, including brief stints when he was posted to Korea and Okinawa in Japan. He did not, however, serve in Vietnam (as he later told one interviewer; a misrepresentation of his record for which he had to apologise).

He also married, and had three daughters. He returned to college and completed a history degree, and then, according to some sources, studied acting at Yale, though there is no record of his having graduated.

While trying to establish himself as an actor, he worked in a series of blue-collar jobs, as well as a stint, which he hated, as a stockbroker; as a truck driver, salesman, bartender, delivery man and taxi driver, he was often able to attend theatre matinees, and became involved in community theatre.

He came into his own in the early 1970s, when he began to get character parts in New York theatre, and then in film and on television. After that, he was seldom out of work.

As well as his long relationship with the Goodman in Chicago, he was a regular on stage at Canada’s Stratford Festival; he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2010.

Other notable film roles included playing the bartender in the Dudley Moore comedy 10 (1979), Romeo’s father in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), and voicing Django, father of the rat chef in the Pixar animation, Ratatouille (2007).

More recent work included playing Christian Bale’s character’s father in Terrence Malick’s mannered Knight of Cups (2015), and an adaptation of Chekov’s play The Seagull (2018). Later television roles included The West Wing and 30 Rock, as well as a recurring role on The Blacklist, the US crime thriller series, as the heroine’s father.

Brian Dennehy’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1974: by his second wife, Jennifer Arnott, a costume designer whom he married in 1988, he had a son and a daughter. She and his five children survive him.