Walter Andrew Brennan (July 25, 1894 – September 21, 1974) was an American actor and singer. He is known for his performances in ''Sergeant York
'' (1941), ''To Have and Have Not
'' (1944), ''My Darling Clementine
'' (1946), ''Red River
'' (1948), ''Rio Bravo
'' (1959), and ''How the West Was Won
'' (1962). He won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
for his performances in ''Come and Get It
'' (1936), ''Kentucky
'' (1938), and ''The Westerner
'' (1940), making him one of only three male actors to win three Academy Awards
Brennan was born in Lynn, Massachusetts
, less than two miles from his family's home in Swampscott, Massachusetts
[World War I Draft Records, Essex County, Massachusetts, Roll 1684678, Draft Board 24.]
His parents were both Irish immigrants.
His father was an engineer and inventor, and young Brennan also studied engineering at Rindge Technical High School
in Cambridge, Massachusetts
While in school, Brennan became interested in acting. He began to perform in vaudeville
at the age of 15.
While working as a bank clerk, he enlisted in the U.S. Army
and served as a private with the 101st Field Artillery Regiment
in France during World War I.
He served in France for two years.
“While there, he suffered an injury to his vocal chords from exposure to mustard gas that left him with his screen trademark: a distinctively reedy, high-pitched voice that became a favorite for celebrity impersonators for decades.”
After the war, he worked as a financial reporter for a newspaper in Boston. He intended to move to Guatemala
and grow pineapples but only made it as far as Los Angeles. During the early 1920s, he made a fortune in the real estate
market, but lost most of his money during the 1925 real estate slump.
Finding himself penniless, Brennan began taking parts as an extra in films at Universal Studios
in 1925, starting at $7.50 a day. He wound up working at Universal off and on for the next ten years.
His early appearances included ''Webs of Steel
'' (1925), ''Lorraine of the Lions
'' (1925), and ''The Calgary Stampede
'' (1925), a Hoot Gibson
Western. Brennan was also in ''Watch Your Wife
'' (1926), ''The Ice Flood
'' (1926), ''Spangles
'' (1926), ''The Collegians'' (1926, a short), ''Flashing Oars'' (1926, a short), ''Sensation Seekers
'' (1927), ''Tearin' Into Trouble
'' (1927), ''The Ridin' Rowdy
'' (1927), ''Alias the Deacon
'' (1927), ''Blake of Scotland Yard
'' (1927) (a serial), ''Hot Heels
'' (1927), ''Painting the Town
'' (1928), and ''The Ballyhoo Buster
'' (1928). The latter was directed by Richard Thorpe
who would use Brennan as an extra several times on films.
Brennan could be glimpsed in ''The Racket
'' (1928) from Howard Hughes
, ''The Michigan Kid
'' (1928), ''Silks and Saddles
'' (1929), ''The Cohens and the Kellys in Atlantic City
'' (1929), and ''Smilin' Guns
'' (1929) and ''The Lariat Kid
'' (1929) with Gibson. He also worked as a stand in.
Brennan was in ''His Lucky Day
'' (1929), Frank Capra
'' (1929), ''One Hysterical Night
'' (1929) (a bigger role), ''The Last Performance
'' (1929), ''The Long Long Trail
'' (1929) with Gibson and ''The Shannons of Broadway
Other Brennan appearances included ''Dames Ahoy!
'' (1930), ''Captain of the Guard
'' (1930), ''King of Jazz
'' (1930) (Brennan said he played nine parts but when he saw the film "I sneezed and I missed myself"),
''The Little Accident
'' (1930), ''Parlez Vous'' (1930), (a short), ''See America Thirst
'' (1930) with Harry Langdon
and Slim Summerville
and ''Ooh La-La'' (1930), (another short).
The following year Brennan could be glimpsed in ''Hello Russia
'' (1931, a short with Slim Summerville
), ''Many a Slip
'' (1931) with Summerville, ''Heroes of the Flames
'' (1931) a serial with Tim McCoy
, ''Honeymoon Lane
'' (1931), ''Dancing Dynamite
'' (1931), ''Grief Street
'' (1931) directed by Richard Thorpe
, and ''Is There Justice?
Brennan had a decent-sized role in ''Neck and Neck
'' (1931), directed by Richard Thorpe
. His parts tended to remain small, however: ''A House Divided
'' (1931) for director William Wyler
'' (1931, a Bobby Clark
short directed by Mark Sandrich
), and ''Texas Cyclone
'' (1931, a Tim McCoy
Western featuring a young John Wayne
In 1932 Brennan was in ''Law and Order
'' (1932) with Walter Huston
, ''The Impatient Maiden
'' (1932) for James Whale
, ''The Airmail Mystery
'' (1932, a serial), and ''Scandal for Sale
'' (1932). He did another with John Wayne, ''Two-Fisted Law
'' (1932) though the star was Tim McCoy
Brennan was in ''Hello Trouble
'' (1932) with Buck Jones
, ''Speed Madness
'' (1932), ''Miss Pinkerton
'' (1932) with Joan Bennett, ''Cornered
'' (1932) with McCoy, ''The Iceman's Ball'' (1932, another short for Sandrich), ''Fighting for Justice
'' (1932) with McCoy, ''The Fourth Horseman
'' (1932) with Tom Mix
, ''The All American
'' (1932), ''Once in a Lifetime
'' (1932), ''Strange Justice
'' (1932), ''Women Won't Tell
'' (1932) for Richard Thorpe, ''Afraid to Talk
'' (1932) and ''Manhattan Tower
Brennan was in ''Sensation Hunters
'' (1933) for Charles Vidor
, ''Man of Action
'' (1933) with McCoy, ''Parachute Jumper
'' (1933), ''Goldie Gets Along
'' (1933), ''Girl Missing
'' (1933), ''Rustlers' Roundup
'' (1933) with Mix, ''The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble
'' (1933) for director George Stevens
, ''Lucky Dog
'' (1933), and ''The Big Cage
'' (1933). His scenes in William Wellman
's ''Lilly Turner
'' (1933) were deleted.
Brennan did another serial, ''The Phantom of the Air
'' (1933), then ''Strange People
'' (1933) for Thorpe, ''Meet the Champ'' (1933, a short), ''Sing Sinner Sing
'' (1933), ''One Year Later
'' (1933), ''Sailors Beware!'' (1933, a short), ''Golden Harvest
'' (1933), ''Ladies Must Love
'' (1933), ''Saturday's Millions
'' (1933), ''Curtain at Eight
'' (1933), and ''My Woman
gave him a bit part in ''The Invisible Man
'' (1933), and he could be seen in ''King for a Night
'' (1933), ''Fugitive Lovers
'' (1933), ''Cross Country Cruise
'' (1934), ''Beloved
'' (1934), ''You Can't Buy Everything
'' (1934), ''Paradise Valley
'' (1934), ''Radio Dough'' (1934, a short), ''The Poor Rich
'' (1934), ''The Crosby Murder Case
'' (1934), ''George White's Scandals
'' (1934), ''Good Girl
'' (1934), ''Riptide
'' (1934), ''Uncertain Lady
'' (1934), ''I'll Tell the World
'' (1934), and ''Fishing for Trouble'' (1934, a short).
Brennan was in the Three Stooges short ''Woman Haters
'' (1934), then did ''Half a Sinner
'' (1934), ''The Life of Vergie Winters
'' (1934), ''Murder on the Runaway Train
'' (1934), ''Whom the Gods Destroy
'' (1934), ''Gentlemen of Polish'' (1934, a short), ''Death on the Diamond
'' (1934), ''Great Expectations
'' (1934), ''Luck of the Game
'' (1934), ''Tailspin Tommy
'' (1934, a serial), ''There's Always Tomorrow
'' (1934), and ''Cheating Cheaters
Brennan was back with McCoy for ''The Prescott Kid
'' (1934) and could be seen in ''The Painted Veil
'' (1934), ''Biography of a Bachelor Girl
'' (1935), ''Helldorado
'' (1935), ''Brick-a-Brac'' (1935) an Edgar Kennedy
short, ''Northern Frontier
'' (1935), ''The Mystery of Edwin Drood
'' (1935), and ''Law Beyond the Range
'' (1935) with McCoy.
Around this time Brennan had what he later described as "the luckiest break in the world". He was taking part in a fight scene when an actor kicked him in the face and all his teeth were knocked out. He had to put in false teeth. "I looked all right off the set", he said. "But when necessary I could take 'em outand suddenly look about 40 years older."
Brennan did another Three Stooges short, ''Restless Knights
'', and a short called ''Hunger Pains'' in (1935).
Work at MGM
An early break for Brennan came when he was cast in ''The Wedding Night
'' (1935), produced by Sam Goldwyn
, alongside Gary Cooper
(it was actually their second film together). He was only an extra, but his part was expanded during filming and it resulted in Brennan's getting a contract with Goldwyn.
Goldwyn mostly loaned out Brennan's services to other studios. MGM put him in ''West Point of the Air
'' (1935). He was reunited with Whale in ''Bride of Frankenstein
'' (1935), in which he had a brief speaking part and also worked as a stuntman.
Brennan's parts remained small in ''Party Wire
'' (1935), ''Spring Tonic
'' (1935), ''The Gay Lady
'' (1935), ''Man on the Flying Trapeze
'' (1935), and ''Welcome Home
'' (1935). He did a short, ''The Perfect Tribute'' (1935) and was in George Stevens' ''Alice Adams
'' (1935), but his scenes were deleted.
He could be seen in ''We're in the Money
'' (1935) and ''She Couldn't Take It
Move to Supporting Actor
Brennan finally moved up to significant roles with a decent part in Goldwyn's ''Barbary Coast
'' (1935), directed by Howard Hawks
and an uncredited William Wyler. "That really set me up", he said later.
He followed it with small appearances in ''Metropolitan
'' (1935) and ''Seven Keys to Baldpate
He had one of the leads in ''Three Godfathers
'' (1936) playing one of the title outlaws.
He had a small role in ''These Three
'' (1936) with Wyler and a bigger one in Walter Wanger
's ''The Moon's Our Home
'' (1936) and ''Fury
'' (1936), directed by Fritz Lang
First Oscar: ''Come and Get It'' (1936)
Brennan's breakthrough part came when cast by Howard Hawks
as Swan Bostrom in the period film ''Come and Get It
'' (1936), playing the sidekick of Edward Arnold
who eventually marries the girl Arnold abandons (played by Frances Farmer
). Producer Sam Goldwyn
fired Hawks during filming and replaced him with William Wyler. Brennan's performance earned him the first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
Brennan followed it with support parts in ''Banjo on My Knee
'' (1936) at Fox, ''She's Dangerous
'' (1937), and ''When Love is Young
'' (1937). Goldwyn announced him for a role in ''The Real Glory
'' in 1936, but he ended up not appearing in the final film.
Brennan had his first lead role in ''Affairs of Cappy Ricks
'' (1937) at Republic Pictures
. He followed it with the co-starring part in Fox's ''Wild and Woolly
'' (1937), billed second after Jane Withers
. He was in ''The Buccaneer
'' (1938), directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Brennan portrayed town drunk and accused murderer Muff Potter in ''The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Brennan followed it with ''The Texans
'' (1938), ''Mother Carey's Chickens
'' (1938), and Goldwyn's ''The Cowboy and the Lady
'' (1938) with Gary Cooper
– the first time Brennan played Cooper's sidekick.
Second Oscar: ''Kentucky'' (1938)
Brennan won his second Best Supporting Oscar for ''Kentucky
'' (1938), a horse racing film from 20th Century Fox
with Loretta Young
He supported Fred Astaire
and Ginger Rogers
in ''The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
'' (1939). Brennan also appeared in ''Melody of Youth
'' (1939), and ''Stanley and Livingstone
'' (1939) at Fox.
At MGM he was in ''Joe and Ethel Turp Call on the President
Throughout his career, Brennan was frequently called upon to play characters considerably older than he was. The loss of many teeth in the 1932 accident, rapidly thinning hair, thin build, and unusual vocal intonations all made him seem older than he was. He used these features to great effect. In many of his film roles, Brennan wore dentures; in MGM's ''Northwest Passage
'' (1940) – a film set in the late 18th century – he wore a dental prosthesis which made him appear to have rotting and broken teeth. Brennan was billed third in ''Northwest Passage'' after Spencer Tracy
and Robert Young.
Zanuck at Fox announced he wanted to make ''The Man from Home'', once a vehicle for Will Rogers
, with Brennan. Instead Brennan was top-billed in Fox's ''Maryland
'' (1940), an attempt to repeat the success of ''Kentucky''. Brennan said he had been working constantly since Christmas 1937. "I'm just plain punch drunk", he said.
Third Oscar: ''The Westerner'' (1940)
Brennan had one of his best ever roles in Goldwyn's ''The Westerner
'' (1940), playing the villainous Judge Roy Bean
opposite Gary Cooper. William Wyler directed and the film earned Brennan another Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Goldwyn bought ''Trading Post'' to be a vehicle for Brennan but it was never made.
Instead he supported Deanna Durbin
in ''Nice Girl?
'' (1941), then Cooper again in Frank Capra
's ''Meet John Doe
'' (1941) and Hawks' ''Sergeant York
'' (1941). ''Sergeant York'', which earned Brennan a fourth Oscar nomination, was an enormous hit. He could also be seen in ''This Woman is Mine
'' (1941), as a sea captain.
Brennan played the top-billed lead in ''Swamp Water
'' (1941), the first American film by the director Jean Renoir
, a drama also featuring Walter Huston
and starring Dana Andrews
. He was in ''Rise and Shine
'' (1941) then played the reporter Sam Blake, who befriended and encouraged Lou Gehrig
(played by Cooper) in ''Pride of the Yankees
Brennan was in some war films, ''Stand by for Action
'' (1942) and ''Hangmen Also Die!
'' (1943), in which he played a Czechoslavak professor. He was in ''Slightly Dangerous
'' (1943), ''The Last Will and Testament of Tom Smith'' (1943, a short), and Goldwyn's Russia-set war epic ''The North Star
He was top billed in a follow up to ''Kentucky'' and ''Maryland'' at Fox, ''Home in Indiana
Brennan was particularly skilled in playing the sidekick of the protagonist or the "grumpy old man" in films such as ''To Have and Have Not
'' (1944), the Hawks-directed Humphrey Bogart
film which introduced Lauren Bacall
Brennan was a comic pirate in the Bob Hope
film ''The Princess and the Pirate
'' (1944). He was teamed with John Wayne for the first time since both men obtained stardom in ''Dakota
'' (1945), directed by Joseph Kane
. He supported Bette Davis
in ''A Stolen Life
'' (1946) and was in a musical at Fox, ''Centennial Summer
'' (1946), where he played a family paterfamilias.
Brennan returned to villainy as Old Man Clanton
in ''My Darling Clementine
'' (1946), opposite Henry Fonda
for director John Ford
Brennan followed this with parts in ''Nobody Lives Forever
'' (1946) at Warners, and a girl-and-dog story at Republic, ''Driftwood
He did another Americana film at Fox, ''Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!
'' (1948), then was in one of the best films in his career, ''Red River
'' (1948), playing John Wayne's sidekick for Howard Hawks.
After supporting Robert Mitchum
in ''Blood on the Moon
'' (1948) he played another kindly father role in ''The Green Promise
'' (1949). Brennan was billed second to Rod Cameron
'' (1949), directed by Kane, and he supported Gary Cooper in ''Task Force
Brennan focused on Westerns: ''Singing Guns
'' (1950) with Vaughn Monroe
, ''A Ticket to Tomahawk
'' (1950), ''Curtain Call at Cactus Creek
'' (1950), ''The Showdown
'' (1950) with Wild Bill Elliot
'' (1950), ''Along the Great Divide
'' (1951), ''Best of the Badmen
'' (1951), and ''Return of the Texan
''The Wild Blue Yonder
'' (1951) was a non-Western, a war film. So too was ''Lure of the Wilderness
'' (1952), a remake of ''Swamp Water'' with Brennan reprising his role, though given less screen time on this occasion.
Brennan was in ''Sea of Lost Ships
'' (1953) with John Derek
, ''Drums Across the River
'' (1954) with Audie Murphy
, ''The Far Country
'' (1954) with James Stewart
, and ''Four Guns to the Border
'' (1954) with Rory Calhoun
. He had a good part in ''Bad Day at Black Rock
'' (1955) at MGM.
Work on television
Brennan began to work on television, guest starring on episodes of ''Screen Directors Playhouse
'', ''Lux Video Theatre
'', ''Schlitz Playhouse
'', ''Ethel Barrymore Theater
'', ''Cavalcade of America
'', and ''The Ford Television Theatre
''. He played an old outlaw, Joe, in the 1956 episode, "Vengeance Canyon", on ''Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre
''. In the story line, Joe tries to convince a young Clint Harding (Ben Cooper
), that vengeance is not productive. Sheb Wooley
played another outlaw, Brock, this episode.
He appeared as himself as a musical judge in the 1953–1954 ABC series ''Jukebox Jury
''. Brennan later said he preferred doing television to movies because there were not "long lay offs between jobs."
He continued to appear in movies such as ''Gunpoint!
'' (1955) and ''The Proud Ones
'' (1956) and was in a short about Israel, ''Man on a Bus
Brennan was in "Americana" films such as ''Glory
'' (1956), ''Come Next Spring
'' (1956) and in Batjac
's ''Good-bye My Lady
'' (1956) with 14-year-old Brandon deWilde
with whom he recorded ''The Stories of Mark Twain
'' that same year. In the latter film he was top billed and directed by William Wellman but the film was not widely seen.
He appeared in ''The Way to the Gold
'' (1957) and was in a big hit playing Debbie Reynolds
's grandfather in the romantic comedy ''Tammy and the Bachelor
Brennan was given another lead role in ''God Is My Partner
'' (1957), a low budget movie that was a surprise hit.
''The Real McCoys''
Brennan had resisted overtures to star in a regular TV series but relented for ''The Real McCoys
'', a sitcom
about a poor West Virginia
family that relocated to a farm in Southern California
. It was a hit and ran from 1957 to 1963.
Brennan continued to appear in films and other TV shows during the series' run such as ''Colgate Theatre
'' and another Howard Hawks' picture, ''Rio Bravo
'' (1959), in support to John Wayne and Dean Martin
After five years on ABC, ''The Real McCoys'' switched to CBS
for a final season. Brennan joined with the series creator, Irving Pincus
, to form Brennan-Westgate Productions.
The series was co-produced with Danny Thomas's Marterto Productions. It also featured Richard Crenna
, Kathleen Nolan
, Lydia Reed
, and Michael Winkelman
For Brennan Productions, Brennan starred in ''Shoot Out at Big Sag
'' (1962). He appeared as a villainous river pirate up against James Stewart in MGM's epic ''How the West Was Won
Brennan's success with ''The Real McCoys'' led to him making a few recordings, the most popular being "Old Rivers
", about an old farmer and his mule, which was released as a single in 1962 by Liberty Records with "The Epic Ride of John H. Glenn
" on the flip side. "Old Rivers" peaked at number five in the U.S. ''Billboard''
chart, making the 67 year-old Brennan the oldest living person to have a Top 40 hit at the time, in fact, the oldest living person to have a top 5 hit. At age 68, Brennan reached the Top 40 again, this time with "Mama Sang a Song
" on 17 November 1962.
In his music, he sometimes worked with Allen "Puddler" Harris
, a Louisiana
native who was a member of the original Ricky Nelson
After ''The Real McCoys'' ended, Brennan provided the voice for a cartoon of ''The Shooting of Dan McGrew
On June 25, 2019, ''The New York Times Magazine
'' listed Walter Brennan among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire
Other TV roles and Disney
Brennan starred as the wealthy executive Walter Andrews in the short-lived 1964–1965 ABC series ''The Tycoon
'', with Van Williams
Brennan had a support part in ''Those Calloways
'' (1965), his first movie for the Disney Organisation, where he was again paired with Brandon deWilde. He had a small role in ''The Oscar
In 1967, he starred in another ABC series, ''The Guns of Will Sonnett
'' (1967–1969), as an older man in search of his gunfighter son, James Sonnett, with his grandson, Jeff, played by Dack Rambo
. It ran for two seasons.
Brennan was top billed in Disney's ''The Gnome-Mobile
'' (1967) and did a pilot for a TV series ''Horatio Alger Jones'' that was not picked up.
After a support role in ''Who's Minding the Mint?
'' (1967) he returned to Disney for ''The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band
Brennan had an excellent part as the villain in ''Support Your Local Sheriff!
'' (1969) with James Garner
Brennan received top billing over Pat O'Brien
in the TV movie
''The Over-the-Hill Gang
'' (1969) and Fred Astaire
in ''The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again
He joined the second season of the CBS sitcom ''To Rome with Love
'' (1969–1971), with John Forsythe
. This was Brennan's last television series as a member of the permanent cast, although he did make a number of appearances on ''Alias Smith and Jones
Around this time he also starred in the TV movies ''The Young Country
'' (1970), ''Two for the Money
'' (1972) and ''Home for the Holidays
'' (1972). He was announced for a Western, ''One Day in Eden''
but it does not appear to have been made.
He started filming ''Herbie Rides Again
'' (1973) for Disney but fell ill and had to be replaced.
Brennan's last screen appearance was in the Western ''Smoke in the Wind
'' (1975), directed by Joseph Kane
In 1920, Brennan married Ruth Caroline Wells. They had a daughter, Ruth Caroline Brennan Lademan.
[ Lademan's husband, Dixon McCully Lademan, was a captain in the U.S. Navy in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Brennan's son Arthur Wells "Big Mike" Brennan and his wife, Florence Irene (Whitman) Brennan, lived in Joseph, Oregon.]
In 1940, Brennan purchased the 12,000-acre Lightning Creek Ranch, 20 miles north of Joseph, Oregon. He built the Indian Lodge Motel, a movie theater, and a variety store in Joseph, and continued going there between film roles until his death. Some members of his family continue to live in the area.
Brennan, a Roman Catholic, did not publicize his own religious affiliation, but declared, "I'm too old not to be a religious fella. ..It appears we are losing something a lot of people made a lot of sacrifices for." In 1964, Brennan spoke at "Project Prayer", a rally attended by 2,500 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The gathering, hosted by Anthony Eisley, sought to flood Congress with letters in support of mandatory school prayer, following two decisions of the Supreme Court in 1962 and 1963 that had struck down the practice of mandatory prayer in public schools as being in conflict with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Death and legacy
Brennan spent his last years mostly in retirement at his ranch in Moorpark in Ventura. He died of emphysema at the age of 80 in Oxnard, California. His remains were interred at San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Film historians and critics have long regarded Brennan as one of the finest character actors in motion picture history. While the roles he was adept at playing were diverse, he is probably best remembered for his portrayals in Western movies, such as Judge Roy Bean in ''The Westerner'', trail hand Nadine Groot in ''Red River'', and Deputy Stumpy in ''Rio Bravo''. He was the first actor to win three Academy Awards and remains the only person to have won Best Supporting Actor three times. However, he remained somewhat embarrassed as to how he won the awards; in the early years of the Academy Awards, extras were given the right to vote. Brennan was popular with the Union of Film Extras, and since their numbers were overwhelming, he won every time he was nominated. His third win led to the disenfranchisement of the union from Oscar voting. Following this change, Brennan lost his fourth Best Supporting Actor nomination in 1941 for ''Sergeant York'' (the award went to Donald Crisp for ''How Green Was My Valley'').
In all, Brennan appeared in more than 230 film and television roles during a career that spanned nearly five decades. For his contributions to the film industry, he has a motion pictures star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6501 Hollywood Boulevard.
In 1970, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, where his photograph hangs prominently.
Awards and nominations
* List of actors with Academy Award nominations
Guide to Walter Brennan Papers
at Dickinson Research Centre
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