Died: July 28, 2013 (at age 80)
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Verla Eileen Regina Brennan (née Brennen; September 3, 1932 - July 28, 2013) was an American film, stage, and television actress. She made her film debut in the satire Divorce American Style (1967), followed by a supporting role in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971), which earned her a BAFTA award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
She gained further critical acclaim for her role as Doreen Lewis in Private Benjamin, for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She reprised the role for the TV adaptation, winning both a Golden Globe and Emmy for her performance. Brennan also starred in the mystery comedy Clue (1985), and had a minor role in the horror film Jeepers Creepers (2001).
Brennan also worked prolifically in television, receiving Emmy nominations for her guest-starring roles on Newhart, Thirtysomething, Taxi and Will & Grace.Brennan was born Verla Eileen Regina Brennen on September 3, 1932 in Los Angeles, California, daughter of Regina "Jeanne" Menehan, a silent film actress, and John Gerald Brennen, a doctor. Of Irish descent, she was raised Roman Catholic.
After graduating from high school in California, Brennan relocated to Washington, D.C., to attend Georgetown University, where she was a member of the Mask and Bauble Society. She later relocated to New York City to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she was a roommate of Rue McClanahan.
Brennan began her acting career while attending university, appearing in Georgetown's stage productions of Arsenic and Old Lace. Her exceptional comic skills and romantic soprano voice propelled her from unknown to star in the title role of Rick Besoyan's off-Broadway tongue-in-cheek musical/operetta Little Mary Sunshine (1959), earning Brennan an Obie Award, and its unofficial sequel The Student Gypsy (1963), on Broadway.
She played Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker at the 1961 Central City, Colorado, Festival, directed by Arthur Penn, who had just won a Tony for his direction of the play on Broadway. She went on to create the role of Irene Molloy in the original Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! (1964).
Brennan's work in theatre attracted attention from television producers in California. Carl Reiner, who was seeking an actress to play the role of Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, flew her from New York to Los Angeles to audition for the part; however, the role was given to Mary Tyler Moore.
Her feature film debut was in Divorce American Style (1967). She soon became one of the most recognizable (if not precisely identifiable) supporting actresses in film and television. Her roles were usually sympathetic characters, though she played a variety of other character types, including earthy, vulgar, and sassy, but occasionally "with a heart of gold". A year after her feature-film debut, she became a semiregular on the comedy-variety show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, but stayed for only two months.
Although her name was not often recognized by the general public, she became a favorite of many directors, in particular Peter Bogdanovich. She appeared in Bogdanovich's 1971 drama The Last Picture Show as Genevieve, for which she received a BAFTA nomination for best supporting actress.
In 1972, Brennan appeared in an All In The Family episode, "The Elevator Story" (1972), as Angelique McCarthy, followed by a role as brothel madam Billie in George Roy Hill's Academy Award-winning 1973 film The Sting as the confidante of con man Henry Gondorf (Paul Newman). In 1974, she reunited with director Bogdanovich, appearing in his adaptation of the Henry James novella Daisy Miller. Bogdanovich was the only director who made use of her musical talents (before, she sang in performances off Broadway) when he cast her as Cybill Shepherd's crude, fun-loving maid in his 1975 musical flop At Long Last Love (which also starred Madeline Kahn; Brennan and Kahn worked together in two more films: The Cheap Detective and Clue).
Brennan also worked with director Robert Moore and writer Neil Simon, appearing in Murder by Death as Tess Skeffington (1976); and The Cheap Detective (1978). Both of these movies also starred James Coco, James Cromwell, and Peter Falk. She had a starring role, playing the disc jockey Mutha in the 1978 movie, FM, a comedy-drama about life at a rock-music radio station.
In 1980, Brennan received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role as Goldie Hawn's nasty commanding officer in Private Benjamin. She reprised the role in the television adaptation (1981-1983), for which she won an Emmy (supporting actress) as well as a Golden Globe (lead actress). She had one additional Golden Globe nomination and six Emmy nominations. Brennan received an Emmy nomination for her guest-starring role in Taxi episode "Thy Boss's Wife" (1981).
In the 1990s, she appeared in Stella with Bette Midler, Bogdanovich's Texasville (the sequel to The Last Picture Show), and Reckless. She had a recurring role on the sitcom Blossom as the neighbor/confidante of the title character. She also appeared opposite Vincent D'Onofrio in a segment of Boys Life 2, an anthology film about gay men in America.
In 2001, she made a brief appearance in the horror movie Jeepers Creepers, and the following year starred in the dark comedy film Comic Book Villains, with DJ Qualls. In recent years, Brennan had guest-starred in television, including recurring roles as the nosy Mrs. Bink in 7th Heaven and as gruff acting coach Zandra on Will & Grace. In 2003, director Shawn Levy cast her in a cameo role of a babysitter to Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt's children in an updated remake of Cheaper by the Dozen. Levy was inspired to cast Brennan after seeing Private Benjamin on television. Brennan's cameo was deleted from the actual cut of the movie, however. Nonetheless, she did receive credit for her role on the deleted scenes special feature of the film's DVD. In 2004, she appeared in The Hollow as Joan Van Etten.
Brennan guest-starred on two Murder, She Wrote episodes, "Old Habits Die Hard" (1987) and "Dear Deadly" (1994), and in 1987, she also appeared in the Magnum, P.I. episode "The Love That Lies". Brennan was nominated for an Emmy in 2004 for her performance as Zandra, Jack McFarland's caustic drama teacher, on Will and Grace.
From 1968 to 1974, Brennan was married to British poet and photographer David John Lampson, with whom she had two sons: Patrick, a former basketball player turned actor, and Sam, a singer.
Brennan was hit by a passing car in 1982 in Venice Beach while leaving a restaurant with Goldie Hawn, and suffered massive injuries. She took three years off work to recover, and had to overcome a subsequent addiction to painkillers. She also fell from the stage in 1989 during a production of Annie, breaking a leg. The following year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she successfully treated.
Brennan died at her home in Burbank, California, on July 28, 2013, of bladder cancer. She was 80. Her Private Benjamin costar Goldie Hawn said she was a "brilliant comedian, a powerful dramatic actress and had the voice of an angel." Actor, writer, and director Michael McKean, Brennan's co-star in Clue, called Brennan "a brilliant actress, a tough and tender woman and a comic angel".
|1967||Divorce American Style||Eunice Tase|
|1971||The Last Picture Show||Genevieve||Nominated—BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role|
|1973||The Blue Knight||Glenda||Television film|
|1974||Nourish the Beast||Baba Goya||Television Film|
|1974||Daisy Miller||Mrs. Walker|
|1975||At Long Last Love||Elizabeth|
|1976||Murder by Death||Tess Skeffington|
|1977||The Death of Richie||Carol Werner||Television film|
|1977||The Great Smokey Roadblock||Penelope Pearson|
|1978||The Cheap Detective||Betty DeBoop|
|1979||When She Was Bad...||Mary Jensen||Television film|
|1979||My Old Man||Marie||Television film|
|1980||Private Benjamin||Captain Doreen Lewis||Nominated—Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress|
|1981||When the Circus Came to Town||Jessy||Television film|
|1983||The Funny Farm||Gail Corbin|
|1986||Babes in Toyland||Ms. Piper / Widow Hubbard|
|1988||The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking||Miss Bannister||Nominated—Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actress|
|1988||Rented Lips||Hotel Desk Clerk|
|1988||Going to the Chapel||Maude|
|1989||It Had to Be You||Judith|
|1991||Joey Takes a Cab|
|1992||I Don't Buy Kisses Anymore||Frieda|
|1996||If These Walls Could Talk||Tessie||Segment "1996"|
|1997||Boys Life 2||Mrs. Randozza||(segment "Nunzio's Second Cousin")|
|1997||Changing Habits||Mother Superior|
|1998||Pants on Fire||Mom|
|1999||The Last Great Ride||Pamela Mimi Mackensie|
|2001||Jeepers Creepers||The Cat Lady|
|2002||Comic Book Villains||Miss Cresswell|
|2003||Dumb Luck||Minnie Hitchcock|
|2003||Cheaper by the Dozen||Mrs. Drucker||Scenes deleted|
|2004||The Hollow||Ms. Etta|
|2005||Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous||Carol Fields|
|2009||The Kings of Appletown||Coach's blind mother|
|2010||Naked Run||Gram Malone|
|1967||NET Playhouse||Unknown||Episode: "Infancy and Childhood"|
|1968||Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In||Performer||12 episodes|
|1970||The Ghost and Mrs. Muir||Paula Tardy||Episode: "Ladies' Man"|
|1970||The Most Deadly Game||Alice||Episode: "Photo Finish"|
|1972||All in the Family||Angelique McCarthy||Episode: "The Elevator Story"|
|1972||McMillan & Wife||Dora||Episode: "Night of the Wizard"|
|1973||Jigsaw||Unknown||Episode: "In Case of an Emergency, Notify Clint Eastwood"|
|1975||Barnaby Jones||Anita Willson||Episode: "Blood Relations"|
|1975||Kojak||Julie Loring||Episode: "A House of Prayer, a Den of Thieves"|
|1975||Insight||Carol Harris||Episode: "The Prodigal Father"|
|1979||13 Queens Boulevard||Felicia Winters||9 episodes|
|1979-1980||A New Kind of Family||Kit Flanagan||11 episodes|
|1981||Taxi||Mrs. McKenzie||Episode: "Thy Boss's Wife"|
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
|1981-1983||Private Benjamin||Captain Doreen Lewis||37 episodes|
Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Television Series Musical or Comedy
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Television Series Musical or Comedy
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
|1982||American Playhouse||Millworker||Episode: "Working"|
|1984||The Love Boat||Helen Foster||2 episodes|
|1984-1985||Off the Rack||Kate Hollaran||7 episodes|
|1987||Magnum P.I.||Brenda Babcock||Episode: "The Love That Lies"|
|1987||Murder, She Wrote||Mariam Simpson||Episode: "Old Habits Die Hard"|
|1988||CBS Summer Playhouse||Sioban Owens||Episode: "Off Duty"|
|1988-1989||Newhart||Corinne Denby||2 episodes|
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series
|1990||The Ray Bradbury Theater||Mrs. Annabelle Shrike||Episode: "Touched with Fire"|
|1991||thirtysomething||Margaret Weston||Episode: "Sifting the Ashes"|
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series
|1992||Home Improvement||Wanda||Episode: "Heavy Meddle"|
|1993||Tribeca||Claudia||Episode: "Stepping Back"|
|1993||Jack's Place||Dina||Episode: "The Hands of Time"|
|1993||Bonkers||Lilith DuPrave||4 episodes|
|1993||Tales from the Crypt||Ruth Sanderson||Episode: "Til Death Do We Part"|
|1993||All-New Dennis the Menace||Voice||13 episodes|
|1994||Murder, She Wrote||Loretta Lee||Episode: "Dear Deadly"|
|1995||Walker, Texas Ranger||Joelle||Episode: "Mean Streets"|
|1995||Thunder Alley||Irma||Episode: "Are We There Yet?"|
|1996-2006||7th Heaven||Gladys Bink||9 episodes|
|1997||Veronica's Closet||Grammy Anderson||Episode: "Veronica's First Thanksgiving"|
|1998||Nash Bridges||Loretta Bettina||Episode: "Downtime"|
|1998||Mad About You||Inspector #10||Episode: "Cheating on Sheila"|
|1999||Touched by an Angel||Dolores||Episode: "The Last Day of the Rest of Your Life"|
|2000||The Fearing Mind||Irene's mother||Episode: "Gentleman Caller"|
|2001-2006||Will & Grace||Zandra||6 episodes|
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series
|2003||Lizzie McGuire||Marge||Episode: "My Fair Larry"|
|2003||Strong Medicine||Evelyn Knightly||Episode: "Coming Clean"|