Eileen Brennan

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Eileen Brennan
Brennan in 1963
Verla Eileen Regina Brennen

(1932-09-03)September 3, 1932
DiedJuly 28, 2013(2013-07-28) (aged 80)
EducationGeorgetown University
American Academy of Dramatic Arts
Years active1960–2011
Known for
David John Lampson
(m. 1968; div. 1974)
Children2; including Patrick Brennan

Eileen Brennan (born Verla Eileen Regina Brennen; September 3, 1932 – July 28, 2013)[1] was an American 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 Captain Doreen Lewis in Private Benjamin, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She reprised the role in the television adaptation, winning both a Golden Globe and a Primetime Emmy Award.

Brennan starred opposite Peter Falk in two Neil Simon-penned murder mystery spoofs: Murder by Death (1976) and The Cheap Detective (1978). She also appeared in the ensemble cast of the mystery-comedy Clue (1985). She worked prolifically in television, receiving Emmy nominations for her guest roles on Newhart, Thirtysomething, Taxi, and Will & Grace.

Early life[edit]

Verla Eileen Regina Brennen was born September 3, 1932, in Los Angeles, California, to Regina Menehan, a former silent film actress, and John Gerald Brennen, a doctor.[2][3][4][5]

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.[6][7] She later relocated to New York City to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she was roommates with Rue McClanahan.[8]


Early work and theatre[edit]

Brennan in 1990

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),[7] earning Brennan an Obie Award, and its unofficial sequel The Student Gypsy (1963), on Broadway.[9]

She played Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker at the 1961 Central City Opera Summer Festival in Central City, Colorado directed by Arthur Penn, who had just won a Tony for his direction of the play on Broadway.[10] She went on to create the role of Irene Molloy in the original Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! (1964).[11]

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.[12]

Transition to film[edit]

Her feature-film debut was in Divorce American Style (1967). She soon became one of the most recognizable supporting actresses in film and television. She usually played 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 semi-regular on the comedy-variety show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, but stayed for only two months. Brennan also appeared in the Barnaby Jones episode titled "Blood Relations" (1975).

Brennan became a favorite of a number of directors, in particular Peter Bogdanovich. She appeared in Bogdanovich's drama The Last Picture Show as Genevieve (1971), for which she received a BAFTA nomination for best supporting actress.[13]

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 film The Sting (1973) 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 (save for The Cheap Detective; and she sang in performances off Broadway) when he cast her as Cybill Shepherd's crude, fun-loving maid in his musical flop At Long Last Love (1975) (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 also appearing in 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 Mother in the film FM (1978), 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-star role in the Taxi episode "Thy Boss's Wife" (1981).

In 1985, Brennan portrayed the iconic Mrs. Peacock in the Paramount Pictures adaptation of Clue.

Later roles[edit]

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". 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.[14]

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 on 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. However, Brennan's cameo was deleted from the actual cut of the movie. 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 horror film The Hollow as Joan Van Etten. That same year, Brennan was nominated for an Emmy for her performance as Zandra,[15] Jack McFarland's caustic drama teacher, on Will & Grace.

Personal life[edit]

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.[7]

In 1982, Brennan was hit by a passing car in Venice Beach while leaving a restaurant with Goldie Hawn and suffered massive injuries.[7] She took two years off work to recover and had to overcome a subsequent addiction to painkillers.[16] She also fell from the stage in 1989 during a production of Annie, breaking a leg.[17] The following year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, for which she was successfully treated.[17]


Brennan died at her home in Burbank, California, on July 28, 2013, of bladder cancer.[18] She was 80 years old. Her Private Benjamin co-star Goldie Hawn said she was a "brilliant comedian, a powerful dramatic actress and had the voice of an angel".[19] 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".[18]



Year Title Role Notes
1967 Divorce American Style Eunice Tase
1971 The Last Picture Show Genevieve Nominated—BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role
1973 Scarecrow Darlene
1973 The Blue Knight Glenda Television film
1973 The Sting Billie
1974 Nourish the Beast Baba Goya Television Film
1974 Daisy Miller Mrs. Walker
1975 At Long Last Love Elizabeth
1975 Hustle Paula Hollinger
1976 Murder by Death Tess Skeffington
1977 The Death of Richie Carol Werner Television film
1977 The Great Smokey Roadblock Penelope Pearson
1978 FM Mother
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 Incident at Crestridge Sara Davis
1981 When the Circus Came to Town Jessy Television film
1982 Pandemonium Candy's mom
1983 The Funny Farm Gail Corbin
1985 Clue Mrs. Peacock
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 Sticky Fingers Stella
1988 Rented Lips Hotel Desk Clerk
1988 Going to the Chapel Maude
1989 It Had to Be You Judith
1990 Stella Mrs. Wilkerson
1990 Texasville Genevieve Morgan
1990 White Palace Judy
1991 Joey Takes a Cab
1992 I Don't Buy Kisses Anymore Frieda
1994 In Search of Dr. Seuss Who-Villain Television film
1995 Reckless Sister Margaret
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
2000 Moonglow
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


Year Title Role Notes
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 (1982-1983)
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 Blossom Agnes 3 episodes
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 ER Betty 2 episodes
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 No. 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"



  1. ^ "California Birth Index 1905-1995: Verla Eileen Brennen". Family Search. Retrieved September 22, 2015.
  2. ^ Lentz 2014, p. 44.
  3. ^ Gates, Anita (July 31, 2013). "Eileen Brennan, Stalwart of Film and Stage, Dies at 80". The New York Times. Retrieved September 14, 2018. Closed access icon
  4. ^ According to the State of California. California Birth Index, 1905–1995. Center for Health Statistics, California Department of Health Services, Sacramento, California. At Ancestry.com
  5. ^ "Eileen Brennan. Actress. September 3, 1932 - July 28, 2013. Aged 80". The Telegraph. July 28, 2013. ProQuest 1417213463.
  6. ^ "Eileen Brennan Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved December 29, 2016.
  7. ^ a b c d Olsen, Mark (July 31, 2013). "Actress known for tough, soft quality". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on August 8, 2013. Retrieved March 7, 2017.
  8. ^ "Eileen Brennan Biography". TV Guide. Retrieved March 7, 2017.
  9. ^ Dietz 2014, p. 190.
  10. ^ Program, 30th Anniversary Central City Festival, The Miracle Worker by William Gibson. (1961).
  11. ^ "Eileen Brennan: Biography". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved September 22, 2015.
  12. ^ Waldron 2011, pp. 68–70.
  13. ^ "The Last Picture Show (1971)". Films in Review. 37. Then and There Media, LCC: 21. 1986.
  14. ^ Armstrong, David (March 7, 1997). "Polished but uneven "Boys Life 2'". SF Gate. Retrieved March 7, 2017.
  15. ^ "Eileen Brennan". Television Academy. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
  16. ^ Donoghue, Deirdre (April 22, 1985). "Out of Her Horrid Accident and the Drug Addiction That Followed, Eileen Brennan Finds a Prescription for Life". People. Retrieved October 8, 2011.
  17. ^ a b Olsen, Mark (July 30, 2013). "Eileen Brennan dies at 80; Oscar-nominated 'Private Benjamin' star". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 11, 2016.
  18. ^ a b Barnes, Mike (July 30, 2013). "Actress Eileen Brennan Dies at 80". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 22, 2015.
  19. ^ "Eileen Brennan Dead: 'Private Benjamin' Actress Dies Aged 80". Huffington Post. July 31, 2013. Retrieved September 22, 2015.


  • Dietz, Dan (2014). The Complete Book of 1960s Broadway Musicals. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1-442-23071-2.
  • Lentz, Harris M. III (2014). Obituaries in the Performing Arts, 2013. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-786-47665-7.
  • Waldron, Vince (2011). The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book: The Definitive History and Ultimate Viewer's Guide to Television's Most Enduring Comedy (revised ed.). Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1-569-76839-6.

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