Walter Brennan (July 25, 1894 – September 21, 1974) was an American actor. Brennan is one of three men to win three Oscars, having won theAcademy Award for Best Supporting Actor on three occasions between 1936 and 1940.
Walter Andrew Brennan was a native of Lynn, Massachusetts. He was born less than two miles from his family's home in Swampscott. He was the second of three children born to Irish immigrants William John Brennan and Margaret Elizabeth Flanagan. The elder Brennan was an engineer and inventor, and young Walter studied engineering at Rindge Technical High School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
While in school, Brennan became interested in acting, and began to perform in vaudeville at the age of fifteen. 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. Following the war, he moved to Guatemala and raised pineapples, before settling in Los Angeles, California. During the 1920s, he became involved in the real estate market, in which he made a fortune, but he lost most of his money when the market took a sudden downturn in the Great Depression.
Finding himself broke, he began taking extra parts in 1929 and then bit parts in as many films as he could, including The Invisible Man (1933), the Three Stooges short Woman Haters (1934), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and also worked as a stunt man. In the 1930s, he began appearing in higher-quality films and received more substantial roles as his talent was recognized. This culminated with his receiving the very first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Swan Bostrom in the period film Come and Get It (1936). Two years later he portrayed town drunk and accused murderer Muff Potter in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Throughout his career, Brennan was frequently called upon to play characters considerably older than he was in real life. The loss of many teeth in a 1932 accident, rapidly thinning hair, thin build, and unusual vocal intonations all made him seem older than he really was. He used these features to great effect. In many of his film roles, Brennan wore dentures; in Northwest Passage — a film set in the late 18th century—he wore a special dental prosthesis which made him appear to have rotting and broken teeth.
For director Jean Renoir's first American film, Brennan played the top-billed lead in Swamp Water (1941), a drama also featuring Walter Huston.
Brennan in Affairs of Cappy Ricks
In Sergeant York (also 1941), he played a sympathetic preacher and dry goods store owner who advised the title character, played by Gary Cooper. He was particularly skilled in playing the sidekick to the protagonist or as the "grumpy old man" in films like To Have and Have Not (1944), the Humphrey Bogart vehicle which introduced Lauren Bacall. Though he was hardly ever cast as the villain, notable exceptions were his roles as Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner (1940), for which he won his third best supporting actor Academy Award, 'Old Man' Clanton in My Darling Clementine (1946) opposite Henry Fonda, and the Cinerama production How the West Was Won (1962) as the murderous Colonel Jeb Hawkins.
From 1957–1963, he starred in the ABC television series The Real McCoys, a situation comedy about a poor West Virginia family that relocated to a farm in southern California. After five years on ABC, The Real McCoys switched to CBS for a final season as simply The McCoys. Brennan joined with the series creator, Irving Pincus, to form Brennan-Westgate-Marterto Productions. The series also featured Richard Crenna, Kathleen Nolan, Lydia Reed, and Michael Winkelman.
Brennan appeared in several other movies and television programs, usually as an eccentric "old timer" or "prospector". Prior to the launching of The Real McCoys, Brennan appeared as himself as a musical judge in the 1953-1954 ABC series Jukebox Jury. On May 30, 1957, he guest starred on NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford. He also made a few recordings, the most popular being "Old Rivers" about an eccentric but much-beloved farmer; it was released as a single in 1962 by Liberty Records with "The Epic Ride Of John H. Glenn" on the flip side, and peaked at number 5 in the U.S. Billboard charts. In his music, Brennan sometimes worked with Allen "Puddler" Harris, a Louisiana native who was a member of the original Ricky Nelson Band. He appeared as an extremely cantankerous sidekick with John Wayne and Dean Martin in Howard Hawks' 1959 western Rio Bravo and also co-starred with James Garner a decade later in Support Your Local Sheriff!, playing the head of the Danby Family.
Brennan in the trailer of Rio Bravo
Brennan starred as wealthy executive Walter Andrews, derived from his real name, in the short-lived 1964-1965 ABC series The Tycoon, with Van Williams. In 1967, he starred in another ABC series, The Guns of Will Sonnett as an older man in search of his gunfighter son, James Sonnett, with his grandson, Jeff, played by Dack Rambo. After the series went off the air in 1969, Brennan continued working in both television and feature films. He 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 the following year. From 1970 to 1971, he was a regular on the CBS sitcom To Rome with Love, with John Forsythe. This was Brennan's last television program as a member of the permanent cast.
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 extremely diverse, he is probably best remembered for his portrayals in movie westerns, such as trail hand Nadine Groot in Red River and Deputy Stumpy in Rio Bravo both directed by Howard Hawks. He was the first actor to win three Academy Awards. He remains the only person to have won three Best Supporting Actor awards. However, even 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 extremely popular with the Union of Film Extras and since their numbers were overwhelming, each time he was nominated, he won. Though never described as undeserving of the awards he won, his third win was one of the catalysts leading to the disenfranchisement of the Extras Union from Oscar voting.
In all, he would appear in more than 230 film and television roles in a career spanning nearly five decades. For his contribution to the television industry, Walter Brennan has a star on theHollywood Walk of Fame at 6501 Hollywood Blvd. 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 adorns a wall.
Brennan was politically conservative. In 1963 and 1964, Brennan joined fellow actors William Lundigan, Chill Wills, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. in making appearances on behalf of U.S. Senator Barry M. Goldwater, the Republican nominee in the campaign against U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1964, Brennan spoke at "Project Prayer" rally attended by 2,500 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. The gathering, which was hosted by Anthony Eisley, a star of the formerHawaiian Eye series on ABC, sought to flood the United State Congress with letters in support of school prayer, following two decisions in 1962 and 1963 of the United States Supreme Courtwhich struck down the practice of enforced prayer in public schools as in conflict with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Joining Brennan and Eisley at the rally were Rhonda Fleming, Lloyd Nolan, Dale Evans, Pat Boone, and Gloria Swanson. Brennan, whose own religious affiliation was never publicized, 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." Eisley added that John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Roy Rogers, Mary Pickford, Jane Russell, Ginger Rogers, and Pat Buttram would also have attended the rally had their schedules not been in conflict.
Syndicated columnist Drew Pearson claimed in his "Washington Merry-Go-Round" column that Project Prayer had "backstage ties" to the anti-Communist John Birch Society. Pearson noted that one of the six justices who joined in the initial school prayer decision in 1962, Chief Justice Earl Warren, was a Republican former governor of California and that most mainline denominations endorsed the court's restrictive rulings.
Thereafter, Brennan supported American Independent Party candidate (and former governor of Alabama) George C. Wallace over GOP nominee and former Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the 1968 presidential campaign because he felt Nixon was too liberal. He also supported Ronald Reagan for governor of California in 1966.
Upon his death from emphysema at the age of eighty in Oxnard in Ventura County, Brennan's remains were interred at San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles. Brennan was married to the former Ruth Wells (December 8, 1897 – January 12, 1997), whom he married in 1920, she died 23 years after Walter at 99. The Brennans had a daughter Ruth Caroline and two sons Arthur 'Mike' and Andy.