Don't Tell Glenna Whitley You're a Vet if You Ain't. Because She Knows. We're Lookin' at You, Brian Dennehy.
In Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, writer Joanne Kaufman penned a delightful story about a conversation with Brian Dennehy. The great actor recently opened with Christopher Plummer on Broadway in Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee's 1955 play about the Scopes "monkey trial." In the piece, Kaufman calls Dennehy "the last of a generation of rough-hewn actors," among them George C. Scott and Jason Robards, who have made "significant contributions and very attractive money" in Hollywood.
"Chris [Plummer] and I are former bad boys with the booze and so forth," Dennehy says in the subscription-only story. "We're now the most boring of dedicated people, but we have a lot of great stories to tell and a lot of great memories."
The garrulous Dennehy fills Kaufman's notebook with great stories about growing up, graduating from Columbia University, serving with the Marines in Vietnam -- the latter being "excellent preparation, he claimed, for his chosen career."
Wait a minute. Brian Dennehy served in Vietnam? No, he did not.
Maybe Kaufman should check out some of the actor's other tall tales, because I know for a fact that Dennehy didn't serve in Vietnam. Several years ago I co-authored, with B.G. Burkett, a book called Stolen Valor, about the myths and stereotypes about the Vietnam War, many of which are often perpetuated by phonies. Phonies like Brian Dennehy.
In 1982, Dennehy played Sheriff Will Teasle, the sadist chasing crazed Vietnam vet John Rambo in the movie First Blood. That's about as close to war as Dennehy ever got.
He once told The New York Times that he had suffered a concussion and shrapnel wounds in combat. He told Playboy that he served a 5-year tour as a Marine in Vietnam, suffering minor wounds in combat.
When Playboy asked if he'd ever killed any one, Dennehy offered this comment:
"As for killing someone, anyone in combat would agree that it's pretty much accidental. It's not what you're thinking about. You spend a considerable amount of time just trying not to be in a combat situation. You're trying to avoid coming face-to-face with anything. So when something bad happens, it's usually accidental. But the implication in war movies is that war has this rational beginning, middle and end. And of course none of it does. It's absolutely fucking chaos. Apocalypse Now is the movie. Even more interesting is that it was made so soon after the war was over. It was and is the most sophisticated overview of the experience."
Dennehy is a fine actor and apparently does a lot of research into his roles. But he is not a Vietnam veteran. According to his military record, which we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Dennehy was on active duty from Sept. 15, 1959, through June 4, 1963 -- before the war really got cranking. He wasn't wounded in combat. Dennehy's only overseas duty assignment was as a Marine football player in Okinawa in 1962.
Dennehy finally admitted in a lengthy handwritten letter to us that he had not served in combat in Vietnam. He'd started "shooting my mouth off in bars" years ago. From there it snowballed.
In 1998, when Stolen Valor was published, Dennehy got calls from newspapers asking about his claims. He came clean.
"I lied about serving in Vietnam," Dennehy told the supermarket tabloid The Globe, "and I'm sorry. I did not mean to take away from the actions and the sacrifices of the ones who did really serve there...I did steal valor. That was very wrong of me. There is no real excuse for that. I was a peace-time Marine, and I got out in 1963 without ever serving in Vietnam... I started the story that I had been in 'Nam, and I got stuck with it. Then I didn't know how to set the record straight."
Soon after the WSJ story hit the streets, Burkett and I started hearing from readers, who also contacted the newspaper. Eric Gibson, an editor with the WSJ, e-mailed me: "I have no comment except to say that we are looking into the matter." --Glenna Whitley
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.