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Eileen Brennan: Actress best known as the sandpaper-voiced captain in ‘Private Benjamin’

She shone in ‘The Sting’ as a weather-beaten brothel-keeper and confidante to Paul Newman

Best remembered for her Oscar-nominated performance as the tough captain with the sandpaper voice who makes things hard for pampered recruit Goldie Hawn in the film Private Benjamin (1980), Eileen Brennan had an extensive career on stage and screen. On the New York stage, she created the title role in the musical spoof Little Mary Sunshine (1959), and as milliner Irene Malloy she introduced Jerry Herman’s ballad “Ribbons Down my Back” in Hello, Dolly (1964).

She recreated her Private Benjamin role in the 1981 television series for which she won both the Emmy and Golden Globe awards, and her films included The Last Picture Show (1971), for which she received a Bafta nomination as best supporting actress, and The Sting (1974), in which she was memorable as Billie, the weather-beaten brothel keeper and confidante of conman Paul Newman.

The daughter of a doctor of Irish descent and a silent screen actress, Regina “Jeanne” Menehan, she was born Verla Eileen Regina Brennan in Los Angeles in 1932. She made her acting debut with the Mask and Bauble Society at Georgetown University in Washington, displaying both a flair for comedy and a splendid lyric soprano., and she later studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York and worked in repertory. In 1959, still little-known, she was cast in the starring role in Rick Besoyan’s engaging pastiche of operettas (notably Rose Marie), Little Mary Sunshine (1959). As the winsome but resourceful heroine in the Off-Broadway production, she won the Obie Award. The New York Times called her “radiant and comic” and she later stated that she based her performance on Walt Disney’s Snow White.

The show ran for nearly three years, but an ill-advised attempt to mount a similar parody by Besoyan, The Student Gypsy (1963), flopped. Brennan had a starring part, but the show’s closure after two weeks allowed her to take the role of the milliner who finds romance with a timid clerk in the huge success Hello, Dolly, starring Carol Channing.  

Brennan made her screen debut in Divorce, American Style (1967), and made considerable impact as the weathered waitress who is bequeathed the café in which she works in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Bogdanovich also cast her as a society hostess in his film Daisy Miller (1974) and was the only director to utilise her fine singing voice, casting her as a maid in At Long Last Love (1975), his bold attempt to make a musical with songs recorded live on set.  

Brennan duetted with John Hillerman on Cole Porter’s risqué “But in the Morning, No” and joined stars Cybill Shepherd and Madeline Kahn in a song and tap-dancing highlight, “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love”. Other films included two pastiche thrillers written by Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore, Murder by Death (1976) and The Cheap Detective (1978). In the latter she had great fun satirising the role played by Lee Patrick in The Maltese Falcon. She also played in the movie about rock radio, FM (1978), and she was guest star on such television shows as Kojak, Taxi and The Love Boat.   

She confessed to preferring unsympathetic roles, such as her character in Private Benjamin, Captain Doreen Lewis. “You know why?” she said. “Because they have no sense of humour. People who are mean or unkind or rigid cannot laugh at themselves. If we can’t laugh at ourselves and the human condition, we’re going to be mean.”

Her role in Private Benjamin began a lifelong friendship with Goldie Hawn, and in 1982 the couple were leaving a restaurant after dining together when Brennan was struck by a car and received critical injuries to her legs and the left side of her face, including a shattered eye socket. It took three years for her to fully recover. “I was angry,” she said, “and anger is a powerful emotion. It increased my determination not to go under, to get well.”

Her medication, though, led to a dependence on painkillers, and in 1984 she entered the Betty Ford clinic. Later she suffered from breast cancer and alcohol dependency, revealing that alcoholism had been prevalent in her family when she was a child. “Addiction is so horrible and it can be so disastrous, yet there’s something about the sensitivity of the human being who has to face it.”

Though she won six more Emmy nominations for her guest roles in such television series as thirtysomething, Newhart and Will and Grace (as Will‘s flamboyant acting coach), her career failed to regain the momentum it had before the accident, but she worked regularly and had roles in the films Stella (1990) with Bette Midler, Bogdanovich’s Texasville (a sequel to The Last Picture Show) and the horror film Jeepers Creepers (2001).     

On stage she played the formidable Miss Hannigan in a stock company production of Annie, but suffered a broken leg when she fell off the stage. In 1998 she played an alcoholic Irish woman in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. She was married to actor the David John Lampson from 1968 to 1974, and they had two sons. This week Goldie Hawn said Brennan was “a brilliant comedian, a powerful dramatic actress and had the voice of an angel.”

Verla Eileen Regina Brennan, actress: born Los Angeles 3 September 1932; married 1968 David John Lampson (divorced 1974; two sons); died Burbank, California 28 July 2013.