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.

News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
people
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher (One day per week)

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Maths Teacher (one day per week) Gr...

EBD Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Science Teacher Greater Manchester

Humanities Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Humanities teacher required for ...

English Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: ENGLISH TEACHER REQUIRED - Humbe...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits