Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Con Games to War Games: The Career of Eileen Brennan

Eileen Brennan in her Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning
role as Captain Doreen Lewis on Private Benjamin
She came to my attention as the madam with a golden heart in "The Sting" then the tough-talking commanding officer in "Private Benjamin", literally going from con games to war games. It was with sadness I heard on Tuesday night (July 30) that actress Eileen Brennan had passed away at the age of 80 on Sunday, July 28.

She was fantastic in "The Sting", playing Billie, the woman who harboured legendary con man Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). She owned an amusement ride by day, and a brothel by night. She had this cool, detached, tough persona, but you could tell she had a thing for Gondorff.

Brennan with Paul Newman in "The Sting"
Fast forward to 1980, and she played Captain Doreen Lewis to Goldie Hawn's "Private Benjamin". She wasn't done there though. She made the transition to television playing the same character: insecure but gung ho, feminine but macho. That combination of traits earned her an Oscar nomination. Once she made the move to television, and Lorna Patterson was playing Private Benjamin, Brennan won an Emmy for best supporting actress in a comedy.

She also had roles as Tess Skeffington, the secretary of Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) in "Murder by Death", Mrs. Peacock in "Clue", and many other films.

During the 1984-1985 television season, she played opposite Ed Asner in a short-lived TV series called "Off The Rack" that lasted just seven episodes.

Real life tough
She brought a toughness to her characters that she would need in real life. In 1982, she was leaving a restaurant and was hit by a car, suffering leg injuries, facial fractures, a broken nose, and damage to her eye. Brennan was forced to leave "Private Benjamin", and the show went with her, cancelled in 1983.

She would recover from her injuries, but become addicted to pain killers. She beat that addiction, but her struggles were not finished. She would battle, and beat, breast cancer.

However, at the end of her life she had become a housebound pensioner. On July 28, the woman who brought us Billie the madam, Tess Skeffington, Captain Doreen Lewis, and Mrs. Peacock, the curtain fell on her last performance.

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