The stage, film and TV actor Eileen Brennan died at home in Burbank Sunday of bladder cancer. She was 80. Brennan, who grew up in Los Angeles, won an Obie Award for "Little Mary Sunshine" [fixed -ed.] off Broadway in 1959, portrayed Irene Molloy in the original Broadway production of “Hello, Dolly!” with Carol Channing in 1964, and made her film debut in “Divorce American Style,” starring Debbie Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke, in 1967. According to the New York Times obituary, she was briefly in the original cast of the TV sketch-comedy hit “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” then played a world-weary Texas waitress in “The Last Picture Show” directed by Peter Bogdanovich, in 1971.
Her big break came in 1980 when she was cast in the film “Private Benjamin,” starring "Laugh-In" alumnus Goldie Hawn.
Ms. Brennan played Capt. Doreen Lewis, the slow-burning commanding officer of a pampered, privileged young woman who joins the Army and finds that she isn’t anybody’s little princess anymore. The performance brought Ms. Brennan an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. She reprised the role in 1981 in a CBS sitcom based on the film, with Lorna Patterson in the Goldie Hawn role. The TV performance brought Ms. Brennan the Emmy Award for best supporting actress in a comedy, variety or music series.
But she was forced to leave “Private Benjamin” when she was hit by a car and critically injured in Venice, Calif. Without her, the series died in 1983.
While recovering Ms. Brennan became addicted to pain medication and underwent treatment. She later developed breast cancer.
She returned to television in 1985 in a new sitcom, “Off the Rack,” with Edward Asner, but the show lasted only six episodes. Afterward she made guest appearances on other shows, but she never recaptured the attention she had known in the past.
Brennan's IMDb filmography runs 121 entries deep, including six episodes of "Will and Grace" toward the end.
Media dissonance noted:
- NYT: "Brennen [sic]...grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a newspaper reporter who also worked in sales and a former actress."
- LAT: Brennan was born...in Los Angeles to Regina Menehan, a former silent film actress, and John Gerald Brennan, a doctor. "
Photo of Brennan in "The Last Picture Show," Columbia Pictures via Photofest at NYT.com