Cowboy Co-Stars! Walter Brennan

Walter Brennan

Walter Brennan was born in Massachusetts to Irish immigrant parents on July 25, 1894. As a young man, he followed in his father’s footsteps and studied engineering at a technical high school, but later, he drifted into other pursuits. He was working as a bank clerk when America entered World War I. He joined the U.S. Army and served with the 101st Field Artillery. Though unconfirmed, it’s widely asserted that he acquired his distinctive, high-pitched, gravelly voice due to mustard gas exposure.

After the war, Brennan landed in California and used his colorful personality to wow people—as a real estate agent! Initially, he earned a fortune—until land prices took a nosedive in 1925. Flat broke, Brennan pivoted, putting his ostentatious sales skills and flamboyant personality to work in movies. He was cast as an extra and a stuntman, earning a substantial $7.50 a day. He appeared in about 30 films before getting more on-camera time in the movie The King of Jazz (1930), a musical revue that marked the first film appearance of Bing Crosby. Still, it was a modest appearance, as Brennan once remarked upon seeing the movie, “I sneezed, and I missed myself.”

Brennan worked steadily throughout the 30s, and during one shoot he caught what he called his “lucky break.” During a fight scene, another actor (some say it was a mule) kicked him in the mouth, and Brennan lost all his teeth, forcing him to get dentures. “…I could take ’em out, and suddenly look about 40 years older,” he said, as now he expanded his casting opportunities to a wider variety of characters. Brennan got his actual big break with a small part as a cabbie in Sam Goldwyn’s 1935 film The Wedding Night, starring Gary Cooper. Goldwyn was so impressed with Brennan’s work, that he signed him to a long-term contract with MGM.

When Brennan was cast as Old Atrocity in Howard Hawks’ Barbary Coast (1935), starring Joel McCrea and Edward G. Robinson, he moved up a rung on the ladder to “supporting actor.” Over the course of his career, Brennan worked with Hawks on seven films, including Come and Get It (1936), though Goldwin fired Hawks in the middle of filming. But for his part, Brennan won his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He won an unprecedented three Oscars for supporting actor—the others were for his roles in Kentucky (1938) and The Westerner (1940). He earned a nomination for Sergeant York (1941) but ultimately lost to Donald Crisp in How Green Was My Valley.

Some of Walter Brennan’s most notable films include To Have and Have Not (1944), starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Red River (1948) starring John Wayne, Drums Across the River (1954) with Audie Murphy, The Far Country (1954) with James Stewart and Harry Morgan of M.A.S.H. fame, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) with Spencer Tracy, and Rio Bravo starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, and Angie Dickinson, among many other movies. His television work includes his role as Grandpa Amos McCoy on the hit sitcom, The Real McCoys.

Brennan worked steadily through the mid-1970s. He played a villain in Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) with James Garner. He earned top billing in the TV movies, The Over the Hill Gang (1969) and its sequel, The Over the Hill Gang Rides Again (1970), and appeared in several episodes of the Western series, Alias Smith and Jones. His final role was in the 1975 film, Smoke in the Wind. But he never got to see it. He died on September 21, 1974, six months prior to its release. He was 80 years old.