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Wednesday, January 9, 2002
Updated: May 31, 2:09 PM ET
An Interview on the Brink

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Three weeks ago, ESPN sent me to Winnipeg to spend one day on the set of the upcoming Bobby Knight biopic, "Season on the Brink." After the requisite number of therapy sessions to deal with after-effects of spending 24 hours in Winnipeg in December, I was finally able to transcribe my interview with actor Brian Dennehy, who plays Knight in "Brink" (my column about my day on the set won't run until March, right before the movie premieres on ESPN).

Brian Dennehy
Brian Dennehy says "nobody can imitate Bobby Knight," so he does "an interpretation" of Knight in ESPN's "Season on the Brink."
My meeting with Dennehy happened in his trailer at 5:30 p.m., about 45 minutes before he was scheduled to film a series of scenes for "Brink." When I walked in, I wasn't sure which character to expect. The bombastic, good-natured Irish father from "Tommy Boy"? The cocky, spiteful know-it-all from "First Blood"? The calculating, conniving guy from "FX" and "Jericho Mile"?

As it turned out, he was just Brian Dennehy, a lively, old-school, shoot-from-the-hip Irish guy who takes his profession extremely seriously. After the obligatory introductions, we spent some time gabbing about "The Jericho Mile" (one of my favorite sports movies) and Dennehy's cameo on "Miami Vice" (as an evil televangelist), before I finally turned on the tape recorder. Here's what transpired:

Sports Guy: What role do you think you're most known for? Like the one movie where people say, "Hey, you're that guy!"

Brian Dennehy: Well, those are two different questions. (laughs) It seems the one most people recognize me for these days is being in "Tommy Boy."

SG: That's what I figured. Nothing wrong with that though -- I loved that movie.

BD: But ("Death of a) Salesman," as far as the business is concerned, and the impact that it had in the theater ... I don't know. It's hard to answer questions like that. I mean, like you -- people haven't mentioned "Jericho Mile" to me in a long time. So people get affected by different things. Here's an example. It's funny how many times this happens, like 10 to 12 times in the last couple of years. You're talking to someone and they keep looking at you and looking at you ... almost a little weird, and then finally, they'll say, "You did this TV movie on John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer." And they always expect you to be him, which creates these weird vibrations.

SG: That was one of your most memorable roles. You couldn't ask for a better character to play than John Wayne Gacy, right?

BD (nodding): People ask me, "How does it feel to play a real prick like Bobby Knight?" and I say, "Bobby Knight's not a prick. John Wayne Gacy, he was a prick!"

Bobby Knight
Knight was victimized by a "change in our culture," according to Dennehy.
SG: In the early part of your career, the '70s and '80s, you were one of those guys who was an established character actor, like a "That Guy." People would see you and say, "Hey, it's That Guy!" When did you finally become "Brian Dennehy" and not "That Guy"?

BD (deadpan): I never really became Brian Dennehy. I'm still Charlie Durning, or Paul Sorvino, or Brian Keith -- I was on the plane coming up here, we're in Winnipeg, first class, and we're all getting up, and this guy looks at me and says, "Brian Keith!" And I said, "Dead!" And he said, "Brian Dunleavy!" And I said, "Dead." Then I said, "Brian Dennehy, almost dead." So it still happens all the time. I don't give a s---.

SG: It seems like "First Blood" was probably your breakout movie.

BD: Ah, I don't know. Things happen in the business, people know me in the business. I mean, people know me outside -- I have one of those faces that people recognize, but they don't necessarily put a name to it. And that's OK. As long as they get it right on the check. I was with Jack Warden once ...

SG: Another famous character actor.

BD: ... just the greatest guy ... we were in Arizona shooting "Used Cars," and this woman comes up to him and says, "Mr. Westin, I've been a huge fan of you for so many years, would you mind signing this?" So Jack Warden takes the thing and signs it "Jack Westin." So she says, "Will you sign another one for me?" And he says, "Sure, do you want 'Westin' on this on, too?"

SG: You know how they have those Internet sites that list every movie for an actor, those filmographies? I printed out your filmography on IMDB.com and it was like four pages.

BD: I'm a whore, I'll do anything.

SG: When I was going through your list, I noticed you've been in a baseball movie ("Summer Catch") and a football movie ("Semi-Tough"). "Jericho Mile" could be considered a sports movie. "Gladiator" was a boxing movie ...

Brian Dennehy
"Summer Catch" is just one of the sports movies on Dennehy's lengthy résumé.
BD: Ugh, you had to bring that one up.

SG: ... and "Brink" is a basketball movie ... so basically, all you need is a hockey movie and you've completed the Sports Movie Cycle.

BD: Yeah, hockey, I could do that ... if I ever had to ice skate, I'd be in big trouble though.

SG: Hey, you could play a coach. Maybe a "Youngblood" remake or something. Anyway, just from all those movies, I was wondering if you were a big sports fan or was this all a coincidence?

BD: I like sports. I'm a big football fan. When I was a kid, I was a ... I don't even know how to describe it ... I was an obsessed Brooklyn Dodgers fan. And I think when they left Brooklyn, which was simultaneous with me starting college, everything changed and I haven't had the same passion for sports.

I get wrapped up in certain things. For a couple years there, I was a huge Bill Parcells fan when he was coaching -- wherever he went, I followed him. He did a great job with the Pats, great job with the Giants, great job with the Jets. How many people have done that? And of course, he turns out to be good friends with Bobby Knight, too.

SG: You weren't friends with Parcells, were you?

BD: Oh, no, just a fan. See, I get interested in certain things, and now I'm interested in Bobby Knight. But for years, Parcells had me real interested in what he was doing. I like people who are smart, and seem to know what the hell they were doing. And God knows he was, and is. And so was Bobby.

I'm a huge fan of Knight's. The thing I like most about him is that he's in the tradition of great American success stories. This was a guy who is incredibly smart about basketball, maybe the smartest basketball mind of all of them ... and he was driven and successful. Great American traits. When you think about it, what's the difference between Bobby Knight and Vince Lombardi? Why is one guy a God, and the other guy is regarded as a crazy man?
Brian Dennehy

There are other things going on with Bobby -- he's always involved in this combat with the world. But it's funny that he was friends with Parcells, and he never learned from Parcells that there's a way of controlling that combat. He's never figured out how to do that.

SG: Bob Mandel, the director, mentioned those "grey areas" with Knight, how that was the thing that appealed to him with this movie -- those moments when Knight was so kind and generous, and those other moments when he was just horrible to people.

BD: That's true for everybody, though, isn't it? I mean, Adolf Hitler loved German Shepard dogs. And God knows, I'm not trying to compare them -- I'm a huge fan of Knight's. The thing I like most about him is that he's in the tradition of great American success stories. This was a guy who is incredibly smart about basketball, maybe the smartest basketball mind of all of them ... and he was driven and successful. Great American traits. When you think about it, what's the difference between Bobby Knight and Vince Lombardi? Why is one guy a God, and the other guy is regarded as a crazy man?

SG: They're actually pretty similar.

BD: They're very similar! Lombardi, of course, had the grace to die at an early age before our culture had a chance to change. And that's what really happened to Bobby Knight, was that there was a culture change. And I have no idea why ... but all of the sudden, "niceness" became critical. Political correctness, so on and so forth. And Bobby wasn't gonna change for that. I don't think Lombardi would have changed, either. So Lombardi was smart, and he died before his image could be tarnished by his toughness. Red Auerbach was another one -- was Red Auerbach a nice guy?

SG: There were major parallels among those three guys, no question.

BD: Absolutely. I've had great admiration and affection for Auerbach and Lombardi, so why not Bobby Knight? They say he does stupid things ... well, we all do stupid things. The problem is, everybody's attention is focused on him, and he's become this great symbol of this kind of thing, so he can't get away with it. It's all about Bobby Knight -- what he does and what he says -- and everyone's waiting, pencils poised, tape recorders poised, so he doesn't get a pass.

Bill Parcells
Dennehy is a big admirer of Bill Parcells, who just happens to be one of Knight's good friends.
SG: You make a good point about how society has changed. I was reading the Feinstein book on the plane over here, and there was a part where he was making fun of Landon Turner's sneakers and said, "They make you look like a fag." Fifteen years ago, people didn't care about a tidbit like that -- now they would be going nuts.

BD: Yeah, I mean, whoever heard of the phrase "verbal abuse" before 10 years ago? Never heard of it! Whaddya mean, verbal abuse? Yelling at somebody? F--- you, there's some verbal abuse. Christ, you couldn't have survived in Brooklyn if you couldn't take verbal abuse ... when the Giants and Dodgers played each other at Ebbets Field, Christ. (Screaming) You (bleepin' bleep)!!!!!!!!

SG: How much fun is it as an actor to play a guy like Knight? You're dropping f-bombs ...

BD: Well, you know, it's like anything else -- you have to concentrate. I want to do it right. The funny thing is, everyone is in a tizzy about this language in the movie, and I have to admit, it's not so far different than the language that I use. I'm not always profane, but I agree with Bobby Knight -- there are times when profanity is needed and required, and it's a shame that we're not allowed to use it in a politcally correct world. "F---" is a great word. Has a great sound. You can use it in many different ways and it works -- God knows Chris Rock has proven that.

SG: Was it true that you refused to film these scenes unless they had the swearing?

BD: I didn't refuse to ... I said to them when we started, "I don't want to get into a situation where I have to loop this" (when you go back after filming and re-record non-obscenities over swear words), so you better make your decision now.

SG: Either you're in or you're out.

BD: Right. You're in or you're out. Because if we do it, I'm not going to a sound station after the fact and looping this performance to get all that language out of it. What they're gonna do is "bleep" it -- and the problem with the bleeps is that it becomes another character in the scene.

SG: Couldn't they run some unedited midnight viewings or something, just so we can hear you drop a few unedited F-bombs?

BD: I would hope they do something like that. I dunno.

SG: In the book, there's a scene when Knight is talking to Digger Phelps, and he's sitting butt-naked in a chair ... there aren't going to be any nude scenes in this movie, are there?

Bob Knight
If you're going to play the fiery Knight accurately, you're going to have to use some explosive language.
BD: Oh God, no. Then we really are gonna turn some ESPN people off.

SG: Hey, it's cable, you never know.

BD: Not with me. I don't even know if I can look at myself, much less suggest that somebody else do it.

SG: So when you heard they were making this movie, you must have thought to yourself, "Hey, a Bobby Knight movie ... this is perfect for me."

BD: Actually, I didn't think that at all. I didn't think it was the right casting. I'm too old, and I'm too fat. He was about 47 (at the time the book was written), 'cuz we're the same age right now. I'm 61, he's 62.

SG: How did they handle the age difference then?

BD: Well, we tried to make me look a little younger, but we do it the same way we do everything, we just ignore it.

SG: You were just the first name that jumped to mind, at least for me. The hair's a little similar ...

BD: Well, it's similar now, I'm wearing a wig.

SG: ... and you've played similar profane, outgoing, hard-driving, demanding types of characters before ...

A couple of press guys have said to me, 'God, I don't know how this is gonna work -- you don't look anything like him, you don't sound anything like him,' and I said, 'You're absolutely right.' Who does? Nobody does. That's not what actors do. I have a feeling that a lot of sports people will say that it doesn't work at all, whereas a lot of people who know a little bit about Bobby Knight, but not that much, will say that's a good performance, that it's interesting character.
Dennehy

BD: Yeah, it has been interesting. You can't imitate Bobby Knight. Nobody can imitate him. You can't even imitate his voice ... We did use contacts, because he has those burning eyes, sharp, dark eyes, and we did the hair. But other than that, it's an interpretation. It's all I can do. You can't really imitate him.

SG: Sounds like what Will Smith said when he was talking about Ali at the press junket I attended; Smith said he was doing an interpretation, not an imitation.

BD: A couple of press guys have said to me, "God, I don't know how this is gonna work -- you don't look anything like him, you don't sound anything like him," and I said, "You're absolutely right." Who does? Nobody does. That's not what actors do. I have a feeling that a lot of sports people will say that it doesn't work at all, whereas a lot of people who know a little bit about Bobby Knight, but not that much, will say that's a good performance, that it's interesting character. Because it is a character. It's not necessarily Bobby Knight.

SG: Have you heard anything about his opinion of the movie? Has he crank-called you or anything?

BD: He actually said very good things about me, but he's not real happy about the project itself -- he and (author John) Feinstein had a falling out as a result of the book. I think they're kind of friends again. But he was wrong about it, because the book was very sympathetic to him. I mean there are a lot of things not raised in the book that Feinstein was a gentleman about, like his marriage.

I don't know why Bobby was so upset about the book. It's just like that incident last week (with the stadium official) in Houston. What's hurt Bobby Knight -- where he has a problem and where someone like Parcells does not have a problem -- was the control thing. There are certain things in life that you can't control, and I think Bobby always wanted to control the things that he couldn't.

You send the kids out on the court. You work your ass off for a couple of months. You teach them everything you can. But now they have to play the game. And one of the problems he always seems to have is when they would screw up -- which they do, they're 18-, 19-year-old kids, not robots -- Knight would lose control. He would lose control because of the press, he would lose control because of some cop in Puerto Rico. Bobby seems to have a problem with that kind of confrontation, because all of a sudden he's not in control.

SG: Sounds like you psycho-analyzed the guy!

BD: Well, there are a lot of people like that. His heroes were like that. You're telling me Bill Parcells didn't want to control the New York Jets? I always loved his press conferences. He was always funny, but he was honest about his team and about what their chances were and what had been done to him by the press, but he was always very clever about it, and he always gave people what they needed. I always got the impression from Bobby that if writers didn't write what he wanted them to write, they were pricks and losers.

Sylvester Stallone
A lot of folks remember Dennehy as the cop who tried to chase down Sylvester Stallone in "First Blood."
SG: In many cases, that's true. Quick word association... Sly Stallone?

BD (unenthused): Yeah, he's a good guy. I like Sly.

SG: Chris Farley?

BD (sighs): Ah, he's a terrific kid. Sad, sad, self-destructive.

SG: It was the five-year anniversary of his death yesterday. Did you get close to him at all during the filming of "Tommy Boy"?

BD: Yeah, pretty close. He was a really nice kid, comes from a very nice family. It's interesting, somebody should write about these guys. Farley, Belushi, Sam Kinison, John Candy. These were the fat guys. The guys who went through high school and were fat and funny ... they get rewarded at an early age for being fat and funny. It's hard for them to break out of that. If they survive it, if they get to 35 or 38 or 40, if they get past that critical stage, they can make it. But a lot of them don't. And the reason they don't is because their success has a lot to do with excess -- whether it's drinking, or eating, or trying to be funny, or always trying to be on.

SG: Like a self-fulfilling prophecy thing. Did you feel protective of Farley when you were spending time with him?

BD: It's funny, (after they finished Tommy Boy), he came to the opening of "Translations," a play I was doing at the time, which was a very sweet thing for him to do. We spent some time together then. Then a year or so passed, and we didn't see each other, which happens in this business. And then I was watching Entertainment Tonight or something, and there was a movie opening, and there was Chris. God, he looked awful. He was wearing a black leather jacket, he could barely get into it.

Brian Dennehy, Chris Farley
Dennehy worked with the self-destructive comedian Chris Farley in "Tommy Boy."
And whenever you saw him in those situations, the sweat was pouring off him, and his eyes were going around like pinwheels. He must have gained 100 pounds. So I called David Spade or I ran into him, I can't remember, and I said, "David, have you seen Chris?" and he said "I don't want to talk about it."

SG: Because he knew.

BD: He had tried. Everybody had tried. It was like Belushi and the rest of them... so I wake up (the morning Farley died) and I was shocked, but not even really surprised. Same thing with Candy.

SG: It's sad ... on the flip side, you almost wonder what they would be doing now. How long can you be happy playing that "Big Fat Guy" role?

BD: Yeah, but you know, they might be happy. Might have some kids, who knows? If you're lucky, you have a wife, and a couple of kids, and a hobby like sailing, which is something I love to do. You gotta have a life. Because if you don't have a life, then you do get into trouble in this business, then all of a sudden it becomes about this business. And that stuff is poison. It's poison.

People always ask, "Why does Harrison Ford live that way? Why does Tom Cruise live that way?" They live that way, because it's poison. They're careful about where they go and what they do, because that stuff will kill you. It will kill you faster than anything else.

SG: Maybe someone like Farley wasn't capable of a life like that.

BD: Well, obviously he wasn't. The point is, you hope that they'll survive ... I mean, Robin Williams was going down that road himself until Belushi died, and then Robin changed his life. He's got kids, he's got a wife, he's got a beautiful home ... he understands that has to be completely separate from this other s---.

SG: Did you realize that right away?

BD: Well, I was older when things began to happen, but I also never had that kind of success.

SG: No, but you were successful.

BD: Yeah, I'm successful. I have no complaints about what happened to me.

Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.