Actress Eileen Brennan Dies at 80

Eileen Brennan 1973 - P 2013
Courtesy of Everett Collection

Eileen Brennan 1973 - P 2013

UPDATE: She starred in such films as "The Last Picture Show" and "Private Benjamin," for which she earned an Oscar nomination.

Eileen Brennan, the veteran actress perhaps best known for her role as the good-hearted Texas waitress in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, has died. She was 80.

Brennan died early Sunday at her home in Burbank of bladder cancer, her publicist told The Hollywood Reporter.

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Brennan also received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for playing tough drill captain Doreen Lewis opposite Goldie Hawn in the fish-out-of-water comedy Private Benjamin (1980). She reprised the role in the CBS series that starred Lorna Patterson in the title role and won an Emmy, her only win out of her seven career nominations.

Brennan also memorably appeared as brothel madam Billie, a confidant of con man Paul Newman, in the best picture Oscar winner The Sting (1973); as Peter Falk’s long-suffering secretary, Tess, in the classic Agatha Christie spoof Murder by Death (1976), written by Neil Simon; and as Mrs. Peacock in Clue (1985). She often played world-weary, sympathetic characters yet demonstrated a real comic flair throughout her career.

Her other films include three more for Bogdanovich: Daisy Miller (1974), At Long Last Love (1975) and Texasville (1990); Simon’s Cheap Detective (1978), the follow-up to Murder by Death; the road movie Scarecrow (1973), opposite Al Pacino and Gene HackmanThe New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (1988); Stella (1990) with Bette MidlerFM (1978); Jeepers Creepers (2001), playing The Cat Lady; and Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (2005).

Early in her career, the raven-haired, blue-eyed star, born in Los Angeles, showed her comic chops as a regular on the daffy Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in the late 1960s and in a memorable guest stint on All in the Family in which she is trapped in an elevator with Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), a snooty black man (Roscoe Lee Browne), a Puerto Rican janitor (Hector Elizondo) and his pregnant wife (Serafina Mendoza).

“Eileen Brennan was a brilliant actress, a tough & tender woman and a comic angel; RIP, pal,” tweeted actor Michael McKean, who played Mr. Green in Clue.

In October 1982, Brennan had just finished dining with Hawn in Venice, Calif., when she stepped into the path of an oncoming car. She suffered severe injuries to her legs and jaw, had an eyeball wrenched from its socket and broke multiple bones in her face. That led to an addiction to prescription pain pills, followed by a dependence on antidepressants and antianxiety medication.

She made her return with a role in the ABC comedy Off the Rack in January 1984, still without any feeling on the left side of her face and a steel plate in her left leg. Then, a few months later, she entered the Betty Ford Center for six weeks of treatment.

“It was my only hope,” she told People magazine in 1985. “I had reached the stage where I was taking anything I could get my hands on.” She also was a breast-cancer survivor.

In Bogdanovich’s black-and-white 1971 classic The Last Picture Show, Brennan plays Genevieve, a waitress working in a cafe in a dusty Texas town who lends an ear to sensitive high-schooler Timothy Bottoms. She inherits the place when owner Sam (Oscar winner Ben Johnson) dies.

Bogdanovich, who earned an Oscar nomination for the film, remembered Brennan from an off-Broadway production of Little Mary Sunshine in the 1960s and immediately hired her for the Columbia drama, marking the start of a great actress-director relationship.

Brennan appeared for about two years in the original 1964 production of the musical Hello, Dolly as Irene Molloy opposite Carol Channing. She earned her other Emmy noms for guest-starring stints on Taxi, Newhart, thirtysomething and Will & Grace, the latter as a chain-smoking acting coach and former Hollywood star. She was a regular on such series as 13 Queens Boulevard, A New Kind of Family, Blossom and The All-New Dennis the Menace.

Her other stage credits in the 1960s include playing Anne Sullivan in a touring production of The Miracle Worker and Anna in The King and I.

An Irish-American, Brennan was the daughter of Regina “Jeanne” Menehan, a silent-film actress. Brennan was married to British-born poet-photographer David Lampson from 1968 until their divorce in 1975.

Survivors include her sons Sam and Patrick (an actor in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), daughter-in-law Jessica (a documentary writer-producer), sister Kate and grandchildren Liam and Maggie.

Darah Head contributed to this report.