Eileen Brennan

Eileen Brennan

Brennan, circa 1990
Born Verla Eileen Brennen[1]
(1932-09-03)September 3, 1932
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Died July 28, 2013(2013-07-28) (aged 80)
Burbank, California, U.S.
Cause of death Bladder cancer
Occupation Actress
Years active 1960–2009
Spouse(s) David John Lampson (1968–1974; divorced; 2 sons)

Eileen Brennan (September 3, 1932 – July 28, 2013) was an American actress of film, television, and theater. Brennan was known for her role as Doreen Lewis in Private Benjamin, for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She reprised the role for the TV adaptation, winning both a Golden Globe and Emmy for her performance. She received Emmy nominations for her guest starring roles on Newhart, Thirtysomething, Taxi and Will & Grace.

Early life

Brennan was born Verla Eileen Brennen on September 3, 1932[2] in Los Angeles, California, daughter of Regina "Jeanne" Menehan, a silent film actress, and John Gerald Brennen, a doctor.[3] Of Irish descent, she was raised Roman Catholic.


Brennan appeared in plays with the Mask and Bauble Society at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where she was employed. She starred there in Arsenic and Old Lace. Her exceptional comic skills and romantic soprano voice propelled her from unknown to star in the title role of Rick Besoyan's off-Broadway tongue-in-cheek musical/operetta Little Mary Sunshine (1959), earning Brennan an Obie Award, and its unofficial sequel The Student Gypsy (1963). She played Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker at the 1961 Central City, Colorado Festival, directed by Arthur Penn who had just won a Tony for his direction of the play on Broadway.[4] She went on to create the role of Irene Malloy in the original Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! (1964).[5]

Her feature film debut was in Divorce American Style (1967). She soon became one of the most recognizable (if not precisely identifiable) supporting actresses in film and television. Her roles were usually sympathetic characters, though she played a variety of other character types, including earthy, vulgar and sassy, but occasionally "with a heart of gold." A year after her feature film debut she became a semi-regular on the comedy-variety show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, but stayed for only two months.

Brennan received excellent reviews as brothel madam "Billie" in George Roy Hill's Academy Award-winning 1973 film The Sting as the confidante of con man Henry Gondorf (Paul Newman). Although her name was not often recognized by the general public, she became a favorite of many directors, in particular Peter Bogdanovich. She appeared in Bogdanovich's 1971 classic The Last Picture Show (for which she received a BAFTA nomination for best supporting actress) and his 1974 adaptation of the Henry James novella Daisy Miller. Bogdanovich was the only director who made use of her musical talents (before, she sang in performances off Broadway) when he cast her as Cybill Shepherd's crude, fun-loving maid in his 1975 musical flop At Long Last Love (which also starred Madeline Kahn; Brennan and Kahn would work together in two more films: The Cheap Detective and Clue).

Brennan also worked with director Robert Moore and writer Neil Simon, appearing in Murder by Death as Tess Skeffington (1976); and The Cheap Detective (1978). Both of these movies also starred James Coco, James Cromwell and Peter Falk. She had a starring role, playing the disc jockey 'Mutha' in the 1978 movie, FM, a comedy-drama about life at a rock music radio station.

In 1980, Brennan received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role as Goldie Hawn's nasty commanding officer in Private Benjamin. She reprised the role in the television adaptation (1981–1983), for which she won an Emmy (supporting actress) as well as a Golden Globe (lead actress). She had one additional Golden Globe nomination and six Emmy nominations.

It was during this time that she played Mrs. Peacock in the film Clue (1985). In the 1990s, she appeared in Stella with Bette Midler, Bogdanovich's Texasville (the sequel to The Last Picture Show), and Reckless. She had a recurring role on the sitcom Blossom as the neighbor/confidant of the title character. In 2001, she made a brief appearance in the horror movie Jeepers Creepers as The Cat Lady.

In 2002, she starred in the dark comedy film Comic Book Villains, with DJ Qualls. In recent years, Brennan had guest-starred in television, including recurring roles as the nosy Mrs. Bink in 7th Heaven and as gruff acting coach Zandra on Will & Grace. In 2003 director Shawn Levy cast her in a cameo role of a babysitter to Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt's children in an updated remake of Cheaper by the Dozen. Levy was inspired to cast Brennan after seeing Private Benjamin on television. Brennan's cameo was deleted from the actual cut of the movie, however. Nonetheless, she did receive credit for her role on the Deleted Scenes special feature of the film's DVD. In 2004, she appeared in The Hollow as "Joan Van Etten".


Brennan received an Emmy nomination for her guest starring role in Taxi episode "Thy Boss's Wife" (1981). Brennan appeared in one All In The Family episode, "The Elevator Story" (1972), as Angelique Mcarthy. Brennan guest starred on two Murder, She Wrote episodes, "Old Habits Die Hard" (1987) and "Dear Deadly" (1994), and in 1987 she also appeared in the Magnum, P.I. episode "The Love That Lies." Brennan was nominated for an Emmy in 2004 for her performance as Zandra,[6] Jack McFarland's caustic drama teacher, on Will and Grace.

Personal life

From 1968 to 1974, Brennan was married to David John Lampson, with whom she had two sons: Patrick, a former basketball player turned actor, and Sam, a singer.

Brennan was hit by a passing car in 1982 while leaving a restaurant with Hawn, and suffered massive injuries. She took three years off work to recover, and had to overcome a subsequent addiction to painkillers.[7] She also fell from the stage in 1989 during a production of Annie, breaking a leg.[8]

In 1990, she was treated for breast cancer.[8]


Brennan died at her home in Burbank, California, on July 28, 2013, of bladder cancer.[9] She was 80. Her Private Benjamin co-star Goldie Hawn said she was a "brilliant comedian, a powerful dramatic actress and had the voice of an angel."[10] Actor, writer and director Michael McKean, Brennan's co-star in Clue, called Brennan "a brilliant actress, a tough and tender woman and a comic angel".[9] She was survived by her sons, Sam and Patrick, and by two grandchildren and her sister, Kathleen Howard.[8]


Year Title Role Notes
1967 Divorce American Style Eunice Tase
1967 NET Playhouse Unknown Episode: "Infancy and Childhood"
1968 Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In Performer 12 episodes
1970 The Ghost and Mrs. Muir Paula Tardy Episode: "Ladies' Man"
1970 The Most Deadly Game Alice Episode: "Photo Finish"
1971 The Last Picture Show Genevieve Nominated—BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role
1972 All in the Family Angelique McCarthy Episode: "The Elevator Story"
1972 McMillan & Wife Dora Episode: "Night of the Wizard"
1973 Jigsaw Unknown Episode: "In Case of an Emergency, Notify Clint Eastwood"
1973 Scarecrow Darlene
1973 The Blue Knight Glenda Television film
1973 The Sting Billie
1974 Nourish the Beast Baba Goya Television Film
1974 Daisy Miller Mrs. Walker
1975 Insight Carol Harris Episode: "The Prodigal Father"
1975 At Long Last Love Elizabeth
1975 Barnaby Jones Anita Willson Episode: "Blood Relations"
1975 Kojak Julie Loring Episode: "A House of Prayer, a Den of Thieves"
1975 Hustle Paula Hollinger
1976 Murder by Death Tess Skeffington
1977 The Death of Richie Carol Werner Television film
1977 The Great Smokey Roadblock Penelope Pearson
1978 FM Mother
1978 The Cheap Detective Betty DeBoop
1979 13 Queens Boulevard Felicia Winters 9 episodes
1979 When She Was Bad Mary Jensen Television film
1979 My Old Man Marie Television film
1979–1980 A New Kind of Family Kit Flanagan 11 episodes
1980 Private Benjamin Captain Doreen Lewis Nominated—Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
1981 When the Circus Came to Town Jessy Television film
1981 Taxi Mrs. McKenzie Episode: "Thy Boss's Wife"
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series
1981–1983 Private Benjamin Captain Doreen Lewis 37 episodes
Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Television Series Musical or Comedy
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Television Series Musical or Comedy
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series (1982-1983)
1982 American Playhouse Millworker Episode: "Working"
1982 Pandemonium Candy's mom
1983 The Funny Farm Gail Corbin
1984 The Love Boat Helen Foster 2 episodes
1984–1985 Off the Rack Kate Hollaran 7 episodes
1985 Clue Mrs. Peacock
1986 Babes in Toyland Ms. Piper/Widow Hubbard
1987 Magnum P.I. Brenda Babcock Episode: "The Love That Lies"
1987 Murder, She Wrote Mariam Simpson Episode: "Old Habits Die Hard"
1988 The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking Miss Bannister Nominated—Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actress
1988 Sticky Fingers Stella
1988 Rented Lips Hotel Desk Clerk
1988 CBS Summer Playhouse Sioban Owens Episode: "Off Duty"
1988–1989 Newhart Corinne Denby 2 episodes
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series
1990 Stella Mrs. Wilkerson
1990 The Ray Bradbury Theater Mrs. Annabelle Shrike Episode: "Touched with Fire"
1990 Texasville Genevieve Morgan
1990 White Palace Judy
1991 Blossom Agnes 3 episodes
1991 thirtysomething Margaret Weston Episode: "Sifting the Ashes"
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series
1992 Home Improvement Wanda Episode: "Heavy Meddle"
1993 Tribeca Claudia Episode: "Stepping Back"
1993 Jack's Place Dina Episode: "The Hands of Time"
1993 Bonkers Lilith DuPrave 4 episodes
1993 Tales from the Crypt Ruth Sanderson Episode: "Til Death Do We Part"
1993 All-New Dennis the Menace Voice 13 episodes
1994 Murder, She Wrote Loretta Lee Episode: "Dear Deadly"
1995 Walker, Texas Ranger Joelle Episode: "Mean Streets"
1995 Thunder Alley Irma Episode: "Are We There Yet?"
1995 Reckless Sister Margaret
1996 ER Betty 2 episodes
1996–2006 7th Heaven Gladys Bink 9 episodes
1997 Veronica's Closet Grammy Anderson Episode: "Veronica's First Thanksgiving"
1998 Nash Bridges Loretta Bettina Episode: "Downtime"
1998 Mad About You Inspector #10 Episode: "Cheating on Sheila"
1998 Pants on Fire Mom
1999 Touched by an Angel Dolores Episode: "The Last Day of the Rest of Your Life"
2000 The Fearing Mind Irene's mother Episode: "Gentleman Caller"
2001 Jeepers Creepers The Cat Lady
2001–2006 Will & Grace Zandra 6 episodes
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series
2002 Comic Book Villains Miss Cresswell
2003 Lizzie McGuire Marge Episode: "My Fair Larry"
2003 Strong Medicine Evelyn Knightly Episode: "Coming Clean"
2003 Cheaper by the Dozen Mrs. Drucker Uncredited (Scene Deleted)
2004 The Hollow Ms. Etta
2005 Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous Carol Fields
2009 The Kings of Appletown Coach's blind mother


  1. "California Birth Index 1905-1995: Verla Eileen Brennen". Family Search. Retrieved 2015-09-22.
  2. According to the State of California. California Birth Index, 1905–1995. Center for Health Statistics, California Department of Health Services, Sacramento, California. At Ancestry.com
  3. "Eileen Brennan Biography (1938-)". Filmreference.com. Retrieved January 4, 2013.
  4. Program, 30th Anniversary Central City Festival, "The Miracle Worker" by William Gibson. (1961).
  5. "Eileen Brennan: Biography". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2015-09-22.
  6. "Eileen Brennan". Television Academy. Retrieved 2014-04-07.
  7. Donoghue, Deirdre (April 22, 1985). "Out of Her Horrid Accident and the Drug Addiction That Followed, Eileen Brennan Finds a Prescription for Life". People. Retrieved 2011-10-08.
  8. 1 2 3 Olsen, Mark (July 30, 2013). "Eileen Brennan dies at 80; Oscar-nominated 'Private Benjamin' star". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2016-09-11.
  9. 1 2 Barnes, Mike (July 30, 2013). "Actress Eileen Brennan Dies at 80". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 2015-09-22.
  10. "Eileen Brennan Dead: 'Private Benjamin' Actress Dies Aged 80". The Huffington Post. July 31, 2013. Retrieved 2015-09-22.
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