Swampscott, Massachusetts, 25 July 1894.
1917—enlisted in service during World War I.
Married Ruth Wells, 1920, children: Arthur, Walter, and Ruth.
Mid-'teens—worked at various jobs including lumberjack and
bank clerk; appeared in vaudeville and stock; 1923—began career in
Hollywood as extra and stuntman; 1927—first film role in
The Ridin' Rowdy
; 1957–63—in TV series
The Real McCoys
; 1964–65—in TV series
; 1967–69—title role in TV series
The Guns of Will Sonnett
; 1970–71—TV series
Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for
Come and Get It
, 1936; Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for
, 1938; Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for
In Oxnard, California, 21 September 1974.
The Ridin' Rowdy (Thorpe); Tearin' into Trouble (Thorpe)
Silks and Saddles ( Thoroughbreds ); The Ballyhoo Buster (Thorpe)
The Long Trail (Robson); The Lariat Kid (Eason); One Hysterical Night (Craft); The Shannons of Broadway (Flynn); Smilin' Guns (MacRae)
Scratch as Scratch Can ; The King of Jazz (Anderson)
Neck and Neck (Thorpe); Dancing Dynamite (Mason)
Law and Order (Cahn); The Iceman's Ball ; The Texas Cyclone (Lederman); Two Fisted Law (Lederman); The All-American ( Sport of a Nation ) (Mack)
Man of Action (Melford); Fighting for Justice (Brower); The Keyhole (Curtiz); Lilly Turner (Wellman); Baby Face ( Baby Face Harrington ) (Green); Female (Curtiz); From Headquarters (Dieterle); Sing, Sinner, Sing (Christy); One Year Later (Hopper); Strange People (Thorpe); Parachute Jumper (Green)
Woman Haters ; Housewife (Green); Desirable (Mayo); Half a Sinner (Newman); Riptide (Goulding); Stamboul Quest (Wood); The Painted Veil (Boleslawski); Good Dame (Gering)
Man on a Flying Trapeze ( The Memory Expert ) (Bruckman); Barbary Coast (Hawks) (as Old Atrocity); Restless Knights ; Metropolitan (Boleslawski); Bric-a-Brac ; Seven Keys to Baldpate (Hamilton); The Bride of Frankenstein (Whale); Lady Tubbs (Crosland); Northern Frontier (Newfield); The Wedding Night (King Vidor); Law beyond the Range (Beebe)
These Three (Wyler); The Three Godfathers (Boleslawski); Fury (Fritz Lang) (as Bugs Meyers); Come and Get It (Hawks and Wyler); Banjo on My Knee (Cromwell); The Moon's Our Home (Seiter); The Prescott Kid (Selman)
When Love Is Young (Seiter); Wild and Wooly (Werker); She's Dangerous (Foster and Carruth); The Affairs of Cappy Ricks (Staub)
Kentucky (Butler); The Buccaneer (DeMille); The Texans (Hogan); The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Taurog); Mother Carey's Chickens (Rowland V. Lee); The Cowboy and the Lady (Potter)
The Story of Irene and Vernon Castle (Potter); Stanley and Livingston (King); They Shall Have Music (Mayo); Joe and Ethel Turp Call on the President (Sinclair)
Northwest Passage (King Vidor); The Westerner (Wyler) (as Judge Roy Bean); Maryland (King)
Meet John Doe (Capra) (as the "Colonel"); Swamp Water ( The Man Who Came Back ) (Renoir); Sergeant York (Hawks); Rise and Shine (Dwan); Nice Girl? (Seiter); This Woman Is Mine (Lloyd)
Pride of the Yankees (Wood); Stand by for Action ( Cargo of Innocents ) (Leonard)
Hangmen Also Die (Fritz Lang); The North Star (Milestone); The Last Will and Testament of Tom Smith ; Slightly Dangerous (Ruggles); Home in Indiana (Hathaway); The Princess and the Pirate (Butler); To Have and Have Not (Hawks) (as Eddy)
A Stolen Life (Bernhardt); Centennial Summer (Preminger); My Darling Clementine (John Ford) (as Old Man Clanton); Nobody Lives Forever (Negulesco)
Red River (Hawks) (as Groot); Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! ( Summer Lightning ) (F. Hugh Herbert); Blood on the Moon (Wise)
Task Force (Daves); The Great Dan Patch (Newman); The Green Promise ( Raging Waters ) (Russell); Brimstone (Kane)
Surrender (Dwan); Curtain Call at Cactus Creek ( Take the Stage ) (Lamont); A Ticket to Tomahawk (Sale); Singing Guns (Springsteen); The Showdown (Darrel and Stuart McGowan)
Along the Great Divide (Walsh); The Wide Blue Yonder ( Thunder across the Pacific ) (Dwan); Best of the Bad Men (Russell)
Lure of the Wilderness (Negulesco); Return of the Texan (Daves)
The Sea of Lost Ships (Kane)
Drums across the River (Juran); Four Guns to the Border (Carlson); Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges) (as Doc Velie)
The Far Country (Anthony Mann); At Gunpoint! ( Gunpoint! ) (Werker)
The Proud Ones (Webb); Glory (Butler); Come Next Spring (Springsteen); Goodbye, My Lady (Wellman)
Tammy and the Bachelor ( Tammy ) (Pevney); God Is My Partner (Claxton); The Way to the Gold (Webb)
Rio Bravo (Hawks) (as Stumpy)
How the West Was Won (Hathaway, Ford, Marshall)
Those Calloways (Tokar)
The Oscar (Rouse)
Who's Minding the Mint? (Morris); The Gnome-Mobile (Stevenson)
The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band (O'Herlihy)
Support Your Local Sheriff (Kennedy); The Over-the-Hill Gang (Yarbrough—for TV)
The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again (McGowan—for TV); The Young Country (Huggins—for TV)
Smoke in the Wind (Kane); Two for the Money (Kowalski—for TV)
Home for the Holidays (Moxey—for TV)
"Nécrologie: Walter Brennan," in Cinéma (Paris), November 1974.
Ciné Revue (Paris), 15 January 1981.
Cabrera Infante, G., "Walter Brennan," Nosferatu (Argentina), no. 20, January 1996.
"Walter Brennan," Stars (Mariombourg, Belgium), no. 27, 1996.
* * *
From the 1930s through the 1950s Walter Brennan was the definitive character actor—a colorful, memorable supporting player and an essential ingredient in scores of fine films for an array of top directors. If he had a particular specialty among his wide range of sidekicks, employees, buddies, colleagues, and antagonists, it was in playing crusty old-timers—well before he was one himself.
After serving in World War I, Brennan began working in movies in 1923 as an extra and a stuntman. He had his teeth knocked out in an accident in 1932, providing him with a natural toothlessness—as well as removable false teeth—that he would occasionally use for comic value.
He won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor an astonishing and unprecedented three times in the space of five years—as a lumberjack in the Howard Hawks-William Wyler Come and Get It , as a horse-racing colonel in David Butler's Kentucky , and as the ornery Judge Roy Bean in William Wyler's The Westerner , the last role in support of Gary Cooper. Brennan was again nominated for the Oscar the following year for his role as the pastor in Howard Hawks's Sergeant York —again in support of Gary Cooper, who won that year's Best Actor Award for his performance.
Brennan's first substantial screen assignment came when he had well over 20 features under his belt. It was for Howard Hawks in Barbary Coast , playing a character called "Old Atrocity." He would eventually work in Hawks films no fewer than six times: he performed in the World War II drama To Have and Have Not as Humphrey Bogart's rummy pal, in the Western Red River as the quarrelsome Groot, and, perhaps most memorably, in another Western, Rio Bravo , as the loyal, cantankerous Stumpy, guarding the jailhouse with a shotgun for sheriff John Wayne.
Among the other famous directors who found Brennan's colorful persona both useful and effective, were John Ford ( My Darling Clementine ), King Vidor ( The Wedding Night ), Fritz Lang ( Fury ), Frank Capra ( Meet John Doe ), Jean Renoir ( Swamp Water ), Lewis Milestone ( The North Star ), Raoul Walsh ( Along the Great Divide ), and John Sturges ( Bad Day at Black Rock ). Although he performed in a wide variety of genres, it was the Western with which he became most strongly associated.
With the television series The Real McCoys , a countrified situation comedy in which Brennan played Grandpappy Amos McCoy (a flat-out comic version of the blustery but lovable screen character he had been essaying for years), Brennan became, during the program's six-year tenure, something of a television icon. Bringing the same skill to his television work that he had given to the cinema for decades, he kept nightclub impressionists and the general public busy imitating everything about his character—from his cornpone accent to his axle-grease-squeaky voice to his coming-apart-at-the-seams limp. Moreover, his characterization on television was so strong that it nearly obliterated the public's memory of his fruitful movie career, which he ended in a series of theatrical family films and several made-for-television movies, staying productive right up to the time of his death, at the age of 80, in 1974.