“Walter Brennan became an archetype, not a stereotype,” which explains author Carl Rollyson’s title “A Real American Character.” Brennan was best known for playing old coots, seguing from starring as a loveable drunks in To Have and Have Not (1944) to becoming America’s “grandpappy” in The Real McCoys. But underneath that was a man in love with life’s simple things, who raised his children without modern conveniences and didn’t mind debating faith and politics with costars.
In the interest of full disclosure, Rollyson is a friend of the site whose work I’ve reviewed in the past; I’ve also interviewed him. But, thankfully, I don’t have to conjure up false sentiment for his latest tome. Much like his past works Rollyson mines every facet of Brennan’s life – interviewing family, friends and co-stars, and always letting Brennan speak for himself through interviews and other published materials.
What’s fascinating about Brennan as a person, not a character, is his personality removed from show business. It’s said he identified “with the down and out,” starting with a mother who preferred his brother, seeing Brennan as destined for failure, and yet his characters never sink into the muck of their own messes. As with his life, he remained devotedly in love with his wife and raised his children outside of Hollywood. To many, “the Brennans are the direct answer to the oft-repeated question, ‘Are there ANY normal people in Hollywood.”
His politics and faith weren’t hidden, and Rollyson touches on Brennan’s distaste for Ward Bond, another actor with deep-rooted opinions, and his antipathy against Spencer Tracy (who he filmed Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) with). None of these moments portray Brennan negatively – he was respectable of other’s opinions but wasn’t going to stifle his to make them comfortable – but show the strength of his convictions.
As for Brennan’s work in Hollywood, Brennan was an average Joe, so there’s hardly anything in the vein of gossip. Rollyson, as evidenced by his previous tomes, isn’t interested in digging up dirt, and it’s doubtful Brennan had any skeletons in his closets. With that, the films Brennan starred in get the focus, with synopsis and plot analysis included. These sections can border on IMDB level plot recounts, but they do aid in illustrating that Brennan played characters like himself and, thus, the characters are like Walter Brennan.
Carl Rollyson’s biographies continue to triumph actors lacking in grandiose stage presence, but have wondrous stories to tell. Similar to his biography on Dana Andrews – one of my favorites – A Real American Character tells the neophyte more about Walter Brennan then they could ever wish to know. Playing an old coot before he ever applied for AARP, Walter Brennan created a cadre of characters revered to this day!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.