Notable Oregonians: Walter Brennan - Actor

Photo of Walter Brennan
Walter Brennan (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Walter Brennan was born on July 25, 1894 in Lynn, Massachusetts to William and Margaret Brennan. He studied engineering but caught the acting bug after performing in school plays. After graduating, Brennan worked in vaudeville and doing odd jobs before enlisting to serve in World War I. His two years of Army service in France included being exposed to mustard gas, which left him with his signature high-pitched voice that later set him apart in films and on television. After returning to the United States, Brennan made a fortune in real estate speculation in Los Angeles but lost it all in a 1925 land value crash, leading to his seeking work as an extra in silent films.

His resulting career made as one of the most recognizable and highly acclaimed character actors in film and television history. But success didn't come fast or easy as he worked bit parts and background roles for most of a decade. Finally, in the mid 1930s, Brennan shot into the upper ranks of in demand character actors and won three Academy Awards between 1936 and 1940 for Best Supporting Actor (Come and Get It, 1936; Kentucky, 1938; The Westerner, 1940). During this period, his range and versatility kept him busy. As a Turner Classic Movies biography notes,  "More often than not, he was cast as characters years, if not decades older than his actual age, thanks in part to the loss of his teeth in a 1932 accident. Already lanky, balding and sporting his quavering voice, he could transition from younger characters to elderly codgers simply by removing his dentures."

From the late 1930s to the 1960s, Brennan worked with the top actors in Hollywood, including Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Kirk Douglas, often as sidekicks to the leads. He worked for top directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks and John Sturges. Among his dozens of film roles spanning a nearly 50 year career, Brennan displayed his broad range of dramatic and comedic skills in Three Godfathers, Northwest Passage, Meet John Doe, Sergeant York, Red RiverBad Day at Black Rock, Rio Bravo and Support Your Local Sheriff.

While still acting in films, he launched a successful television career in the 1950s and became a regular in American living rooms in the comedy series The Real McCoys. And, he became a successful spoken word recording artist during this period as well, reaching No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 list in 1962 with his single "Old Rivers."

Brennan bought the sprawling 12,000 acre Lightning Creek Ranch located 20 miles south of Joseph, Oregon in 1940. He built the Indian Lodge Motel, which continues to operate in Joseph. Brennan also constructed a movie theater and a variety store in Joseph in addition to his help in developing the Chief Joseph Days celebration in the community. He returned to the area between film roles until his death, and some members of his family continue to live in the area.

Brennan died on September 21, 1974 as he was preparing for a leading role in the Disney film Herbie Rides Again. In addition to his three Academy Awards and one nomination, he is honored on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

(Sources: Turner Classic Movies | Wikipedia)

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