Though she probably made the biggest splash – and scored an Oscar nomination in the process – for her role as Captain Lewis in Private Benjamin, actress Eileen Brennan enjoyed a long and varied career. She died on Sunday at the age of 80.
An always-reliable performer noted for her husky voice and take-no-prisoners attitude to both life and performing, she was born Verla Eileen Regina Brennen in 1932 and grew up in Los Angeles. After studying at Georgetown University, she took acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, paying her way through work as a singing waitress while performing in summer stock during the holidays.
She scored various stage roles, and won an Obie Award for her leading performance in 1959’s Little Mary Sunshine. Brennan followed that up with roles in The Miracle Worker and The King And I.
Television would follow in the 1960s, with work on The Star Wagon and a regular job on Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In. other shows, leading to her film debut in 1967’s Divorce, American Style.
Her movie career kicked up a gear with Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, and she chased that with Scarecrow, The Sting and Daisy Miller. Yet it was 20 years into her working life that she found true fame with Private Benjamin’s steely Captain Doreen Lewis, who made it her mission in life to grind down Goldie Hawn’s titular pampered princess-turned-army grunt. Brennan was nominated as Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards and would go on to reprise the role for the TV spin-off, before a serious car accident cut it short.
Brennan’s momentum never recovered and she also became addicted to painkillers. She continued to work, however, popping up in small roles on films such as Jeepers Creepers and Miss Congeniality 2, plus TV series such as ER and Will And Grace. After surviving breast cancer, she was more recently diagnosed with bladder cancer. She’s survived by two sons, a sister and two grandchildren. "We have lost my old friend Eileen Brennan," Goldie Hawn tweeted today. "No one ever made me laugh more! Now I cry. Please keep singing darling from on high. Rest."