Walter Brennan (1894 - 1974)

Walter Brennan
Walter Brennan
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Walter Brennan was an American character actor who, although destined never to be a leading man, became one of the most successful supporting actors of Hollywood's Golden Age. He often played the comic relief role of the old-timer sidekick, particularly in Westerns. In the space of five years from 1936 he was nominated four times for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, winning three times, including the first ever such award in 1936 for 'Come and Get It'. To date he and Jack Nicholson are the only actors to have won three awards in this category.


He was born Walter Andrew Brennan on July 25, 1894 in Lynn, Massachusetts, the second of three children, into an Irish immigrant family. His interest in acting first surfaced whilst he was peforming in school plays. He had originally intended to follow his father into engineering and studied the subject at Rindge Technical High School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After college he tried a variety of jobs including bank clerk and newspaper reporter before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1917, serving in France during World War I with the 101st Field Artillery Regiment. Whilst there he suffered a poison gas attack which permanently affected his voice and which would have a beneficial effect later in his career when he would portray elderly characters.

After the war he moved to California and began a highly successful real estate business, but when land values collapsed in 1925 he lost most of his money and he reverted to his first love and began geting work with the local movie studios. His reputation and ability grew steadily over the next decade. He began slowly with a few jobs as an extra in such movies as 'Lorraine of the Lions' in 1925,and 'Alias the Deacon' and 'Blake of Scotland Yard' in 1927, then getting work as a movie stuntman. He gradually worked his way to speaking roles, going from walk-on bit parts to far more substantial roles as supporting actor in scores of features and short subjects such as 'Smilin' Guns' in 1929 and 'Honeymoon Lane' in 1931.

In 1932 he lost all his teeth in an accident whilst working as a stuntman. This misfortune actually benfitted his career as, combined with his unnaturally thin, reedy voice, it enabled him to play characters far older than his years.

Gradually the quality of the movies improved and the parts got bigger and during the 1930's he became a well known secondary player in movies such as 'The Airmail Mystery' in 1932, 'Strange People' and 'The Invisible Man' in 1933 and 'Uncertain Lady' and 'Great Expectations' in 1934.

After ten years as an extra, Brennan was finally given a long-term contract by MGM boss Sam Goldwyn after an impressive performance in 'The Wedding Night' in 1935, which led to a meatier role in 'Barbary Coast' in the same year, the first of Brennan's seven movies with director Howard Hawks. This,in turn, led to Brennan's real breakthrough into the big time in the role of the Swede Swan Bostrom in Goldwyn's 'Come and Get It' in 1936, for which he was awarded his first best supporting actor Academy Award. Brennan had finally arrived.

He won a second Academy Award for his portrayal of an elderly horse farm owner in 'Kentucky' in 1938, and in 1940 he received an unprecedented third Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Judge Roy Bean in 'The Westerner'.

He continued to play good secondary roles in top quality films and gave well received performances in 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' in 1938, 'Sergeant York' in 1941 for which he received a fourth Best Supporting Actor nomination, and 'To Have and Have Not' with Humphrey Bogart in 1944. Later in the 1940's he gave two of his finest performances, firstly as the heartless outlaw Ike Clanton in John Ford's 'My Darling Clementine' in 1946, then as the irascible Groot Nadine in 'Red River' in 1948, another of his movies directed by Howard Hawks.

Brennan became one of the best known supporting actors in Hollywood with his name actually lending credibility to weaker movies such as 'Scudda-Hoo! Scudda-Hay!' in 1948, and he maintained his successful career into the 1950's with prominent roles in 'Bad Day at Black Rock' and 'The Far Country', both in 1955, and in 1959 when he played one of his biggest roles as Stumpy, the town jailer, who supports John Wayne in 'Rio Bravo'.

He effortlessly and successfully made the transition to television in the 1950's, becoming a star in the weekly comedy series 'The Real McCoys' which lasted for six years from 1957. His television success continued in the 1960's with two more popular series, 'Tycoon' in 1964 and 'The Guns of Will Sonnett' for two years from 1967.

Brennan began a second career in singing in the 1960's and had four top 100 singles, including 'Old Rivers' in 1962 which rose to number 5 in the U.S. Billboard charts. He also made appearances in many TV series such as 'The Red Skelton Show' and 'Alias Smith and Jones', and was a genial presence in old-timer reunion programs such as the 'Over-the-Hill-Gang' TV movies.


Brennan married Ruth Wells in 1920 and the couple had two sons and a daughter and stayed together until Brennan's death.

Brennan was well known for his right wing views and was a very public supporter of Senator Barry M. Goldwater, the Republican nominee in the campaign against U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson. During the 1960s, he stated publicly his views that the anti-war and civil rights movements were being run by communists.

Brennan died of emphysema in Oxnard, Ventura County, in 1974, at the age of 80. His remains were interred at San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Walter Brennan Academy Awards

Three Wins:
Best Supporting Actor ... Come and Get It (1936)
Best Supporting Actor ... Kentucky (1938)
Best Supporting Actor ... The Westerner (1940)

One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Supporting Actor ... Sergeant York (1941)

Walter Brennan Filmography

Lorraine of the Lions (uncredited)
Webs of Steel (uncredited)
Watch Your Wife
The Ice Flood (uncredited)
The Collegians (short) (uncredited)
Flashing Oars (short) (uncredited)
Sensation Seekers(uncredited)
Tearin' Into Trouble
The Ridin' Rowdy
Alias the Deacon (uncredited)
Blake of Scotland Yard(uncredited)
The Last Performance(uncredited)
The Ballyhoo Buster
Hot Heels(uncredited)
The Michigan Kid (uncredited)
The Racket(uncredited)
The Cohens and Kellys in Atlantic City(uncredited)
Smilin' Guns
The Lariat Kid
Flying High (short) (uncredited)
One Hysterical Night
The Long, Long Trail
The Shannons of Broadway
Dames Ahoy(uncredited)
Captain of the Guard(uncredited)
King of Jazz
Little Accident(uncredited)
Parlez Vous (short)
See America Thirst(uncredited)
Ooh La-La (short) (uncredited)
Hello Russia (short) (uncredited)
Many a Slip (uncredited)
Heroes of the Flames(uncredited)
Honeymoon Lane
Dancing Dynamite
Grief Street
Is There Justice?
Neck and Neck
Scratch-As-Catch-Can (short)
A House Divided(uncredited)
Texas Cyclone
Law and Order (uncredited)
The Impatient Maiden(uncredited)
The Airmail Mystery
Scandal for Sale(uncredited)
Two-Fisted Law
Hello Trouble (uncredited)
Speed Madness (uncredited)
Miss Pinkerton (uncredited)
Cornered (uncredited)
The Iceman's Ball (short)
Fighting for Justice(uncredited)
The Fourth Horseman(uncredited)
Sport of a Nation(uncredited)
Once in a Lifetime (uncredited)
Strange Justice(uncredited)
Women Won't Tell (uncredited)
Afraid to Talk (uncredited)
Manhattan Tower(uncredited)
Man of Action
Parachute Jumper (uncredited)
Goldie Gets Along(uncredited)
Girl Missing(uncredited)
Rustlers' Roundup (uncredited)
The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble(uncredited)
The Big Cage(uncredited)
Lilly Turner (scenes deleted)
Phantom of the Air
Strange People
Baby Face (scenes deleted)
Sing, Sinner, Sing
One Year Later(uncredited)
Sensation Hunters
Golden Harvest (uncredited)
Sailors Beware! (short)
Saturday's Millions (uncredited)
Curtain at Eight(uncredited)
My Woman(uncredited)
The Invisible Man(uncredited)
King for a Night(uncredited)
Fugitive Lovers (uncredited)
Cross Country Cruise(uncredited)
You Can't Buy Everything (uncredited)
Paradise Valley
Radio Dough (short)
The Poor Rich (uncredited)
The Crosby Murder Case(uncredited)
George White's Scandals (uncredited)
Good Girl (uncredited)
Riptide (uncredited)
Uncertain Lady(uncredited)
Sing and Like It(uncredited)
I'll Tell the World(uncredited)
Fishing for Trouble (short)
Woman Haters (short) (uncredited)
Half a Sinner
The Life of Vergie Winters (uncredited)
Murder on the Runaway Train(uncredited)
Whom the Gods Destroy(uncredited)
Death on the Diamond(uncredited)
Great Expectations (uncredited)
Luck of the Game(uncredited)
Tailspin Tommy (uncredited)
There's Always Tomorrow(uncredited)
Cheating Cheaters (uncredited)
Prescott Kid
The Painted Veil (scenes deleted)
Biography of a Bachelor Girl(uncredited)
Helldorado (uncredited)
Brick-a-Brac (short)
Northern Frontier
Mystery of Edwin Drood(uncredited)
Law Beyond the Range
Restless Knights (short) (uncredited)
Hunger Pains (short)
The Wedding Night
Gold Diggers of 1935 (uncredited)
West Point of the Air(uncredited)
Bride of Frankenstein(uncredited)
Party Wire (uncredited)
Spring Tonic (uncredited)
The Gay Lady (uncredited)
The Memory Expert
Welcome Home (uncredited)
Alice Adams (scenes deleted)
The Perfect Tribute (short) (uncredited)
We're in the Money(uncredited)
Barbary Coast
Metropolitan (uncredited)
Seven Keys to Baldpate
Three Godfathers
These Three
The Moon's Our Home
Come and Get It
Banjo on My Knee
She's Dangerous
When Love Is Young
Affairs of Cappy Ricks
Wild and Woolly
The Buccaneer
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Texans
Mother Carey's Chickens
The Cowboy and the Lady
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
Melody of Youth
Stanley and Livingstone
Joe and Ethel Turp Call on the President