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Dennehy Gives Teacher Extra Credit

July 24, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) _ In the gilded elegance of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, the big man of Broadway is bringing down the house.

The audience can hardly contain itself, cheering and clapping in a frenzy of spontaneous applause. And the star hasn’t even uttered his first line.

Later, he will admit that he was momentarily unnerved by the raw adulation that swept the stage. But the most unnerving part of all was not that it was his first performance since winning a Tony Award.

It was knowing who was watching from the eleventh row.

Snug in his spot in the orchestra seats _ best in the house _ the teacher smiles. He doesn’t yell ``Bravo!″ like everyone else, doesn’t leap to his feet when the three-hour performance is over. He simply nods. And there’s a glint of a tear in his eye.

``You really have to hand it to him,″ the teacher says, as his former student takes a final bow. ``He really learned his craft.″

Minutes later the two are backstage, locked in a tough-guy embrace. Brian Dennehy, star of ``Death of a Salesman,″ and his former football coach and drama teacher, Chris Sweeny, the man who yanked the big guy off the playing field, the man who inspired him to act.

At 60, Dennehy still has the hulking frame of a football player. It’s easy to imagine the kid who swaggered on the field with such dramatic flair that Sweeny, tired of yelling about blocking tactics, ordered him to try out for Shakespeare.

``I said, ``You got such a big mouth; let’s put it to some use,‴ Sweeny recalls, rolling his eyes as he relives the scene.

It was 1954. Fresh from the Air Force, Sweeny had been hired to coach football and teach English at Chaminade High School, a private Catholic school for boys in Mineola, N.Y. Asked to start a drama club, the young teacher turned to the students he knew best, the football players.

``I didn’t have a choice,″ Dennehy booms. ``Chris Sweeny was tough as nails. When he volunteered you for something, you didn’t argue.″

Sweeny’s eyes twinkle. At 69, he is tall and tan, with a thoughtful, authoritative air. He still has the commanding presence that inspired Dennehy and his classmates to brave the jeers of other jocks when they traded their football gear for tights.

But there was another reason that Sweeny singled out Dennehy. ``What really interested me about Brian,″ Sweeny says in an exaggerated tone, ``was that he could be HEARD!″

Dennehy roars. Sweeny’s style never changes, not on the football field, not in the classroom, not in the dressing room of the man that Broadway has just crowned king. Always a performer.

``So you want to know how this guy got started,″ Sweeny begins, striking the perfect note of dreamy nostalgia, eyes gazing into the distance. ``It all began more than 40 years ago ... .″

His voice trails off, and the two men laugh. There are several versions of the story, embellished with age and artistic license. But it really comes down to two guys in love with theater who have taken very different routes to this glittering night on Broadway.

Glittering it may be, but backstage, as accolades pour in from around the world and flowers arrive from David Letterman, the talk is of Chaminade, not Broadway. They remember Sweeny’s first production, ``Pyramus and Thisby,″ the roar of the crowd when they performed at the annual Shakespearean competition at Hofstra University, the glory when they took the trophy home. Dennehy, decked out in black leggings and white rags and sporting an earsplitting grin, played a talking wall. He was 15.

``We blew the place down,″ Dennehy says, face lighting up as if he can still hear the echo of those first ``encores.″

``I mean people went crazy. They gave us the award, for sure. But it was more than winning. It was knockabout and farcical and hilarious and fun. It was what theater was all about. And, of course, I just got bitten.″

Sweeny knew the feeling. He had been bitten himself years before, in the same gymnasium at Chaminade, when he played in a school production of ``Arsenic and Old Lace.″ He carried the feeling to Fordham University where he spent four years on a football scholarship and trained with Vince Lombardi, who was just starting as freshman coach. He carried it to the Air Force, where he organized an amateur theater group. He carried it back to Chaminade.

Young, handsome, athletic, one of the few lay teachers in a strict Catholic school, Sweeny stood out.

``He was so articulate, so intelligent, so witty,″ Dennehy said. ``And he had this wonderful attitude toward life that anything was possible. I can’t tell you how dazzled I was. And it wasn’t just me, it was all of us. We couldn’t wait to get to his classroom.″

Sweeny cuts him off with a gruff ``don’t be such a wise guy.″ But he doesn’t say it too harshly. It’s clear the actor’s praise is more than just another polished line.

And it doesn’t come just from Dennehy. From around the country Chaminade alumni join the chorus.

In University Place, Wash., retired executive Eugene Vorhies remembers the adolescent awkwardness of being 6 foot 6 inches, yearning to be involved in art and theater, yet ``trapped inside the body of a linebacker.″ Along came a teacher who showed him that he could do it all, and well. ``I’ve never told him this,″ Vorhies said, ``But I have felt grateful all my life that Chris Sweeny crossed my path.″

A physician in Chicago says the same thing, as do a physicist in New Mexico and a football coach in Indiana. Guys who hammed it up with Dennehy in ``Hope Is a Thing With Feathers″ and ``George Washington Slept Here″ and ``Macbeth.″ Guys who still remember Sweeny coaching them in speech and debate, pushing them to do better, yet never pushing too far. Four decades later, their voices fill with affection when they talk about a teacher who opened their mind to the idea that the arts, like athletics, could teach them more about themselves, to the idea that they could walk easily in both worlds.

Sweeny insists that it was the subjects that dazzled them, not the teacher. The same subjects had dazzled him. Especially theater. He couldn’t get enough: the sets, the applause, the sheer joy of immersing himself in a character.

But he knew the perils. He couldn’t have made any money at acting, couldn’t have supported his family, didn’t want to subject them to that kind of risk.

``It was make-believe,″ Sweeny says, a tinge of regret in his shrug. ``It was a hobby. It could never be anything more.″

The reality was that his $3,500 salary at Chaminade wasn’t enough either, not to support a wife and four children.

So Sweeny gave up acting and he gave up teaching and headed to Wall Street, where he made a lot of money selling bonds. He was there for 35 years. He became a great salesman. And the best master of ceremonies the street had ever seen.

Dennehy headed to Wall Street, too, but he didn’t stay long. The parade of suits scared him more than the insecurity of the stage. So he chucked his selling job and went to work driving trucks and taxis, acting in small productions wherever he could.

They stayed in touch over the years, the teacher and the student: school reunions, funerals. Occasionally, Sweeny would watch Dennehy perform in local theaters. Small parts. He doesn’t remember their names.

Once, in the 1970s, they ran into each other in a restaurant on Long Island. They spent the night talking: about acting and teaching, about families and sacrifice. In his 30s, Dennehy hadn’t yet found the fame that would eventually come with movies like ``Cocoon″ and ``Silverado″ and ``Gorky Park″. Back then, it wasn’t clear that he would ever find it. But it was clear that he wouldn’t stop trying.

Sweeny drove home that night wondering if his former student’s struggle was worth it.

And Sweeny has wondered about his own choices through the years: Could his name have been on billboards, too? Could he have it to made it to Broadway?

``I think I was a pretty good actor,″ Sweeny says carefully, ``but to say that trivializes people like Brian. I didn’t have the 100 percent devotion that he had, the passion.″

But Sweeny had another passion, one he couldn’t let go. As soon as he retired from Wall Street, he marched straight back to Chaminade and asked if he could come back to teaching.

For the past nine years he has worked there, about 20 hours a week, coaching football, raising money, touching lives.

Strolling through the corridors in his crimson and gold Chaminade sweater, Sweeny jokes that he feels like he’s in a time warp. The boys look the same in their blazers and ties, and they still greet him with shouts of ``Hi, Coach.″ The photographs of Dennehy and his class of 1956 might have been hung yesterday.

In a sense, Sweeny says, things haven’t changed. There’s still a need to nurture the talents of teens, to show them how Shakespeare and football can mix, to introduce them to the endless possibilities of both worlds, to bring them to performances like ``Death of a Salesman.″

The first time Sweeny saw Dennehy’s ``Salesman″ was on opening night. He sat with other specially invited guests, next to Gregory Peck and behind Lauren Bacall. It was nice to be honored that way: He enjoyed the celebrity touch. But he didn’t go to the party at Tavern on the Green afterward, didn’t want to steal any of the glory.

He plans to return this summer to watch Dennehy’s wrenching portrayal of Willy Loman one more time. He wants to bring a student, a 20-year-old with an athlete’s build and an actor’s heart, a kid who reminds him of the young Brian Dennehy.

``Talk to him,″ Sweeny urges the actor as they sit in a restaurant after the show. ``Try to knock the stage out of him. And if you can’t knock it out of him, then give him all the encouragement you can.″

Dennehy nods. Sure, he says. He’ll do what he can. Doesn’t he always follow the advice of the teacher who inspired him?