One of only three actors to have ever won three or more Academy Awards in the same acting
category (Katharine Hepburn and Daniel Day-Lewis are the other two), Walter Brennan
appeared in more than 230 movie and television roles in a career which spanned nearly fifty
Walter Andrew Brennan was born in July, 1894, in Lynn, Massachusetts, the second of three
children of Margaret and William Brennan. William had hoped his son would follow him
into a career in engineering, but young Walter developed an interest in acting while still in
High School and began performing in a vaudeville act at age 15. While developing his acting
skills, he took part-time jobs to support himself. In 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I,
he enlisted in the Army and served with the Field Artillery in France. Exposed to poison gas,
his vocal cords were permanently damaged, leaving him with the high-pitched, scratchy voice,
which would later make him a natural to play old man roles while still in his thirties.
After the war, he emigrated to Guatemala to grow pineapples. When that failed, he returned to
the U.S., and settled in Los Angeles, eventually making a fortune speculating in real estate. A
real estate slump in1925 wiped out much of his fortune, and the stock market crash of 1929, and
the Great Depression which followed, left him broke. Desperate, he began taking extra and bit
parts in movies to survive. During this time, he became friends with Gary Cooper, who was
just beginning to make a name for himself. He and Cooper began showing up at casting offices
together. The result was a number of major roles for Cooper and supporting roles for Brennan.
With the advent of talkies, Brennan’s talent was quickly recognized, and he became a popular
supporting actor. A 1932 auto accident cost him most of his teeth. Together with his scratchy
voice. he could now be fitted with different dentures to match the older and more eccentric roles
he was to play. He was one of the few actors whose career never declined as he aged.
Always a social and ideological conservative, Brennan’s political views became increasingly
radicalized as he got older and more politically active. In the 1950’s, he built a bunker on his
estate, and fully stocked it with weapons and survival supplies, anticipating a Russian invasion.
In 1964, he agreed to support Barry Goldwater, only after he voted against the Civil Rights Act.
He believed that the Civil Rights movement was run by overseas Communists and that
southern Blacks were “perfectly content” under segregation, until stirred up by Northern
trouble-makers with an anti-American agenda. In 1968, he became an early supporter of the
American Independent Party and former Alabama Governor George Wallace, claiming that
Richard Nixon was “too liberal”. When he learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King
Jr., he was observed dancing a jig and cackling with delight. He repeated the performance two
months later when Robert Kennedy was shot. In 1972, he supported extreme right-wing
American Independent Party presidential candidate John Schmitz. When on set, Brennan
would demand to know the political leanings of other actors and complain about appearing with
anyone he considered an undesirable liberal.
Walter Brennan died of emphysema in September, 1974. He was 80.
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