Eileen Brennan: 'Private Benjamin' star sang, danced, made us laugh

Eileen Brennan was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the gruff captain in 'Private Benjamin,' plus she won an Emmy for reprising the role on the small screen. Her career ranged from musical theater to the hilariously humorless roles that made her famous.

By , Associated Press

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    Warner Brothers released this shot of actress Eileen Brennan as Capt. Doreen Lewis in a scene from "Private Benjamin." Brennan's manager says Brennan, died Sunday, July 28, at the age of 80.
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Eileen Brennan, who went from musical comedy on Broadway to wringing laughs out of memorable characters in such films as "Private Benjamin" and "Clue," has died. 

Brennan's managers, Jessica Moresco and Al Onorato, said she died Sunday at home in Burbank.

"Our family is so grateful for the outpouring of love and respect for Eileen," her family said in a statement. "She was funny and caring and truly one of a kind. Her strength and love will never be forgotten."

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Brennan got her first big role on the New York stage in "Little Mary Sunshine," a musical comedy that won her the 1960 Obie award for best actress. Along with her "excellent singing voice," her performance was "radiant and comic," said a New York Times review.

But it was a series of sharp-tongued roles that won her fans on television and in movies, including gruff Army Capt. Doreen Lewis in 1980's "Private Benjamin," aloof Mrs. Peacock in 1985's "Clue," and mean orphanage superintendent Miss Bannister in 1988's "The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking."

"I love meanies, and this goes back to Captain Lewis in 'Private Benjamin,' " Brennan said in a 1988 interview with The Associated Press. "You know why? Because they have no sense of humor. People who are mean or unkind or rigid — think about it — cannot laugh at themselves. If we can't laugh at ourselves and the human condition, we're going to be mean."

"Private Benjamin" brought her a supporting actress nomination for an Oscar. She also won an Emmy for repeating her "Private Benjamin" role in the television series and was nominated six other times for guest roles on such shows as "Newhart," ''thirtysomething," ''Taxi," and "Will & Grace."

"Our world has lost a rare human," said Brennan's "Private Benjamin" co-star Goldie Hawn in a statement. "Eileen was a brilliant comedian, a powerful dramatic actress, and had the voice of an angel. I will miss my old friend."

Brennan's "Private Benjamin" role led to an enduring friendship with Ms. Hawn. A couple of years after they filmed the movie, Brennan and Hawn had dinner one night in 1982 in Venice, Calif. As they left the restaurant, Brennan was struck by a car and very severely injured. 

"I was no saint," she said in an interview with Ladies Home Journal. "I was angry, and anger is a powerful emotion. It increased my determination not to go under, to get well." Brennan became dependent on painkillers, and two years after the accident she entered the Betty Ford Center to cure her addiction.

"We get addicted to dull the pain of life," she told the magazine. "But once we accept that life is tough and painful, we can move on and grow and evolve."

A decade after the accident, she said she was glad she was struck by the car. "You learn from powerful things," she said in 1992. "Initially, there's enormous anger, but your priorities get shifted around."

Brennan was a member of the original company of "Hello, Dolly" on Broadway. From the New York stage, she moved to the screen in "Divorce American Style" and "The Last Picture Show," a pair of appearances on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," and TV guest shots on everything from "All in the Family" and "McMillan & Wife" to "Kojak," ''The Love Boat," ''Murder She Wrote," and "Mad About You."

Brennan was born Verla Eileen Regina Brennan in Los Angeles. She was educated in convent schools and studied at Georgetown University and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.

Brennan is survived by her ex-husband, David John Lampson, and their two sons, Patrick and Sam.

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