Love or hate the sheriff in First Blood, you’ve got to admire actor Brian Dennehy who so expertly played the villainous antagonist in the classic Rambo film that put Hope on the cinematic map.
Dennehy died of natural causes April 15 in New Haven, Conneticut. He lived to be 81 and star in a range of films and stage productions, including his Tony award-winning performance in Death of a Salesman and his on-screen performances in Tommy Boy and Romeo and Juliet.
Yet Dennehy will always be most well-known in these parts as Sheriff Will Teasle.
To mark his passing, Hope’s own promoter of tourism and all things First Blood Brian McKinney shared with us some tidbits about the sheriff he’s collected over the years.
You may be surprised to know that people across the world dream about coming to Hope to witness where the cult film that kicked off the Rambo franchise was shot. Fans of John Rambo – played by Sylvester Stallone – from countries as far off as China, England, Germany, Holland and the U.S. gather online and frequently ask McKinney what it’s like to live in Hope.
And every year up to 15,000 fans, from as young as five up to 90 years old, make it to our community for this very reason. With Dennehy’s passing, McKinney has been getting questions from these fans about what ‘Sheriff Teasle’ was like when the film was shot here in 1981.
“Brian became one of the ‘locals’ when he was here,” McKinney recalls of the stories shared with him by servers, bar staff, a paramedic who worked on set and other locals.
“He was very personable and very approachable, unlike Stallone which you were not allowed to approach – you needed to be introduced via a third party as his personal bodyguard did not leave his side. Brian on the other hand spent more time getting to know people.”
Switching from motorhomes to hotel rooms, Dennehy spent more time staying downtown than anyone else involved in the film McKinney said. You could catch him hanging out in his regular garb, or half dressed to go on set, at his favourite coffee spot at the Gateway Restaurant (where Dairy Queen now stands.)
“He would have coffee with the old guys and play the coffee game to see who would buy or sometimes Brian would just pick up the tab,” McKinney recalled. “Same went with the Hope Motor Hotel when it came to after work. He was known to buy a round of beer or two.”
Dennehy got involved in the community as well, with spare time spent helping Tillicum folks build bird houses and appearing as Santa Claus at a seniors Christmas luncheon.
“He never turned down an autograph. His large size, broad shoulders and intimidating presence was anything but, yet he was once described from a girl who served him a beer and got a hug as a ‘big teddy bear’ and really nice man,” McKinney said.
And how this big teddy bear was able to play a much-hated character on First Blood is a true testament to his acting abilities McKinney added.
“The fact that director Ted Kotcheff allowed Brian to ad lib a lot of his lines was a true testament to his talent. Ted, in a lot of scenes, would just say to Brian ‘OK, act really pissed off and we’ll see how it comes across,’” he said. Fans would likely agree that he succeeded on screen.
Set life was not always kind to the sheriff.
During a scene where he falls onto his desk, Dennehy had to be bandaged up by a paramedic. “I need a Scotch” he told the paramedic, after which he proceeded to spend the night in his motorhome with some locals and crew, polishing off a 40-pounder of said beverage. He was on set the next morning.
“To think that Brian was able to work with a separated shoulder and finish some scenes says something about the man,” McKinney said.
Dennehy didn’t get away with just a shoulder injury. During the ‘arrest scene’ when the sheriff pulls Rambo’s knife out of his belt, Dennehy accidentally sliced his hand. “(He) didn’t break character until the director yelled ‘cut’ and Brian yelled out in pain as paramedics tended to his bleeding hand,” McKinney said.
“Of all the the characters who have passed away already; Alf Humphreys (Mitch) Jack Starrett (Gault) Richard Crenna (Colonel Trautman), Brian Dennehy who played Teasle has seemed to really hit the fan base. Even Stallone called him ‘one of the greatest’,” McKinney said.
A big thank you to Brian McKinney for so graciously sharing these stories with us.
Emelie Peacock is a reporter with the Hope Standard.