Walter Brennan – “Old Rivers”

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Introduction to Walter Brennan

Walter Brennan (born 1894 – died 1974) was a three-time Academy Award winning actor. He rose to prominence especially during the 1930s to 1950s, having played in films such as Come and Get It, Kentucky, The Westerner, Meet John Doe, Sergeant York, The Pride of the Yankees, My Darling Clementine, Rio Bravo, How The West Was Won, and so many others. Brennan also ventured into recording, the most popular and most fondly remembered being “Old Rivers”, which went to the Top 10 in 1962.

Early life and several “pre-acting” occupations

Walter Brennan was first and foremost an actor, in fact he was one of the finest character actors in film history. He was also a sometime country singer and musician who scored a big hit via “Old Rivers” in 1962.

Brennan was born Walter Andrew Brennan in Lynn, Massachusetts on July 25, 1894. Early in his life Brennan was already showing his interest in acting and so he began to perform in vaudeville shows during his teens. Like any other successful person in his or her own field, Brennan underwent a variety of odd jobs. He worked as a bank clerk before being drafted into the US Army; raised pineapples in Guatemala; and worked in the real estate business, which he was quite successful until the Great Depression made him lose a great deal of his fortunes.

Early acting career

But the Depression was actually the one that paved Brennan the way for his full-time acting career. Finding himself broke, Brennan had to take jobs by appearing as an extra and then acting in bit parts as many films as he could. His first role was an uncredited one in the silent filmLorraine of the Lions in 1925. Some of his earliest appearances include The Invisible Man, Woman Haters andBride of Frankenstein, the last-mentioned film where he finally got to speak his lines for the first time, albeit briefly. He also worked as a stunt man.

Brennan’s acting career peak

By the 1930s, Brennan’s acting had become more and more recognized, and he had begun to accept substantial roles. This was capped by his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the 1936 film Come and Get It. Since then his film work had been steady most of the time.

Some of Brennan’s appearances were in some of the popular box-office films and now-classics such as Meet John Doe, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Kentucky(where he won his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar), The Westerner (where he won his third and final Best Supporting Actor Oscar) Sergeant York, The Pride of the Yankees, To Have and Have Not, How the West Was Won, Rio Bravo and many other films. He also had a famous role as Grampa Amos McCoy on the TV seriesThe Real McCoys during the late 1950s.

Brennan’s brief take on recording

Brennan also had a brief spell in recording. His first venture in this area was his duet with Billy Vaughn called “Dutchman’s Gold” in 1960. Released on Dot label, the single peaked at #30 on the Billboard pop chart that year.

Biggest hit with “Old Rivers”

However, he achieved his biggest hit via the spoken record titled “Old Rivers,” written by Cliff Clifford. In this number, Brennan portrayed as the eccentric but much-loved farmer, with his lines being recitated against the country and western background music. Released on Liberty label, “Old Rivers” became a rather unlikely big hit, peaking at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, #2 on the easy listening singles chart and #3 on the country singles chart in 1962. It also crossed over to the British Isles, peaking at #38 there. The success of the single pushed the album, also called Old Rivers, to #54 peak position on the Billboard album chart.

He also recorded and released another Cliff Clifford number “Houdini” (at #100 pop) and the Bill Anderson-penned “Mama Sang a Song” (#38 pop, #14), both in 1962.

Brennan’s recording career wasn’t nearly as successful and prolific as his acting career though, which spanned in about five decades. Brennan made over 230 appearances in both films and television. Although his roles were extremely diverse, he is probably best known for his roles in western movies.

Brennan died of emphysema in Oxnard, California on September 21, 1974. He was 80 years old. Brennan has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in recognition for his contributions to the entertainment industry.

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