Richard Crenna had such a squeaky little voice as Walter Denton that he successfully sustained the illusion that he really WAS a post-pubescent high school student throughout his three-year run on the hit CBS television series "Our Miss Brooks." It helped that most of his co-stars (Eve Arden as Connie Brooks, Gale Gordon as Osgood Conklin, Robert Rockwell as Philip Boynton and Jane Morgan as Margaret Davis) were more than a few years older than he was, but STILL, it couldn't have been easy portraying a believable teenager when Crenna was actually in his late twenties.
By the time he entered both the film and television industries, Crenna had spent many years in front of a radio microphone, so he already had an instinctive knowledge of how to make a wide variety of characters seem real. Small screen producers seemed to appreciate Crenna's many gifts as an actor far more than impresarios of the big screen, although his resume might have been far different if he'd had a chance to work at one of the great studio stock companies of the thirties and forties. His six years as Luke opposite three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan as Amos on ABC's "The Real Mccoys" gave him a chance to perfect his forte: playing an everyman with subtle textures that would either reassure or surprise audiences. In fact, Crenna's role in Warner Bros.' "Wait Until Dark" was a logical twist on the many years he spent playing a good guy. From the minute Crenna appears onscreen as an old friend of Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., audiences are lulled by his strong, secure image: he would NEVER let anything happen to poor blind Audrey Hepburn while her husband is away. The fact that we, and Audrey, might be wrong about that is one of the many elements that keep fans tumbling out of their seats dozens of years after the film's 1967 release.
Fourteen years later, also at Warner Bros., Crenna projected quiet menace in "Body Heat" as the husband of femme fatale Kathleen Turner as he tries to intimidate her new lover, played by William Hurt. In a neo film noir where no one and nothing is what it appears to be, Crenna fit in perfectly. He may not have been the larger than life icon that everyone says they want a movie star to be, but he was something better: a thoughtful and intelligent actor who never shied away from an emotional truth. The most compelling example of his artistry occurred in 1985. While action buffs were lining up to see Crenna opposite Sylvester Stallone in "Rambo: First Blood Part Two," small screen viewers were startled by the sheer gutsiness of his award-winning performance in "The Rape Of Richard Beck." Like many rape victims, he is one person before the sexual assault and quite another afterwards. Cinema purists who regard anything on the small screen as an inferior art form might want to take a close look at Crenna's wrenching performance and then try to think of any 20th century actor who could have done as well with such uncompromising material. Like many actors who start out in radio, Richard Crenna was head over heels in love with the idea of creating new characters and he left a body of work spanning fifty years to reflect that labor of love.
© 2003 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 1/22/03
1926 - 2003