Eileen Brennan, who starred in 'Private Benjamin' and other films, dies

Story highlights

  • Eileen Brennan, who earned an Oscar nod for "Private Benjamin," is dead at 80
  • Brennan was known as brassy character actress
  • She appeared in "The Sting," "Clue" and many TV series

Eileen Brennan, who earned an Oscar nomination for her hilarious turn as the exasperated drill captain in 1980's "Private Benjamin," has died, CNN has confirmed. She was 80.

Brennan died Sunday at her Burbank, California, home after a battle with bladder cancer, her management company said.

"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. She will be greatly missed by all of us."

Brennan was known for character roles as sassy, brassy women, the kind with a sandpaper surface but a light, pure heart.

She played a waitress in "The Last Picture Show" (1971), the companion of Paul Newman's conman in "The Sting" (1973), a wisecracking maid in "At Long Last Love" (1975) and Mrs. Peacock in "Clue" (1985). She also did a great deal of television, including a reprise of her "Private Benjamin" role in the TV series of the same name.

Other TV appearances included guest shots on "Taxi," "thirtysomething," "ER," "Murder, She Wrote," "Mad About You," "Touched by an Angel" and six episodes of "Will & Grace." The latter earned her an Emmy nomination, one of seven she earned in her career -- including one that resulted in a win, a supporting actress-comedy pick for "Private Benjamin."

Verla Eileen Regina Brennan was born in Los Angeles in 1932, the daughter of a doctor and a silent-film actress. After several small stage roles, she finally earned notice for her 1959 off-Broadway turn as "Little Mary Sunshine," for which she won an Obie. Five years later, she gained fame for her performance as Irene Molloy, one of the woman who falls victim to Dolly Levi's matchmaking skills, in the 1960s hit musical "Hello, Dolly!"

In 1982, Brennan was involved in a horrific accident, struck by a car as she exited a restaurant with "Benjamin" co-star Goldie Hawn. She suffered broken bones in her face, an eyeball pulled from its socket and two broken legs. Even after recovering physically -- a process that took years -- she suffered from an addiction to painkillers and entered the Betty Ford Clinic in 1984.

"It was my only hope," Brennan told People magazine in 1985. "I had reached the stage where I was taking anything I could get my hands on."

Typical of her upbeat attitude, however, she told the magazine she took pride in her recovery.

"Everyone hits bottom their own way," she said. "Mine came through my accident, which led to my pill addiction, which led to my birth. I say birth rather than rebirth because I feel born new. I re-established a spiritual connection that is lost when you are taking any kind of drug. Strangely enough I wouldn't have missed my accident. It just knocks me out to say that, but I mean it."

Brennan also survived a bout with breast cancer in 1990.

Brennan was married to David John Lampson from 1968 to 1974. She is survived by two sons, Patrick Brennan and Sam Lampson.

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