Tom Brennan

Adapted from an obituary in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 21, 2013:

Tom Brennan, leading Karamu alumnus

Brennan, who is white, trained young at Karamu, the nation’s oldest racially integrated performing arts center. He also worked at the Play House, the nation’s oldest regional theater. He went on to dozens of shows on Broadway, in Hollywood and on television.

Brennan often worked with the Oscar-winning Olympia Dukakis, who said, “He was a very smart guy, very dedicated, never shy of confrontations. Once he threw his hat in the air and stomped around. But he was very much a collaborator and very interested in what you had to say.”

Brennan was part-Irish but raised Jewish. He acted at Shaw High School and at Karamu and with the Play House’s young “Curtain Pullers.” He was nicknamed Professor and Rabbi because he was often lost in books and scripts. His brother, Ron, said Tom crashed a couple of cars while peeking at scripts.

The burly 6-footer dug graves at Lake View Cemetery and worked as a copy boy at The Cleveland News. He volunteered as a paratrooper during World War II and served in occupied Japan.

He graduated from Oberlin College, the alma mater of Karamu’s founders, Rowena and Russell Jelliffe. He also studied at Amherst College and earned a master’s degree at Western Reserve University.

In 1955, Brennan helped Oberlin classmate Nikos Psacharopoulos found a summer program that became the prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. Brennan served as its second in command for many years, directing and performing in many shows. He called the place “Shangri-La.” The festival’s Steve Lawson said the “jovial, committed, theatrically savvy” man helped Williamstown live up to the nickname.

As a young actor, Brennan bicycled around Manhattan, earning another nickname, Tennis-Shoes Williams. A truck struck him, breaking his leg in three places and forcing him offstage for a couple of years. He spent those years leading the theater department at Oberlin.

Brennan went on to work with Thornton Wilder, Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, Al Pacino, Gwyneth Paltrow and many other notables. His Broadway shows included “Our Town” with Paul Newman from Shaker Heights. He played Falstaff in “Henry IV” at the prestigious Yale Repertory Theater. He directed David Carradine off Broadway. He taught at New York’s Circle in the Square Theater.

On TV, Brennan appeared in “North-South,” “Law and Order” and some of the late episodes of the long-lived soap opera, “Search for Tomorrow.” He joked that he was so good in “Search,” the producers finally found tomorrow and cancelled the show.

NFT Credits

Credit Type Production Season
Actor Every Day a Visitor 2000-01 Season