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‘Private Benjamin’ Actress Eileen Brennan Dies At 80

Brennan Got Her Start On Off-Broadway Stage
Eileen Brennan

Actress Eileen Brennan passed away on July 28, 2013. (Credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

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BURBANK, Calif. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Actress Eileen Brennan – perhaps known for playing the no-nonsense drill sergeant in the movie “Private Benjamin” – has died.

Brennan died this past Sunday at her home in Burbank, Calif., after a battle of bladder cancer, according to her managers. She was 80 years old.

“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.”

PHOTOS: 2013 CELEBRITY DEATHS

Brennan got her first big role off Broadway in “Little Mary Sunshine,” a sendup of old-fashioned musicals that premiered in 1959 at the Orpheum Theatre in the East Village. The musical comedy that won Brennan the 1960 Obie award for best actress.

Along with her “excellent singing voice,” her performance was “radiant and comic,” said a New York Times review.

But it was a series of sharp-tongued roles that won her fans on television and in movies, including gruff Army Capt. Doreen Lewis in the 1980 movie “Private Benjamin,” aloof Mrs. Peacock in the 1985 film ”Clue,” and mean orphanage superintendent Miss Bannister in 1988′s “The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking.”

“I love meanies, and this goes back to Capt. Lewis in `Private Benjamin,’” Brennan said a 1988 interview with The Associated Press. “You know why? Because they have no sense of humor. People who are mean or unkind or rigid — think about it — cannot laugh at themselves. If we can’t laugh at ourselves and the human condition, we’re going to be mean”

“Private Benjamin” brought her a supporting actress nomination for an Oscar. She also won an Emmy for repeating her “Private Benjamin” role in the television version, and was nominated six other times for guest roles on such shows as “Newhart,” “thirtysomething,” ”Taxi” and “Will & Grace.”

Brennan’s “Private Benjamin” role led to an enduring friendship with the movie’s star, Goldie Hawn. A couple of years after they filmed the movie, Brennan and Hawn had dinner one night in 1982 in Venice, Calif. As they left the restaurant, Brennan was struck by a car. Her legs were smashed, bones on the left side of her face were broken, her left eye socket was shattered. Brennan said she fought her injuries with rage.

“I was no saint,” she said in an interview with Ladies Home Journal. “I was angry, and anger is a powerful emotion. It increased my determination not to go under, to get well.”

Brennan became dependent on painkillers, and two years after the accident she entered the Betty Ford Center to cure her addiction in 1984.

“We get addicted to dull the pain of life,” she told the magazine. “But once we accept that life is tough and painful, we can move on and grow and evolve.”

A decade after the accident, she said she was glad she was struck by the car.

“You learn from powerful things,” she said in 1992. “Initially, there’s enormous anger, but your priorities get shifted around.”

Brennan was a member of the original company of “Hello, Dolly” on Broadway, which debuted in 1964 at the St. James Theatre.

From the New York stage, she moved to the screen in “Divorce American Style” and “The Last Picture Show;” a pair of appearances on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” and TV guest shots on everything from “All in the Family” and “McMillan & Wife” to “Kojak,” “The Love Boat,” “Murder She Wrote” and “Mad About You.”

Brennan was born Verla Eileen Regina Brennan in Los Angeles. She was educated in convent schools and studied at Georgetown University and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.

She is survived by her two sons, Sam and Patrick Brennan.

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(TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)