Crenna, Richard Donald (“Dick”)
Crenna, Richard Donald (“Dick”)
(b. 30 November 1926 in Los Angeles, California; d. 17 January 2003 in Los Angeles, California), radio, television, and film actor and director who gained popular recognition for his role as Colonel Trautman in the Rambo films.
Crenna was the only child of Domenick Crenna, a pharmacist, and Edith Crenna, manager of a small residential hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where the Crenna family lived. At the age of ten, Crenna landed the role of a dimwitted child on Boy Scout Jamboree, a local radio show on which he performed for eleven years. Meanwhile, he worked on various national radio shows, including The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Great Gildersleeve, The Hardy Family, One Man’s Family, A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, and The Aldrich Family. Crenna’s two most prominent radio roles were as Oogie Pringle, Judy Foster’s teenage boyfriend on A Date with Judy, and Walter Denton, a squeaky-voiced high school student on Our Miss Brooks. This hit radio show aired in 1948–1952 and switched to the new medium of television, running from 1952 to 1956. Crenna recalled that in his radio career he played “all the idiot adenoidal kids.”
After Crenna graduated from Belmont High School, where he lettered in track and basketball, he had a stint in the U.S. Army near the end of World War II. He studied theater arts at the University of Southern California. Shortly after graduating in 1952, he entered a short marriage. In 1959 he married the interior decorator Penni Sweeney, beginning a relationship that lasted the remainder of his life. Sweeney brought a daughter from her previous marriage into the Crenna household, and the Crennas added a son and a daughter.
In 1952 Crenna had modest roles in his first three films: It Grows on Trees, The Pride of St. Louis, and Red Skies of Montana. When the comedy series Our Miss Brooks ended in 1956, Crenna joined another comedy series, The Real McCoys (1957–1963), playing Luke McCoy. Thus, at the age of thirty, Crenna, who stood six feet, one inch tall, finally played an adult role using a normal adult speaking voice; he received an Emmy Award nomination in 1959 for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. He also directed some episodes during the series’ last two years. Crenna, a member of the Directors Guild of America, went on to direct episodes for several dramatic and comedy series. In 1964–1965 Crenna had the lead role in Slattery’s People, a dramatic series about a state legislator dealing with contemporary issues. Despite critical acclaim, the show was cancelled after thirty-six episodes owing to low ratings. In 1965 Crenna received an Emmy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Dramatic Series and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Male Television Actor.
In 1966 Crenna had a major role in the successful movie The Sand Pebbles, starring Steve McQueen. In 1967 he played Mike Talma, one of the thugs who terrorizes a blind woman, played by Audrey Hepburn, in Wait Until Dark. In the 1970s he played roles in a string of B movies for the big screen and several made-for-television movies. Crenna’s film career blossomed in the 1980s. In 1981 he played Edmund Walker, a wealthy, cruel husband who is killed by his wife (Kathleen Turner) and her lover (William Hurt), in the successful film Body Heat.
Crenna gained his widest fan recognition as Colonel Samuel Trautman, mentor and former commanding officer to John Rambo, a disaffected Vietnam veteran and former Green Beret. Years later, Crenna told how his agent had called him on a Saturday evening with a script that had to be read immediately. Crenna liked the script and was asked to report to the movie set on Monday as the replacement for Kirk Douglas, who had quit the film. The script for First Blood, based on David Morrell’s novel, ended tragically with Colonel Trautman shooting Rambo. On the evening this scene was shot, Sylvester Stallone (who played Rambo) decided the audience would not accept Rambo’s death. First Blood was a box office hit in 1982, resonating with Americans who were moving beyond the cynicism of the Vietnam War to embrace a surging patriotism. The surviving Rambo and his mentor Colonel Trautman returned to the big screen in two successful action sequels: Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988).
Phil Brody, a country club cardsharp, was the role played by Crenna in The Flamingo Kid (1984), which earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The versatile Crenna continued his successful career in television, starring as a macho, sexist police officer who suffers sexual assault in The Rape of Richard Beck (1985). This role earned Crenna an Emmy Award as Best Actor in a Television Movie. During 1985–1994 Crenna starred as tough police detective Lieutenant Frank Janek in seven television movies and miniseries. He played H. Ross Perot, the real-life billionaire, in On Wings of Eagles (1986), the story of Perot’s funding of a mission to rescue hostages in Iran in 1979. He also portrayed President Ronald Reagan in The Day Reagan Was Shot (2001).
Known for his sense of humor, Crenna had major roles in two movie parodies. In Hot Shots! Part Deux, a parody of the Rambo films, Crenna spoofed his character Colonel Trautman, playing the character Colonel Denton Walters (a takeoff on the character Walter Denton, the character Crenna had played on the television series Our Miss Brooks). In Wrongfully Accused (1998), a parody of the television show and movie The Fugitive, Crenna played a federal marshal in dogged pursuit of an innocent man. In the three years prior to his death, Crenna had a recurring role as Jared Duff, the love interest of the lead character’s mother in the television series Judging Amy.
Crenna was a longtime activist in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). In the 1950s he campaigned for actors to be paid residuals for the subsequent airing of television performances of their films. His group won out over Ronald Reagan, who was then president of SAG. Crenna vigorously supported SAG in its 2000 strike against advertising agencies that wanted to remove residuals for advertisements. He was serving on SAG’s board at the time of his death. Crenna died from heart failure while undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, and his body was cremated. During his sixty-five-year career as an actor, Crenna showed resilience and adaptability in moving from childhood radio performer to television and film actor, switching with versatility between comedic and dramatic roles in more than one hundred films, television movies, and series.
A listing of Crenna’s credits is in Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television 26 (2000). Information about radio shows on which Crenna worked from the 1930s through the 1950s is in Vincent Terrace, Radio’s Golden Years: The Encyclopedia of Radio Programs, 1930–1960 (1981). Doug Crichton, “Out of the Typecasting Well at Last, Richard Crenna Hoists a Sophisticated New Image,” People Weekly (Jan. 1983), covers Crenna at the point he achieved popular attention with his roles in Body Heat and First Blood, the earliest Rambo film. When the Rambo trilogy was issued as a DVD boxed set, Robert Trussell interviewed Crenna for Knight Ridder Newspapers in “Richard Crenna Reflects on 50 Years in Movies and ‘Rambo’ Success” (4 June 2002). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (19 Jan. 2003) and the New York Times (20 Jan. 2003).
Paul A. Frisch