An often underappreciated actor capable of playing the heroic leading man, the devious villain, or comedic foil with equal ability, Richard Crenna enjoyed an amazingly robust 50-year career in film and on television. After receiving his start in radio while in his preteens, Crenna first gained widespread notoriety on the early television classic "Our Miss Brooks" (CBS, 1952-56), as the klutzy, nasally-voiced Walter Denton. He made small early appearances in several films, in addition to his work on the ongoing series, followed by a lengthy run on yet another successful sitcom "The Real McCoys" (ABC/CBS, 1957-1963). Crenna later redefined his career with two strong performances as deeply flawed characters in the feature films "The Sand Pebbles" (1966) and "Wait Until Dark" (1967), leaving his comedic television persona far behind. After more than a decade of less memorable movie work, combined with more fruitful endeavors on TV, he landed his most recognizable role, that of Colonel Trautman in the Sylvester Stallone action vehicle "First Blood" (1982). Crenna would reprise the role of Trautman two more times in the film's sequels, even going so far as to lampoon the role in the Jim Abrahams-directed parody "Hot Shots! Part Deux" (1993). The epitome of the working actor, Crenna remained a familiar and welcome presence on screens both big and small up until his passing in 2003 at the age of 76.
Born Richard Donald Crenna in Los Angeles on Nov. 30, 1926, he was the son of Edith, a hotel manager, and Dominick, a pharmacist. He began taking drama classes while attending Virgil Junior High School, and when an announcement was made that producers were looking for children to perform on a radio program, Crenna tried out. That first audition landed him his professional debut role on the radio serial "Boy Scout Jamboree," one of several programs he would work on over the next decade. Other radio work included stints on "Dear John" and "Burns and Allen," which he managed to squeeze into his schedule after classes at Belmont High School, and later at the University of Southern California, prior to serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. It was as the love-sick, adenoidal high school student Walter Denton on the Eve Arden radio comedy "Our Miss Brooks" that would gain Crenna his widest recognition as a voice actor. When the program made the switch to the small screen - "Our Miss Brooks" (CBS, 1952-56) - Crenna, despite being well into his 20s, made the transition as well.
The same year "Our Miss Brooks" made its TV premiere, Crenna made his feature film debut in several projects, including the fire-fighting adventure "Red Skies of Montana" (1952) and the baseball biopic "The Pride of St. Louis" (1952). Not surprisingly, he reprised the role of the eternally dorky Denton for the big screen adaptation of "Our Miss Brooks" (1956), which coincided with the beloved series' final season on TV. Crenna joined the cast of another successful show as the eldest son Luke on "The Real McCoys" (ABC/CBS, 1957-1963), a sitcom co-starring Walter Brennan as the patriarch of a hillbilly clan transplanted to the San Fernando Valley from the mountains of West Virginia. With the show well into its fourth season, a restless Crenna began directing episodes of the series, a second career he would frequently indulge in over the next several decades. Following the cancellation of "Real McCoys," Crenna landed a leading role alongside Shirley MacLaine and Peter Ustinov in the Cold War comedy "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!" (1965). Unfortunately, the film did not perform well upon release. Nor did his next television project, the political drama "Slattery's People" (CBS, 1964-65), which lasted a mere one season.
Crenna rebounded nicely, however, when he returned to film as an ineffectual gunboat captain in the critically-acclaimed wartime epic "The Sand Pebbles" (1966), opposite Steve McQueen and Candice Bergin. The following year he returned with a solid performance as a calculating con man in the classic thriller "Wait Until Dark" (1967), alongside Audrey Hepburn as the blind woman he and his criminal partners prey upon. Not so fondly remembered would be the hugely disappointing Julie Andrews vehicle, "Star!" (1968), helmed by Robert Wise, who had directed Crenna in "The Sand Pebbles" just two years prior. He impressed greatly as the self-sacrificing commander of a doomed spacecraft in the John Sturges-directed adventure "Marooned" (1969), opposite Gene Hackman and Gregory Peck. Working outside the Hollywood system, Crenna played a nightclub owner and master criminal in revered French New Wave director Jean-Pierre Melville's final film, "Un Flic" (1972), co-starring Alain Delon and Catherine Deneuve. As the 1970s progressed, Crenna soon found himself headlining in lesser feature films such as the revenge Western "The Man Called Noon" (1973), or in made-for-TV fare like the tepid remake of "Double Indemnity" (ABC, 1973).
Crenna picked up a supporting role as a corrupt governor in the Charles Bronson railway mystery, "Breakheart Pass" (1975), prior to making another run at a weekly show with the sitcom "All's Fair" (CBS, 1976-77), another politically-themed series just as short-lived as his earlier "Slattery's People." The following year, he took part in the laughable supernatural thriller "Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell" (CBS, 1978), but quickly redeemed himself with the epic historical miniseries based on James A. Michener's bestseller "Centennial" (NBC, 1978-79), as the hate-filled Colonel Frank Skimmerhorn. Less notable was the gory high seas ghost story "Death Ship" (1980), in which Crenna and a group of shipwreck survivors find themselves aboard a haunted, derelict Nazi torture vessel. However, the dawn of the next decade presented Crenna with two of his strongest roles to date. First, he played femme fatale Kathleen Turner's overbearing alpha male husband in writer-director Lawrence Kasdan's steamy noir homage "Body Heat" (1981), starring William Hurt as an ethically-challenged Florida attorney. Next came what would arguably be the most recognizable role of Crenna's career - that of Colonel Trautman, the sympathetic former mentor to John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), an angry, highly-trained Vietnam veteran antagonized by a local sheriff (Brian Dennehy) in "First Blood" (1982).
It seemed, however, that another run on a long-running television series was just not in the cards for Crenna, when yet another sitcom "It Takes Two" (ABC, 1982-83), co-starring Patty Duke, Helen Hunt and Anthony Edwards failed to connect with audiences. Sporting a stronger hand was Garry Marshall's ode to the 1950s, "The Flamingo Kid" (1984), which cast Crenna as the reigning gin rummy champ at a posh country club who takes Brooklyn boy Matt Dillon under his wing. He then reprised the role of Col. Trautman in the even bloodier, higher-grossing hit sequel "Rambo: First Blood Part II" (1985); this time springing Rambo from prison only to send him back to Vietnam on a covert mission to locate POWs. That same year, Crenna won an Emmy for his fine performance in the well-intentioned "The Rape of Richard Beck" (ABC, 1985) as a macho, sexist cop who must reevaluate his ideas about rape victims after becoming one himself. Tough cops became a staple for Crenna, epitomized by Lt. Frank Janek, the protagonist he played in a series of TV movies for more a decade, beginning with "Doubletake" (CBS, 1985).
Continuing to work steadily on the small screen, Crenna played a crusading attorney going head-to-head with the Boston Police Department in the drama "A Case of Deadly Force" (CBS, 1986), and embodied future presidential candidate H. Ross Perot in the fact-based action adventure "On Wings of Eagles" (NBC, 1986). Proving the old axiom that old soldiers never die, he signed on as Trautman for a third time and followed Stallone's one-man army to Afghanistan for the second sequel "Rambo III" (1988), then returned to the big screen the following year for the deep-sea monster movie "Leviathan" (1989). His best roles, however, were still on television in projects that included a convincing turn as the detective who doggedly tracked down two of L.A.'s most infamous serial killers in the based-on-fact "The Case of the Hillside Stranglers" (NBC, 1989). Crenna teamed with James Earl Jones for another short-lived series, the crime drama "Pros & Cons" (ABC, 1991-92), prior to showing off his comedic aptitude by spoofing his iconic Trautman role in the slapstick parody sequel "Hot Shots! Part Deux" (1993).
Although "Hot Shots!" may not have been his most prestigious picture, Crenna surely must have wished he had avoided the critical and box office debacle that was director William Friedkin's "Jade" (1995), in which he played a Governor involved in blackmail and prostitution. Shortly thereafter, he appeared on network television as Professor Aronnax in the ill-equipped remake of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (CBS, 1997), opposite Ben Cross as Captain Nemo. On cable, Crenna played "The Gipper" in the historical drama "The Day Reagan Was Shot" (Showtime, 2001), alongside Richard Dreyfuss as the former Secretary of State, Alexander Haig. Beginning in 2000, the veteran actor took on the recurring character of Jared Duff on the popular drama "Judging Amy" (CBS, 1999-2005) for two seasons prior to his 2003 death at age 76 due to complications from pancreatic cancer. Crenna appeared posthumously with his final performance as an INS investigator looking into the past of an Auschwitz survivor (Christine Lahti) in the fact-based drama "Out of the Ashes" (Showtime, 2003).