Playing a harried single mother on the ABC sitcom A New Kind of Family, Eileen Brennan admits, “I patterned her on me. I even changed her name to Flanagan to make it Irish.” So when the series was suspended and finally died, effective next week after only nine episodes, the network’s reasoning—that the characters needed rethinking—should not have surprised Eileen. After all, the 43-year-old actress has been in therapy since 1971 to put a troubled childhood behind her and to resolve her marital problems. “Now things are starting to form for me,” she says, “but what they’ll be exactly, I don’t know.”
At least Brennan’s career is bang on course, despite the failure also of her other series, 13 Queens Blvd., with Jerry Van Dyke earlier last year. Eileen adorned two recent TV movies—Cheryl Ladd’s drama about child abuse, When She Was Bad, and My Old Man, a racetrack tearjerker with Kristy McNichol and Warren Oates. Brennan’s list of big-screen credits includes The Last Picture Show and The Sting (she had the only major female role as Paul Newman’s blowsy gal). As her Cheap Detective and Murder by Death co-star, Peter Falk, says, “There aren’t many who can do Saturday Night Live and then lonesco. Eileen’s really loaded.”
Her success may be the result of—not in spite of—her off-camera problems. “In acting,” she observes, “I have someplace to put the pain.” It’s no coincidence she often plays the martyred “one-man woman who’s loving and sympathetic,” as she puts it. “In my roles, I’m a little tacky sometimes but never a chippy.” Five years after their divorce, Brennan is still platonically close to photographer-poet David Lampson, 39, even though Lampson’s stewardess second wife, Cheryl, just had a baby. They visit frequently and are even planning neighboring homes on British Columbia’s Saltspring Island. Says Eileen, who resented David’s constant traveling during their marriage: “There had to be something in the relationship, so why waste it?”
Without overdoing the pop-psych, her life seems to echo her mother’s trauma. Eileen’s dad, John Brennan, a “dreaming black Irishman” who worked at “lots of things,” left the family and remarried. Mom, silent screen actress Jean Menahan, waited until he eventually came back home. No wonder Eileen says her L.A. childhood was “kind of schizo.” Two of her three sisters sang for “cowboys and truckers,” but she only “changed records and picked money off the floor. I was the shy one.” She was moved from one convent school to another. “One minute we’d be in church lighting candles,” Eileen recalls, “the next we’d be performing in a bar.”
When Mae West moved in down the street, Brennan remembers, “I used to do imitations of her and she’d throw me a cracker.” Her first professional job, after quitting Georgetown University for New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, didn’t pay much better: 47ø an hour as a singing waitress. Then a customer asked her to perform a new musical he’d written, for potential backers. “They liked it so much they kept coming back,” she says—but never with enough money to hire a big name. So Little Mary Sunshine, a spoof of the Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald operettas, opened with Brennan and made her a star in 1959.
Her stage career blossomed (she was in the original cast of Hello, Dolly!), but she moved back to Hollywood to do Divorce American Style. There she learned to drive (although she still avoids the freeways) and lived the film’s title herself.
Now Eileen shares a bright-orange-trimmed Victorian-style house with Patrick, 7, Sam, 8, and half a dozen dogs and cats in Venice. The family hot-tubs together (in a bathtub) and “mingles with street people.” Eileen eats lots of baked potatoes (“I find them very comforting”), stays away from meat but pigs out on “two boxes of chocolate-covered almonds at a time.” During a recently ended long-term liaison, she and her two sons sometimes took sleeping bags for overnighters at her man’s pad. “The boys were very much included in our relationship,” she says. “It never occurred to me to lie to them and say, ‘I’m going to spend the night with Aunt Gerry.’ ” She’s referring to sister Geraldine, her secretary-stand-in, best buddy and fellow aficionada of subtitled movies.
Brennan dreams of working with her favorite director, Werner Herzog, and becoming “another Ruth Gordon.” In the meantime she’s working on Private Benjamin, a contemporary Army comedy with Goldie Hawn. CBS has commissioned a new pilot for what will be Brennan’s third sitcom. “No. 3 has gotta be the charm,” Eileen laughs, ” ’cause I’m not going through this again.”