Born November 30, 1926, in Los Angeles, CA; died of heart failure, January 17, 2003, in Los Angeles, CA. Actor. Richard Crenna's career spanned more than 60 years from the heyday of radio to the rise of television. He was an actor, a director, a producer, and an active member of the Screen Actors Guild. His varied career included television situation comedies and dramas as well as made–for–TV movies. He acted in films and may be most remembered for his role as Colonel Trautman in Sylvester Stallone's Rambo series.
Crenna grew up in Los Angeles, where his mother managed a small chain of family owned hotels. His father was a pharmacist. While in junior high Crenna signed up for drama classes, because he thought he could goof off while hanging out with the prettiest girls. He became a child radio actor when he was recruited with a number of classmates to play a part on the Boy Scout Jamboree. Crenna was a member of the show's Beaver Patrol for the next eleven years.
Crenna finished high school and studied English at the University of Southern California. During this time he continued to work in radio productions. He had roles in shows like Gunsmoke, Red Ryder, One Man's Family, and I Love A Mystery. He sometimes worked in as many as eight shows a week.
In 1948, Crenna began playing the role that would define him for the next four years. As Walter Denton in the situation comedy Our Miss Brooks starring Eve Arden, Crenna played the epitome of the geeky, socially awkward teenage boy. When the show was transferred to television in 1952, Arden insisted that Crenna come along despite being well into his 20s. He left the successful series in 1956 at nearly 30 years of age.
In 1957, Crenna starred in the popular comedy series, The Real McCoys. As Luke, the grandson of a Virginia farmer who transplants the family to California, Crenna was finally able to portray an adult. The show lasted six seasons, ending in 1963. To combat boredom, Crenna took up directing, trying his hand at several episodes of the series. He continued to direct throughout his career, including episodes of Wendy and Me, No Time for Sergeants, and The Andy Griffith Show.
Crenna's first dramatic role came in the short–lived series Slattery's People. Unfortunately, the show lasted less than two seasons. Throughout the '60s Crenna appeared in several films, returning to television in made–for–TV movies and short series over the next 20 years. He made attempts to return to situation comedy in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, but none of the shows were successful. In 1985, he earned an Emmy for Outstanding Actor in a Limited Series or Special for his portrayal of a cop who is sexually assaulted in The Rape of Richard Beck. In 2000, he began making appearances on the CBS drama Judging Amy as Jared Duff, the love interest of Tyne Daly's character.
Crenna had made his big–screen debut in 1950 playing a bit part in the Fred Astaire film Let's Dance. He appeared in several other films in supporting roles throughout the '50s. He played baseball star "Dizzy" Dean's brother in The Pride of St. Louis. His roles in the films It Grows on Trees and Over–Exposed were well received. In 1956, he played Walter Denton for the last time in the movie version of Our Miss Brooks.
Being part of the successful television series The Real McCoys left Crenna little time to make films. After the series ended and Slattery's People was cancelled, Crenna portrayed the grouchy yet brave Captain Collins in the 1966 Steve McQueen film The Sand Pebbles. He followed up with a performance opposite Audrey Hepburn in the suspense/thriller Wait Until Dark.
In the 1980s, Crenna's supporting roles in films received the most critical acclaim. In 1981, he played the despicable and doomed husband of Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner's screen debut) in the steamy film noir Body Heat. In 1984, he appeared with Matt Dillon in The Flamingo Kid. For his role as a cardsharp who leads Dillon astray, Crenna earned a Golden Globe nomination.
In 1982, Crenna appeared in the film First Blood. The film starred Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, a Vietnam veteran who takes revenge on the police department of a small town. The film was wildly successful and followed by two sequels. Crenna appeared in all three films as Colonel Samuel Trautman, the only person for whom Rambo has any loyalty. Dennis McLellan of the Los Angeles Times reported that Crenna said of the movie's success, "This film series has given me the kind of recognition I've never before had as an actor. I feel like I'm part of a cult happening. It's like being a part of the Woodstock of the '80s on the big screen." In 1993, Crenna even parodied the roll in the film Hot Shots! Part Deux.
Crenna died on January 17, 2003, from heart failure while hospitalized with pancreatic cancer; he was 75. He is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Penni; his son, Richard; daughters Sean and Maria; and three granddaughters. His daughter summarized the breadth of Crenna's career to Corey Kilgannon of the New York Times, "He had such a full career because he lived for his work. If you never saw him on the screen as an actor, you surely heard him through radio roles and voiceovers."
Los Angeles Times, January 19, 2003, p. B16; New York Times, January 20, 2003, p. A21; Times (London), http://www.timesonline.co.uk (January 28, 2003); Washington Post, January 17, 2002, p. C9.
— Eve M. B. Hermann