Brian Dennehy: Accidental Chicago sports icon

Rapper Serengeti made the legendary actor a main character in a South Side world populated with other stars like Ditka, Jordan and Ozzie.

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‘Favorite actor Dennehy’

Brian Dennehy died Thursday at age 81 and how you immediately reacted to the news  likely depended on how you seek your entertainment.

If you’re the type of classy person who supports legitimate theater and is a regular reader of the Tribune’s Chris Jones, you probably cited his legendary onstage work in Chicago during plays like “Death of a Salesman.”

If you grew up watching nothing but pay cable, you probably dropped a “Tommy Boy” mention and then wistfully recalled the first time your dad let you watch “First Blood.”

And if you’re a sports idiot like me, you texted this video around to all of your friends:

Favorite actor Dennehy!
Favorite drink O’Douls!

Fourteen years after it was released, I don’t have a real good feel for how many people know about Serengeti’s “Dennehy.” I know it’s a lot, but it also probably isn’t as much as the love letter to Chicago deserves. Just under 700,000 people have watched the video on YouTube in the 12 years it’s been up. It’s also been streamed around 3 million times on Spotify, though I’m sure I’m responsible for at least a million of them.

Put it this way: If the Bears ever said they were moving away from “Bear Down” and the Hawks did the same with “Chelsea Dagger,” I’d vote for “Dennehy” to replace them. The Sox should probably already be taking the field to the song every game.

The Bulls? Well, they’re already hip to it and had Serengeti do a special Bulls-only version of “Dennehy” last season — the only wise decision the franchise made for about half a decade.

If you’ve made it this far and are still wondering what the hell I’m writing about, it’s time for a primer. Serengeti is the stage name of a rapper from Chicago named David Cohn. He’s had a prolific studio career with a large portion of his work made up of several concept albums built around a character named Kenny Dennis.

Who is Dennis? Picture my red ‘stache and glasses icon come to life, a South Side-dwelling frent who’s always on the lookout for a decent Fiero and a perfectly-cooked pork chop. His life centers around making trips to Zayre for his wife Jules, playing 16-inch softball and running into Tom Berenger and his wife outside Ricobene’s.

If a rapper dropping every Chicago reference you’ve ever batted around with your friends sounds awesome, it’s because it is. With Kenny Dennis, Serengeti showed us what happens after you push away from Chuck Swerski’s table and devote your life to making great rap songs filled with Chicago sports references like ‘85 Walter Roos.

And it all started with Brian Dennehy himself, who Serengeti paid tribute to on Thursday with the first three words from his seminal song.

For the longest time, I figured Dennis’ obsession with Dennehy was nothing more than a clever joke. Dennehy was a frequent presence in Chicago and his fire captain from Bridgeport looks made many think he was from the city when he actually hailed from Connecticut.

Dennis, meanwhile, seems like the type of character who would have bought all of Dennehy’s greatest films on laserdisc while never ever thinking about heading down to the Goodman to see him act live.

But in an interview with WGN’s Justin Kaufmann in 2015, Serengeti revealed that Kenny Dennis had been born of Dennehy and not the other way around.

As the origin story goes, the rapper had been watching the Little League World Series on a break from working on a beer truck when he was struck by a thought. Each child was being asked his favorite actor … but what would a guy who said his favorite actor was Brian Dennehy look like?

“His name would be Kenny Dennis,” Serengeti told Kaufmann. “And then the whole world opened up from there … when I wrote that (song), the whole thing just exploded . I was like ‘I have so much material.’”

With eight albums devoted to Dennis, Serengeti’s themes get much more complex than just recalling Chicago sports episodes like Eric Show hitting Andre Dawson in the face with a pitch or Alonzo Spellman’s famous episode in Lake County that only ended when Mike Singletary came to the rescue. (Yes, they get even darker than Dennis’ foray into Cub fandom with “Don’t Blame Steve.”*)

*“Steve,” of course, being Steve Bartman.

But I’ve always been both amused and amazed with the way Serengeti weaves that type of Sun-Times backpage fodder into an art piece made of a time and place I distinctly remember. It’s impossible to watch that Dennehy video and not be reminded of a midsummer picnic in the ‘80s featuring dogs and burgers on one of those permanent park grills and a cooler stocked with ice and Jewel pop. If Serengeti created Kenny Dennis to create a space for people to take a break from hip-hop’s more serious side for a bit, he certainly succeeded.

By the way, both the Dawson and Spellman references are in “Ozzie Guillen,” which contains my favorite Serengeti passage. This is both pure comedy and pure poetry.

I swear O'Douls never made me feel like this
Dancing to Phil Collins, loose by the hips
I feel like Willie Gault, normally I'm Steve Fuller

Did Brian Dennehy ever know about “Dennehy?”

I have no idea.

But I’m guessing he would have loved the fact Dennis liked him “long before he played Knight.”

“I love Chicago,” the actor once said to the Sun-Times. “People are very enthusiastic. Chicagoans work and play hard, and they like their lives. Those are the type of people you want in an audience. They want to see you succeed. They’re not waiting to take your kidneys out and munch on them during intermission. ... I’ve said this for years: Chicago is the best city in America. Chicagoans are very lucky to live here.”

Who else was he describing if not Kenny Dennis?

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Does someone you know need to be introduced to “Dennehy?” Share this with them!

So the finale of ESPN’s HORSE competition with the BullsZach LaVine and the Sky’s Allie Quigley turned out to be a major bummer. First LaVine took out Quigley by resorting to acrobatic shots Quigley didn’t have much chance of making — which I thought violated the spirit of the competition — then Mike Conley beat LaVine in the finals because he was the only participant playing in an indoor gym.

The Sky’s Twitter account said it best:

• We’ll get our first taste of a virtual draft with the WNBA’s event on ESPN tonight at 6 pm. The Sky hold the eighth pick of the draft and the major mock drafts are all conflicted on which player the team will take. (There’s a good chance it’s someone from UConn.)

Have a link for Midway Minute? Email me!

Kyle Long doesn’t think Mitch Trubisky will be with the Bears much longer.

“Long answer short, the writing is on the wall for my friend,” Long told Mark Carman. “ … I think Nick Foles was brought in to be the starting quarterback. There is no real secret there.”(Da Windy City)

Trouble could be brewing for DePaul’s athletic department: A lawsuit alleges the school’s former softball coach Eugene Lenti punched an assistant in the face and verbally abused his players. A whistleblower was allegedly fired after bringing the incident to light, the lawsuit states. Lenti is the brother of DePaul AD Jean Lenti Ponsetto (Tribune)

• Mark Carrier was my favorite Bear between the Super Bowl era and the Lovie era. Glad to see Dan Pompei reporting he’s doing well in the next chapter of his life. (The Athletic)

Adam Jahns on what it was like to cover the 2010 Blackhawks. (The Athletic)

Jim Margalus on the 15th anniversary of Mark Buehrle’s 99-minute complete game. I was lucky enough to be there for that one. I’ll never forget being both amazed and disappointed that we had to leave already. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in April and we had nowhere else to be. (Sox Machine)

Matt Snyder on the Cubs’ all-time lineup featuring Sammy and Rizzo in the 4-5 spot. (CBS Sports)

• Anthony Rizzo’s foundation is still doing work.

If you buy a house from HGTV’s Windy City Rehab at this point, you probably deserve what you get. (People)

• Let’s end on one more tribute to the great Brian Dennehy:

That’s it for this week. Thank you so much for reading and, as always, thank you for being a #frentofthenewsletter. See you on Monday.