R.I.P. Dennis Burkley, character actor with DFW ties

Posted 4:12pm on Tuesday, Jul. 16, 2013

Dennis Burkley, a burly character actor who appeared in more than 100 movies and TV series ranging from the ‘70s soap-opera satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to Mike Judge’s King of the Hill, died Sunday at his California home, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 67.

Burkley was born in Van Nuys, Calif., but grew up in Grand Prairie and is a 1968 graduate of TCU -- and in the picture accompanying the Reporter’s obit, taken from Tin Cup, a grinning Burkley proudly wears a TCU T-shirt. (Update: Thanks to a helpful publicist, now we have that picture, too!)

Burkley’s bearded countenance and bulky build -- the 6-foot-3 actor reportedly weighed as much as 300 pounds, and liked to joke that if he got any bigger, he’d have to have his own area code -- led to his frequently being cast as a thug or biker. But he also played good-natured lugs, guys who weren’t as intimidating as they might initially appear. At TCU, he took one such challenging role as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, according to DFW.com archives.

One of Burkley’s early TV series was Texas Wheelers, a short-lived 1975-’76 sitcom about a motherless family in rural Texas that starred the not-yet-famous Gary Busey and Mark Hamill. He appeared in such series as Kojak, Starsky and Hutch and One Day at a Time before scoring a regular role on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman as truck driver Mac Slattery.

In between acting gigs in the ‘70s, Burkley worked cleaning pools in the Los Angeles area, including one owned by director-writer Bob Rafelson ( Stay Hungry), who cast Burkley in his 1976 movie Stay Hungry, a bodybuilding drama that provided a breakthrough role for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Burkley also starred in Sanford, a short-lived 1980-’81 effort to revive Sanford and Son (which had ended three years earlier) without the Son. Burkley got second billing as Cal Pettie, a southerner who invested $2,000 to become part of the “Sanford Empire” run by Fred Sanford, the cantankerous junkman played by Redd Foxx.

The actor’s dozens of movie roles included playing a biker in 1985’s Mask, starring Eric Stoltz as a young man with a cranial deformity and Cher as his protective biker mother. Burkley told the Star-Telegram in 1991 that the movie was a turning point in his typecasting, but not in a wholly positive way.

"After Mask, " said Burkley, "it was, "Oh, him - he's a biker.' Say, I didn't even know how to ride before that picture!"

UPDATE: Burkley worked steadily throughout the ’80s and ’90s (he shares with George Clooney the distinction of having appeared in both the 1984-’85 sitcom E/R and the much more famous ER), and won the hearts of many Horned Frogs when he sported that TCU T-shirt in Tin Cup. Burkley told TCU Magazine’s Kathryn Hopper (a former Star-Telegram reporter) in 2009 that he came up with a backstory for his character in the movie, in which he played a buddy of Kevin Costner’s.

I contacted the president of the school, told him I was going to be in a movie with Kevin Costner and asked him to send me some beat up TCU T-shirts,” he told the magazine. “The backstory for my character was that he went to TCU, went to Vietnam, got burned out and basically just played golf with his friends. The director, Ron Shelton, was also from Texas and so had some affection for TCU.”

He also had a more philosophical outlook on his biker roles: “Thank God for bikers — they bought my house,” he told the magazine. “I’ve played at least four characters named Bubba.”

In recent years, Burkley (who had shed about 100 pounds, according to the magazine) had taught acting classes in California, and had a recurring role on King of the Hill as Principal Moss, as well as contributing several other voices. He also made several appearances on My Name is Earl.

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