He was born of Irish parents in Paterson, New Jersey. His family name was Brannigan. He made his first stage appearance at Detroit as Murad in The French Spy in 1853. In December 1856 he made his first New York appearance at the Chambers Street theatre as Sir Thomas Clifford in The Hunchback. In 1858 he was in the repertory company at the Boston Museum. He served with distinction in the American Civil War as captain in the 28th Massachusetts infantry regiment. From 1867 to 1870, with John McCullough, he managed the California theatre, San Francisco.
Among his many and varied parts may be mentioned Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Shylock, Richard III, Wolsey, Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Richelieu, David Garrick, Hernani, Alfred Evelyn, Lanciotto in George Henry Bokers (1823-1890) Francesca da Rimini, and Janies Harebell in The Man o' Airlie.
He played Othello to Edwin Booth's Iago and Cassius to his Brutus. He acted in London in 1867, 1882, 1883 and 1884, his "Cardinal Richelieu" portrayal in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's drama being considered his best part. He wrote a life of Edwin Forrest in the American Actors Series (Boston, 1881), and an admirable sketch of Edwin Booth in Edwin Booth and his Contemporaries (Boston, 1886).