Maureen O’Hara, spirited movie star, dies at 95
Los Angeles — Fiery-haired and feisty, Maureen O’Hara could handle anything the world and Hollywood threw at her. Director John Ford punched her in the jaw at a party and John Wayne dragged her through sheep dung — real sheep dung — in “The Quiet Man.” In “Miracle on 34th Street” she learned to believe in Santa Claus.
But first and foremost, she always believed in herself.
“I do like to get my own way,” she said in a 1991 interview with The Associated Press. “There have been crushing disappointments. But when that happens, I say, ‘Find another hill to climb.’”
The Irish-born beauty was 95 when she died Saturday in her sleep at her home in Boise, Idaho, said Johnny Nicoletti, her longtime manager.
In her heyday, O’Hara was known as the Queen of Technicolor because of the camera’s love affair with her vivid hair, bright green eyes and pale complexion.
But she also had talent.
“I proved there was a bloody good actress in me,” she told the British newspaper The Telegraph last year. “It wasn’t just my face. I gave bloody good performances.”
Never nominated for an Oscar (although she received an honorary Academy Award last year), O’Hara nonetheless starred in some of the best-known and beloved movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Whether playing a rancher’s wife, a pirate queen, or a mother, her characters were strong-willed women — a characteristic she practiced in real life as well and attributed to her Irish roots.
She was the daughter of Welsh miner in the grim Oscar-winning 1941 film “How Green Was My Valley”; the mother who doubts her daughter, Natalie Wood, has really encountered Santa Claus in the 1947 Christmas classic “Miracle on 34th Street,” and a scrappy Irish colleen who is romanced by an American boxer (John Wayne) in 1952’s “The Quiet Man.”
Wayne, who co-starred with her in five movies, once said: “I’ve had many friends, and I prefer the company of men, except for Maureen O’Hara; she’s a great guy.”
“We met through Ford, and we hit it right off,” she remarked in 1991. “I adored him, and he loved me. But we were never sweethearts. Never, ever.”
Her relationship with Ford was sometimes strained, especially when he had been drinking. O’Hara recalled that for some reason he punched her hard in the jaw at a party. For a prank, he and Wayne scattered real sheep dung over a field in Ireland where they were filming “The Quiet Man.”
She sometimes called him a “devil” but acknowledged his talent.
She also played the mother of twins, both played by Hayley Mills, who conspire to reunite their divorced parents in the 1961 Disney comedy “The Parent Trap.”
She was a retired schoolteacher in her last on-screen role in the 2000 TV movie “The Last Dance.”
Maureen FitzSimons was born in 1920 near Dublin, Ireland. Her mother was a well-known opera singer, and her father co-owned a soccer team called the Shamrock Rovers. Through her father, she learned to love sports; through her mother, she and her five siblings were exposed to the theater.
“My first ambition was to be the No. 1 actress in the world,” she recalled in 1999. “And when the whole world bowed at my feet, I would retire in glory and never do anything again.”
In her 2004 autobiography, “’Tis Herself,’” O’Hara recalled that a Gypsy told her at the age of 5 that “You will leave Ireland one day and become a very famous woman known all around the world.’”
Maureen was admitted to the training program at Dublin’s famed Abbey Theater, where she was a prize student. When word reached London, she was offered a screen test, and a friend convinced her reluctant parents to allow it.
Maureen considered the test a failure, but it led to a few small roles in English films. The great actor Charles Laughton, who was producing and starring in films made in England, saw the test and said he was intrigued by her dancing eyes. At 17 she co-starred opposite him in a pirate yarn, “Jamaica Inn,” directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Laughton gave her a more manageable name: O’Hara.
A tomboy, O’Hara told The Telegraph that it was seeing herself in “Jamaica Inn” that convinced her she was beautiful.
With the onslaught of World War II, filmmaking virtually halted in England. Laughton moved to RKO in Hollywood and starred as Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with O’Hara as the gypsy girl, Esmeralda.
She was twice married in the 1940s and 1950s but they ended in annulment and divorce, although the second produced her daughter, Bronwyn.
O’Hara’s career was threatened by a manufactured scandal in 1957, when Confidential magazine claimed she and a lover engaged in “the hottest show in town” in a back row in Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
But at the time, she told AP, “I was making a movie in Spain, and I had the passport to prove it.” She testified against the magazine in a criminal libel trial and brought a lawsuit that was settled out of court. The magazine eventually went out of business.
In 1968, she married her third husband, Brig. Gen. Charles Blair. After “Big Jake,” she quit movies to live with him in the Virgin Islands, where he operated Antilles Airboats. After his death in a 1978 plane crash, she ran the company for several years before selling it, making her the first woman president of a scheduled airline in the United States.
“Being married to Charlie Blair and traveling all over the world with him, believe me, was enough for any woman,” she said in a 1995 Associated Press interview. “It was the best time of my life.”
She returned to movies in 1991 for a role that writer-director Chris Columbus had written especially for her, as John Candy’s feisty mother in a sentimental drama, “Only the Lonely.” It was not a box-office success.
While making “The Christmas Box” in 1995, she admitted that roles for someone her age (75) were scarce: “The older a man gets, the younger the parts that he plays. The older a woman gets, you’ve got to find parts that are believable. Since I’m not a frail character, it’s not that easy.”
O’Hara held dual U.S. and Irish citizenship and maintained strong ties to the land of her birth. She was grand marshal of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1999.
Irish President Michael D. Higgins said he remembered with affection O’Hara’s visits to his presidential residence.
She will be remembered as “an outstanding and versatile actress, whose work especially in film, will endure for many years to come,” he said in a statement.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny tweeted that O’Hara “was one of our best - she loved this country & never forgot where she came from. RIP.”
O’Hara is survived by her daughter, Bronwyn FitzSimons of Glengarriff, Ireland; her grandson, Conor FitzSimons of Boise and two great-grandchildren.
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