Maureen O’Hara, the Irish actress who starred in a slew of American films including “Miracle on 34th Street,” “The Quiet Man” and “The Parent Trap” and one of the last surviving stars of Hollywood’s golden age, died on Saturday at home in Boise, Idaho. She was 95.
With her faint Irish accent, bright red hair and air of independence, she was often described as “fiery,” but that implies she was a one-note personality; in truth, she was a real actress who displayed her versatility in such works as “How Green Was My Valley” and Carol Reed’s “Our Man in Havana.” She worked with directors ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to Chris Columbus, but is best remembered for her works with John Ford, particularly in her pairings with John Wayne, such as “Quiet Man.”
She was one of the few Wayne co-stars who could prove his match in screen presence. Her “Quiet” character is prideful and stubborn, strong and intelligent, the emblematic O’Hara role. One of her best performances was in the 1940 proto-feminist film “Dance Girl Dance,” directed by Dorothy Arzner and also starring Lucille Ball. The highlight of the film is O’Hara silencing a boorish audience of men at a burlesque show, in which she says, basically, go ahead and smirk because we performers are smirking right back at you.
In 2014, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences presented her with an Honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards. O’Hara, looking frail in her wheelchair, read a statement of thanks, but when her onstage escort started to take the microphone, it was clear she had not lost her “fiery” streak: She held onto the mike and continued talking with the unspoken subtext, “This is my moment, and I don’t care about time constraints.”
O’Hara was born Maureen FitzSimons in Ranelagh, a suburb of Dublin. Along with several of her siblings, she received training in drama and dance; she began appearing in amateur theater at the age of 10, and at 14 she was accepted to the Abbey Theater, where she began pursuing classical theater and operatic singing.
Her movie career began thanks to Charles Laughton: While she was still a teen, he viewed a screen test she had made, and he and partner Erich Pommer signed her to a seven-year contract with their company, Mayflower Films.
She had small roles in a couple of English films made in 1938 but made her first significant bigscreen appearance was in Hitchcock’s Gothic actioner “Jamaica Inn,” starring Laughton. The 18-year-old O’Hara already displayed the kind of self-possession and self-reliance that would be a trademark of her characters. Laughton was impressed and cast her as Esmerelda the next year in his classic “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” shot at RKO in Hollywood.
When WWII began and he realized lensing would no longer be possible in London, Laughton sold O’Hara’s contract to RKO, which cast her in a trio of B pictures. She still seemed somewhat uncertain of herself in a remake of the Katharine Hepburn vehicle “Bill of Divorcement” but made a big impression in “Dance, Girl, Dance,” while “They Met in Argentina” was a musical trifle.
Director Ford lifted O’Hara out of low-budget territory when he cast her in Fox’s 1941 “How Green Was My Valley,” which won the Oscar for best picture. The image of O’Hara radiantly waving from a gate is one of the enduring images in the film and has been used in an untold number of movie montages.
During WWII she made several films, several of them war pics in which she was just the obligatory female interest, but she shined in a couple of movies: In the excellent 1942 Technicolor swashbuckler “The Black Swan,” she is gloriously outraged by the attentions of scoundrel Tyrone Power; in John Garfield psychological thriller “The Fallen Sparrow” (1943), she is a strong, elegant lady in jeopardy.
“The Black Swan” would be the first of a number of pirate pics she made over the next decade, including “The Spanish Main,” with Paul Henreid; “Sinbad the Sailor,” with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; “At Sword’s Point,” in which she got the opportunity to wield her own blade as the daughter of a musketeer; and “Against All Flags,” with Errol Flynn, in which her character, a female pirate, got to engage in her share of the swordplay.
Hollywood legend says that RKO planned to film “Spanish Main” in black and white but switched to Technicolor because of O’Hara’s beautiful red hair, green eyes and porcelain-white skin.
In 1947 she made “Miracle on 34th Street” starring as Natalie Wood’s mother who pooh-poohs her daughter’s belief in Santa Claus; while it’s probably her most well-known film, the pic is something of an odd duck in her career as her character quickly transforms from hard-headed and skeptical to warmly sentimental.
In addition to Westerns, the swashbucklers and the musicals, O’Hara made a film noir, 1949’s “A Woman’s Secret,” with Melvyn Douglas and Gloria Grahame.
During the 1950s she paired four times with director Ford. The first was the Western “Rio Grande,” a movie Ford agreed to make only if he could also do his dream project, “The Quiet Man.” Both movies starred O’Hara and Wayne, but O’Hara had far more to do in the latter. (And the part gave her one of her few onscreen opportunities to speak in her own Irish accent.)
The third Ford film was “The Long Gray Line,” reunited O’Hara with Power. Set at West Point, it nevertheless had a very Irish flavor. The final Ford film, reuniting Wayne and O’Hara, was 1957 biopic “The Wings of Eagles,” about a Navy pilot-turned-screenwriter. O’Hara and Wayne, however, would work together again in 1963 Western comedy “McLintock!” and 1971 Western “Big Jake.”
Films had not provided an outlet for her love of singing, and in the late 1950s and early ’60s she guested on TV variety shows. She also starred in the tuner “Christine” on Broadway in 1960, and released two albums the same year: “Love Letters From Maureen O’Hara” and “Maureen O’Hara Sings Her Favorite Irish Songs.”
But she was still a very busy movie actress, starring with Alec Guinness in Reed’s “Our Man in Havana” in 1959, with Hayley Mills in “The Parent Trap” in 1961, with Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation” in 1962 and with Henry Fonda in “Spencer’s Mountain” in 1963 (a precursor of the TV series “The Waltons,” both autobiographical works by Earl Hamner Jr.). Many of her films during this period were comedies. In 1966 she starred with Stewart again in “The Rare Breed.”
She also starring in a version of “Mrs. Miniver” on CBS in 1960 and made other television appearances.
O’Hara retired from acting after making a TV version of “The Red Pony” with Fonda in 1973, a few years after her third marriage, to Charles F. Blair Jr., in 1968. Blair was a former U.S. Air Force brigadier general and former chief pilot for Pan Am. (She had secretly married George H. Brown, a film producer and scriptwriter, in 1939, but that marriage was annulled two years later; she married American director William Houston Price, dialogue director on “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” in 1941 but divorced him in 1953.)
Blair died in a plane crash in 1978, and O’Hara was elected prexy-CEO of Antilles Airboats, becoming the first woman president of a scheduled airline in the U.S. Later she sold the airline.
O’Hara returned to acting for a starring role in the 1991 Chris Columbus comedy “Only the Lonely,” in which she played John Candy’s overbearing mother.
She also starred in telepics “The Christmas Box” (1995), the well-reviewed “Cab to Canada” and “The Last Dance” (2000).
After appearing in a number of tributes to fellow actors and Hollywood-focused documentaries over the years (including projects devoted to Wayne and to Ford), O’Hara made her last screen appearance in the 2010 Irish docu “Dreaming the Quiet Man.”
O’Hara’s autobiography, “’Tis Herself,” was published in 2004. In April 2014 the actress appeared at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.
Survivors include a daughter and a grandson.