Maureen O'Hara, smoldering Irish beauty of movie fame, dies at 95

Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne converse over a rocky wall in this scene from the film "The Quiet Man," which was shot on location in 1951 at the west Ireland village of Cong. [Associated Press]
Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne converse over a rocky wall in this scene from the film "The Quiet Man," which was shot on location in 1951 at the west Ireland village of Cong. [Associated Press]
Published Oct. 25, 2015

Maureen O'Hara, a flame-haired actress whose screen career spanned seven decades and was largely defined by the sassy firecrackers she played opposite leading men ranging from John Wayne to John Candy, died Oct. 24 at her home in Boise, Idaho. She was 95.

Her manager confirmed the death to the Associated Press but did not disclose the cause.

O'Hara, a precocious theatrical talent in her native Ireland, became a film star at 19 when she played the ravishing gypsy Esmeralda to Charles Laughton's Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). She also worked with demanding masters Alfred Hitchcock (Jamaica Inn, 1939) and John Ford (the Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley, 1941).

Nothing if not versatile, O'Hara appeared in harem pictures, westerns, costume melodramas and light comedy. She may be best remembered as the cynical working mother to a young Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), a perennial Christmas favorite, and as the smoldering Irish beauty pursued by Wayne in Ford's The Quiet Man (1952), which airs on television every St. Patrick's Day.

O'Hara continued to play strong spouse roles opposite major leading men of the day, including James Stewart (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, 1962) and Henry Fonda (Spencer's Mountain, 1963). In the original version of the popular Disney comedy The Parent Trap (1961), O'Hara and Brian Keith played the estranged parents reunited by Hayley Mills.

In 1991, O'Hara was lured from retirement to portray a domineering, bigoted widow who tries to shatter her son's romantic relationship in Only the Lonely. Candy played her son, a Chicago cop. Critics lauded O'Hara's ability to keep the performance from turning maudlin.

She told the Chicago Tribune that she played her role as "tough, mean, nasty, warm, kind, bossy, rude, obnoxious and very sentimental. So she isn't much different from the characters I used to play."

In 2014, she received an honorary Oscar in recognition of performances that "glowed with passion, warmth and strength."

O'Hara's endurance was often ascribed to the feisty intelligence she projected onscreen as well as her undeniable beauty. Her porcelain skin, green-hazel eyes, coltish jaw and cheekbones, and cascading red hair photographed superbly from any angle. She was promoted as the "queen of Technicolor" — a motion picture process much in vogue in the 1940s and 1950s.

Trained in fencing and fond of doing her own stunt work, she held her own in swashbucklers opposite Errol Flynn (Against All Flags, 1952) and Tyrone Power (The Black Swan, 1942). Those and other adventure yarns set the template for O'Hara's screen persona: an independent-minded woman who knew her way around a sword.

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The Maureen O'Hara archetype was cemented by Ford, who became her mentor and tormentor over two decades of collaboration and uneasy friendship that began with How Green Was My Valley and continued with Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man, The Long Gray Line (1955) and The Wings of Eagles (1957).

"She is equivalent to the male hero in a Ford film," film scholar Jeanine Basinger said in an interview. "She exudes a kind of pioneering strength of the sort that fits in his movies."

In her 2004 memoir, 'Tis Herself, written with John Nicoletti, O'Hara said that despite being one of the most honored directors in Hollywood, Ford was a maze of "secrecy, lies and aggression."

Ford sent O'Hara florid love letters she found discomfiting and once punched her in the face for reasons she could never explain. She accepted his behavior as the price of working near genius.

"He treated Duke (Wayne) the same way he treated me, Ward Bond, Jimmy Stewart," she told the Los Angeles Times in 2004. "But when you'd think about it going home at night, you were proud of your day's work. A lot of directors, you went home weeping in misery, ashamed of what you'd done. . . . He was talented, and intolerable."

O'Hara worked as Wayne's spirited romantic partner in Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, McLintock! (1963) and Big Jake (1971).

Her portrayal of Mary Kate Danaher in The Quiet Man is often held up as one of her freshest performances. Wayne played an American ex-prizefighter, Sean Thornton, who returns to his boyhood home in Ireland. O'Hara was the object of his desire.

The film is an idealized portrait of the Irish countryside and the colorful wisdom of the locals, as when a chaperone tells Danaher while being courted by Thornton, "Have the good manners not to hit the man until he's your husband."

Their screen romance blossoms in one of the most melodramatic movie kisses of the era, with Thornton taking liberties with Danaher as her wild hair and long skirt blow in a howling wind. Danaher then tries to sock him.

Off-screen, O'Hara and Wayne were close friends but never a romantic couple. He never tried to make a pass. "He wouldn't have dared," she insisted.

O'Hara was born Maureen FitzSimons in Dublin on Aug. 17, 1920, the second-oldest of six children. Her mother, the former Marguerite Lilburn, was a trained opera singer and had been a theater actress.

"My parents gave us all the confidence I would need," O'Hara told the London Independent in 2004. "We were an Irish Von Trapp family, a little eccentric but wonderful. My mother was a beautiful, confident woman and she loved the arts. But I was a tomboy; I loved football and boxing like my father."

The worked on radio, won dramatic contests and in 1934 entered the prestigious Abbey Theatre School in Dublin.

While performing with the Abbey Players, she signed a seven-year contract with Laughton's newly formed production company. Laughton changed her surname to O'Hara, to fit better on a movie marquee.

After her promising start in Jamaica Inn and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, her contract was sold to RKO studios when Laughton's production company folded. She languished in triffles until Ford hired her for a prestigious 20th Century Fox production, How Green Was My Valley.

The film, set in a Welsh mining community, won Academy Awards for best picture and best director, and O'Hara earned strong reviews as a young woman who settles for a loveless marriage with the mine owner's son.

She followed in anti-fascist wartime dramas that included Jean Renoir's This Land Is Mine opposite Laughton and The Fallen Sparrow with John Garfield. Both movies were released in 1943.

O'Hara, who became a U.S. citizen in 1946, also had a long reign in Technicolor action films such as The Spanish Main (1945) with Paul Henreid, Sinbad the Sailor (1947) with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and At Sword's Point (1952) with Cornel Wilde.

O'Hara, who had a sturdy singing voice, claimed the swashbuckling films sank her chances when she was being considered to play Anna in the 1956 film version of The King and I.

She said composer Richard Rodgers sent word to film producer Darryl Zanuck: "Our Anna played by a pirate queen? Never!"

From there, it was a long exile in ornamental roles in such undemanding films as Bagdad (1949) as the daughter of an Arabian sheik and Lady Godiva (1955) as the most famous bareback rider in history.

A reprieve for O'Hara was director Carol Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959), based on Graham Greene's Cold War satire. She played a "handler" sent to pre-revolution Cuba to check on a vacuum cleaner salesman moonlighting as a British secret agent, portrayed by Alec Guinness.

That film also marked one of her first returns to cinema after her triumph over a scandal sheet that had accused her of having all but sex with her "south of the border sweetie" in the back of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. At the time, she was romantically linked to Mexican businessman Enrique Parra.

Confidential magazine, which had millions of readers, ran a story in 1957 titled "It Was the Hottest Show in Town When Maureen O'Hara Cuddled in Row 35." She sued for $5 million and settled out of court after producing a date-stamped passport to prove she was not in the country at the time of the alleged tryst.

O'Hara's first marriage, to British producer George H. Brown, ended in divorce. She said her second husband, American director Will Price, was a physically abusive alcoholic who drained their finances. They divorced in 1952, and Ms. O'Hara was granted custody of their daughter, Bronwyn. Survivors include her daughter.

O'Hara said the happiest period of her life came after she married a third time, in 1968, to commercial aviator Charles Blair. They lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands. After his death in a plane crash in 1978, she took over his seaplane business. She later sold it to Resorts International.

After her return to occasional TV roles following Only the Lonely, O'Hara spoke of her distaste for the style of acting that seemed to prevail: actors mumbling their lines to appear more natural.

Her advice to those younger performers was flinty and direct. "If you really want it, go after it," she told an interviewer in 2010, "and learn how to speak properly, for God's sake!"