Maureen O’Hara: Old World … Without Apologies

Maureen O’Hara — she of the flame-red tresses and fiercely independent nature — died Saturday in Boise, Idaho, at age 95. We had the grand good fortune of chatting with O’Hara when she came out of retirement in 1991 to appear opposite John Candy in a glum little comedy called “Only the Lonely.”

by Glenn Lovell

WHEN IT came time to cast the domineering Irish mother in his new comedy-romance, “Only the Lonely,” director-writer Chris Columbus held out for the prototype. He wanted Dublin’s own Maureen FitzSimons, better known as Maureen O’Hara, co-star of “The Quiet Man,” “Rio Grande,” “McLintock!” andindex other two-fisted John Wayne vehicles.

Unfortunately, O’Hara, then 69, was in retirement in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. She quit “the biz” in 1971, after her 55th feature. And just so everyone got the message, she got rid of her agent and kept far from the madding crowd.

The word that filtered back: “Miss O’Hara says thanks but no thanks.”

Columbus, riding high after a little comedy called “Home Alone,” persisted. He contacted O’Hara’s brother, producer Charles FitzSimons, who passed on the word. When this didn’t bring a reply, Charles planted his feet and exerted a little Irish stubbornness of his own.

”Charles called me, then sent me the script,” she of the flame-red mane recalls in an Irish lilt that summons visions of Killarney and rolling hills. “He said, ‘This time you can’t turn it down. You have to read it. It’s one of the best things to come around.’ ”

O’Hara read, enjoyed and agreed. The Rose Muldoon character — feisty, stubborn, colorful — was made to order.

”If I was going to come back,” she said, “I was determined it would be as a character with some extra dimension.”

Rose’s extra dimension? “Her total meanness. Her prejudice. She’s not a nice person. In everything else, I’ve been domineering, strong, warm-hearted. There was a bit of challenge in this role: Rose had to be played as an Irish immigrant woman who lived in a little house under the el in Chicago.”

O’Hara also had to click with co-star John Candy. She met him in producer John Hughes’ Chicago office. “I wanted to meet John just to be sure. I mean, what if we didn’t like each other? We clicked immediately. He has good eyes. He looks you straight in the eyes.”

O’Hara stressed that it had to be an extra-special set of circumstances to get her back before the camera. It helped that the producers agreed to cast longtime friend and “Magnificent Matador” co-star Anthony Quinn as Rose’s admiring neighbor.

”You have to remember I never intended to get back. I was retired permanently,” she explained from Los Angeles. “I didn’t even have an agent. Still don’t. If you retire and intend to work, you have an agent. I really and truthfully was out of the business.”

One of six children born in Ranleagh, Ireland, near Dublin, O’Hara made her theatrical debut at age 6, joined the Abbey Theater at 14, and earned her first money (“a guinea — or about $4 in those days”) at 16 in a radio adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” She made her screen debut as Maureen FitzSimons in something called “My Molly.” It was Charles Laughton who changed her name to O’Hara and “introduced” her in the Hitchcock adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s “Jamaican Inn.” From there it was one costume picture, John Ford saga and family comedy after another. The highlights in her mind: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” Disney’s “The Parent Trap,” and, for Ford, “How Green Was My Valley,” “The Long Gray Line,” “Rio Grande” and “The Quiet Man,” the last two pairing her with “best friend” Wayne.

Little wonder O’Hara called it quits after a little coaxing from Wayne and her late husband, aviator Charles F. Blair. “One evening as I was reading the paper they stood over me and said, in unison, ‘Don’t you think it’s time for you to stay home?’ It was that simple and that quick. I was just having a wonderful time, and it seemed like the right thing to do.”

During her time away, O’Hara traveled the world, returning annually to Glengarriff in West County Cork, raised her children and grandchildren, and, in general, pursued a life “that was so busy, I didn’t have much time for myself at all.”

And she didn’t once long for the madness of a Hollywood sound stage?

”There were lots of things I was offered and said no to. Oh, I would have come back for ‘On Golden Pond.’ I would have loved to do that. But it was never offered to me. It was offered to the right lady — Katharine Hepburn.”

In life as on screen O’Hara impresses as a no-bull type who can stand toe-to-toe with any man. And like Mary Kate Danaher (her Inisfree spinster with the “fearful temper” in “The Quiet Man”) and Rose Muldoon, she’s not afraid to say her piece.

This afternoon she speaks out on a number of topics, including:

√ Her famous red hair, inherited from her mother. “I don’t think my hair had anything to do with my career. I hope to God it was my ability. I’m a professional, trained actress. I wasn’t discovered in an ice-cream parlor.”

√ Why she never married Wayne. They were linked in gossip columns much as Tracy and Hepburn were linked. “Oh, goodness no. We never, never, NEVER talked of marriage. It was never a romance. We had a fabulous friendship. We were each other’s best friends. Besides, he always married Latin women.”

√ The feminist backlash against some of her characters, including Mary Kate, who, like Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew,” finally appears to submit to brute force. “You’re analyzing the picture. It’s a great story. You don’t have to go into it that deep. You just sit back and enjoy it. I can’t stand all this analyzing of characters. It drives me crazy. A great story is a great story.”

√ Her on-screen rapport with the Duke. “I’m 5-foot-8; he was 6-foot-4. We looked like a good physical match. You knew if I hit him I could hurt him, but he was strong enough to control me. The public must have liked it, because they sure bought plenty of tickets.”

√ Legendary director John Ford’s special talent. “He was the total boss on his set. He controlled his set. No actor or actress dared step out of line. So you could relax and worry about your role, not about some actor upstaging you.”

√ The times she feared for her safety. “I was hurt on ‘The Quiet Man’ when Duke dragged me across the field. I had back surgery for a ruptured disc. On ‘McLintock!’ I fell and chipped the ends off four teeth. I was running full tilt in an area that had chopped gravel. Duke was supposed to catch me. I trusted him so much. I fell flat on my face in the gravel. I was bleeding in 24 places when they picked me up.”

O’Hara’s return to the screen has been so painless (“the first day on the set was like the last day 20 years ago”), there’s a good chance we’ll see her and Quinn in “Only the Lonely, Part 2.” “There was a lot more to the romance between Rose and Nick (Quinn), but it wound up on the cutting-room floor. Maybe we’ll find out what happens to them in the sequel. We’re already talking about it. But it wouldn’t be for another year. Not until after ‘Home Alone 2.’ “

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