Star of BuÃ±uel's 'The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe'
Monday 21 February 2005
A tall, blond character actor with a rich Irish brogue, Dan O'Herlihy won an Oscar nomination as Best Actor for playing the title role in Luis Buñuel's
The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954).
Daniel Peter O'Herlihy, actor: born Wexford, Ireland 1 May 1919; married Elsie Bennett (three sons, two daughters); died Malibu, California 17 February 2005.
A tall, blond character actor with a rich Irish brogue, Dan O'Herlihy won an Oscar nomination as Best Actor for playing the title role in Luis Buñuel's The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954).
Other memorable portrayals included the colonel who has to authorise dropping a hydrogen bomb on New York to prevent a full-scale nuclear war in Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964), the coldly ruthless executive of a cyborg organisation in Robocop (1987) and its sequel Robocop 2 (1990), and the only Protestant at a Catholic party in John Huston's The Dead (1987).
Born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1919, O'Herlihy was studying to be an architect (his father's profession) when he became fascinated with acting, joining several amateur groups and working as a crowd extra at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He decided to make acting his profession, working at both the Abbey and Gate theatres, where he also occasionally designed sets. His sonorous voice also gained him a lot of radio work.
He made his screen début when the director Carol Reed saw him performing on stage in Dublin, and cast him as one of the IRA terrorists in Odd Man Out (1947), starring James Mason and widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of British cinema. Reed was to remain his favourite director. "I was more in awe of him than any director I've ever worked with, more even than Buñuel," he said recently. "He taught me to speak and think on more complicated levels than you do on stage, as film allows for more subtlety." After completing a small role in Hungry Hill (1947), he departed for Hollywood. "It was the mecca for actors at that time, and I was overwhelmed at the thought of being a Hollywood movie star."
O'Herlihy's first film in the United States was a minor thriller, Larceny (1947), after which he joined Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre company to play Macduff in Welles's screen version of Macbeth (1948), for which he also provided (uncredited) some of the sets and costumes. "It was first done on stage in Salt Lake City, as part of the centennial celebrations for the university there," O'Herlihy said,
after which Orson arranged for us to do an audio recording of the show. The film was to be done for Republic on a very modest budget, and Orson said that this was a way to shoot cheaply, shooting to our own playback! It emerged that we had to re-dub the whole film because we hadn't matched our pre-recorded version too well.
In 1949 O'Herlihy made his first and only Broadway appearance, starring as Charles Dickens in Mervyn Nelson's The Ivy Green. Described by Variety as "well-intentioned but tedious", the account of Dickens's life and loves (mainly loves) over a 34-year period ran for only seven performances.
The film of Macbeth, though not a success, earned O'Herlihy his greatest screen role, in Buñuel's riveting screen version of Defoe's classic tale Robinson Crusoe, filmed on the west coast of Mexico in 1952 but released in the United States in 1954. He told the critic Philip French,
The Mexican producer Oscar Dancigers, and the American money man Henry Ehrlich, suggested Orson to Buñuel, and he said, "No, no, no, all wrong - too fat, too big and too loud." They said, "You've got to see him in Macbeth, where he wears furs and has a beard and looks very rugged." So Buñuel sighed and sat down, and then I came on as Macduff and he said, "I want him!" And that's how I got the film.
Regarded by its distributors as little more than a B movie, the film (in which Buñuel manages effectively to merge some surrealist subtleties with the realistic plot) attracted excellent reviews and superb notices for O'Herlihy. Its limited release, though, did not include an engagement in Los Angeles, which was obligatory in order for a movie to qualify for Oscar consideration. "I had $1,250 in my bank account at the time," O'Herlihy related,
and gave a Los Angeles cinema manager $1,000 - half for him if he would show the film, and half to pay for advertisments telling members of the Screen Actors Guild (who nominated performers in those days) that they could attend free of charge.
The stratagem paid off with a nomination as Best Actor, though he lost to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront ("I couldn't complain - I regarded him as the finest screen actor of them all").
Ironically, the actor was then out of work for almost a year. "I got a little uppity - I was offered the leading role in The Incredible Shrinking Man, with the offer including a three-film deal with Universal, but I thought that was beneath me. The film was a great hit!" O'Herlihy returned to character roles - he supported Tony Curtis in both The Black Shield of Falworth (1954) and The Purple Mask (1955), and played Lord Derry in The Virgin Queen (1955) with Bette Davis and a young Joan Collins, whom he later recalled as "a shy and timid little thing".
Mervyn LeRoy's Home Before Dark (1956) was dominated by the performance of Jean Simmons as a woman who has been released from an asylum, but O'Herlihy was persuasively hissable as her frigid husband whose insensitivity threatens her stability. In Douglas Sirk's lush Imitation of Life (1959) he was a theatre director who becomes the lover of his star (Lana Turner).
One of his most intriguing films was The Cabinet of Caligari (1962), in which he played both the sadistic Caligari and a kindly psychiatrist. Other roles included historical characters - he was Marshal Ney in Waterloo (1972) and Franklin D. Roosevelt in MacArthur (1977) - and eerily villainous scoundrels in Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1982) and the violent, futuristic Robocop (1987).
The finest film of his later years was John Huston's masterly, elegiac transcription of James Joyce's The Dead (1987), in which O'Herlihy played the only Protestant (described by one character as "A gentleman not of our persuasion") at a Catholic celebration in the Dublin of 1904. Surrounded by a cast of three generations of great Irish performers, he described it as "a lovely experience to be with such a group again". Much of his later work was in the theatre, both in Los Angeles and at the Abbey.
His many television appearances included Dr Kildare, The June Ally- son Show, Bonanza, Mission Impossible, Murder, She Wrote, and six episodes of Twin Peaks, and his last acting performance was as Joseph Kennedy in the television movie The Rat Pack (1998).
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