Milo O'Shea: Versatile character actor whose work encompassed 'Ulysses' and 'Barbarella'
As Dr Durand Durand his finest moment was trying to make Jane Fonda die with pleasure
Thursday 04 April 2013
Milo O'Shea was one of the most distinctive and durable character actors of the 20th century. He was equally at home playing the cuckolded Leopold Bloom in Ulysses and the comic figure of Dr Durand Durand, inventor of the Positronic Ray in the cult sci-fi film Barbarella.
A Dubliner, he was educated by the Christian Brothers, later describing himself as less a lapsed Catholic then a “collapsed Catholic”. One classmate, Donal Donnelly, also became a noted actor. Following some work as a child player, one of O'Shea's earliest stage appearances – a rather startling one – was as a Japanese envoy in Armlet Of Jade, in 1947 at the Gate Theatre, a play by the then Lord Longford, one of the Dublin theatre's sponsors.
His earliest British appearance was as an Irish local in another Gate production, Treasure Hunt, starring Sybil Thorndike. Opening in Brighton before transferring to the Apollo in September 1949, it was directed by John Gielgud and co-written by his then lover, John Perry.
Returning to his home city, O'Shea became a founder-member of the Globe Theatre in 1954, and mixed revivals of Synge and O'Casey with strengthening his aptitude for comedy in revues at the tiny Pike Theatre, where one of his specialities was mime. Another of the Pike regulars was Anna Manahan, who would later play his domineering mother in the quirky BBC sitcom Me Mammy (1969-71). The 1957 Pike presentation, Say It With Follies, made an early and unexpected venture into political satire, and there was a presentation of highlights at the Lyric, Hammersmith later that year. Also in the company was Maureen Toal, who became his first wife.
He appeared at the Gaiety Theatre in Gateway To Gaiety (1956), starring comedian Jimmy O'Dea and, incongruously, the flamboyant Gate founder, Micheal Mac Liammoir. At the same venue and in the same year, O'Shea worked with Mac Liammoir in a serious play, The Wayward Saint; much later, O'Shea's characterisation of a touring ham actor in the film The Playboys (1992), had an acknowledged Mac Liammoir influence.
Again at the Gaiety, he was in Finian's Rainbow in 1957, a show he returned to in 1994 for BBC Radio 2, and was a chaplain in Roger Casement (1958), with Cyril Cusack, who also produced, in the title role. He would still be starring in Dublin pantomimes in the 1960s, by which time he was making the most of a contrasting assortment of parts on British television.
Harold Pinter's Night School (ITV, 1960) cast him as a recently released convict with suspicions about a fellow lodger, played by Pinter's wife, Vivien Merchant. He provided appropriate support to Robert Stephens in Fairy Tales Of New York (ITV, 1961), then, alongside Norman Rossington and Emmerdale regular Richard Thorp, played another convict, one of a trio, in My Three Angels (1962), previously filmed as We're No Angels.
He featured in one of Philip Mackie's elegant literary adaptations, Maupassant (1963), and did two turns on Z Cars in its early years, before a light comedy play in the First Night series, “My One True Love” (BBC, 1964), casting him as a successful businessman still ruled by his mother and tempted by his secretary (Yootha Joyce), turned out to be the pilot for Me Mammy.
A very different role he would later return to was that of Leopold Bloom in Bloomsday (BBC, 1964), an attempt to visualise Ulysses by actor Allan McClelland, for the BBC's Festival strand. A much-criticised black comedy at the Olympia, Dublin, Gallows Humour (1965), was directed by the American expatriate Joseph Strick, who cast O'Shea as Bloom again in his film adaptation of Joyce in 1967.
Strick's beguiling Ulysses proved that a novel thought to be unfilmable could be adapted coherently and movingly to the screen, using poetic images, voice-overs and flashbacks, and O'Shea was perfectly cast as the advertising canvasser and cuckolded husband. The first film released in Britain to use the F-word, it remained banned in Ireland until 2000.
After Silent Song (BBC, 1966), a much-praised silent with O'Shea and Jack MacGowran as secretly sybaritic monks, Ulysses kick-started his his most prolific film phase. The following year came another role which, for all his sterling stage work, he will best remembered, the inventor Dr Durand Durand in Roger Vadim's countercultural classic Barbarella, a staple of all-night film shows. In a plot which wins no prizes for subtlety, Durand's great moment came when he attempted to make the film's eponymous heroine, played by Jane Fonda, die with pleasure.
O'Shea made his debut on Broadway in 1968 opposite Eli Wallach, as a gay couple, in the then controversial Staircase. The Broadway version of Trevor Griffiths' Comedians (Music Box Theatre, 1976-77), directed by Mike Nichols, had O'Shea as the retired comic telling his class that “comedy is medicine”. In Mass Appeal (1981), he played a worldly wise cleric with a fondness for a drop. Although a long-time resident of New York, he returned to the west End for Corpse! (Apollo, 1984), a two-handed thriller in the Sleuth vein, and a revival of Can Can (Strand, 1988).
With the exception of Frasier (1995), in which he played a fellow psychiatrist, American television series tended to use him in serious character roles, such as an unpleasant doctor in the uncompromising prison drama Oz (1999), and as a judge in The West Wing. There were also later returns to Ireland for cinematic purposes, in Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy (1997), as an unsavoury priest, and in an adaptation of Spike Milligan's Puckoon (2002).
Milo O'Shea, actor: born Dublin 2 June 1926; married 1952 Maureen Toal (divorced 1974), secondly Kitty Sullivan; two sons; died New York 2 April 2013
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