Obituary: O. Z. Whitehead

John Exshaw
Wednesday 12 August 1998 00:02 BST

O. Z. WHITEHEAD was one of the last surviving members of John Ford's "stock company" of character actors. Along with John Carradine, Donald Meek, Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jnr et al, Whitehead was one of the many actors regularly employed by Ford to breathe life into even the smallest roles in his films. His best-known part was that of Al in Ford's 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Born in Manhattan in 1911, Whitehead was given the splendidly improbable names of Oothout Zabriskie, which satisfactorily explains his preference for being called "Zebby" throughout his life. His father, a wealthy banker with Even Stillman & Co, took his son regularly to the cinema and, by the age of 10, Whitehead had determined to become an actor.

On leaving St Mark's School, he entered Harvard University, where he became friends with Dick Hepburn, brother of Katharine, and cheerfully neglected his English studies in favour of amateur dramatics. After three years, he left college without graduating, and, despite his mother's disapproval, made his theatrical debut in The Lake in 1933.

Two years later, Whitehead played a bit part in his first film, The Scoundrel, starring Noel Coward and directed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. His theatre work in the Thirties included the Lunts' production of The Seagull and Farewell Summer opposite the silent-screen actress Lois Wilson.

When John Ford was casting The Grapes of Wrath, Whitehead - whom he had met at the Hepburns in 1936 - was summoned to Hollywood, where, at the director's insistence, he was given the small but important part of Al over the better-known actors Glenn Ford and Mickey Rooney. He followed this with a long run in Chicago in Life with Father, in which he played opposite his lifelong friend Lillian Gish.

His next film was to have been Henry Hathaway's Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942), but on the United States' entering the Second World War, Whitehead joined up, despite the fact that he had previously been a member of an anti-war group. Curvature of the spine ruled him out of active service, but he finished the war in the Pacific with the rank of sergeant.

On his return to Hollywood, he appeared in Fred Zinnemann's My Brother Talks to Horses (1946), but was forced to turn down a part in Ford's My Darling Clementine due to overlapping schedules. He kept active throughout the Forties with supporting roles in The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947), Vincente Minnelli's The Pirate (1948), Road House (1948), Family Honeymoon (1948), and Howard Hawks's A Song is Born (also 1948), a musical remake of the director's Ball of Fire (1941).

In 1950, Whitehead, increasingly disillusioned with post-war Hollywood, became a member of the Bahai faith, a Persian-founded sect of Utopian outlook. After appearing in Beware, My Lovely (1952) with Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino, and making an unfortunate investment in a film called Miss Body Beautiful (in which he also appeared, in 1953), he returned to New York where he divided his time between the stage (touring with Lillian and Dorothy Gish in The Chalk Garden), live television, and promoting Bahaism.

It was Ford who ensured Whitehead's return to Hollywood when, in 1958, he persuaded him to play the part of the patrician Norman Case Jnr in The Last Hurrah, the part which equates most readily to Whitehead's own background. He then played an army medic in Ford's The Horse Soldiers (1959), opposite John Wayne and William Holden; Lieutenant Chase in Ford's Two Rode Together (1961); and, in his last film for Ford, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a countrified dimwit named Herbert Carruthers. In one scene, John Wayne's Tom Doniphon dismisses Carruthers from the saloon on the grounds that he is too young to vote. At the time, Whitehead was 51 years old but still so youthful-looking that neither he nor Ford saw anything unusual in his playing the part.

Asked about Ford's notoriously irascible manner, Whitehead admitted to liking him, while at the same time adding that he could be "terribly difficult". Certainly, the refined Whitehead was uncomfortable with the Ford-Wayne- Bond drinking and gambling clique, and preferred to recall the director's personal generosity when Whitehead's scenes on The Horse Soldiers were finished. Perhaps knowing something of Whitehead's financial predicament, Ford announced to one and all, "Zebby is through here, but he isn't through Fordwise", and kept him on the payroll for a forthcoming benefit performance.

Whitehead's other films from this period include Rally 'Round The Flag, Boys! with Paul Newman (1958), Chartroose Caboose (1960), and, for Disney, Summer Magic (1963) with Hayley Mills.

That same year, Whitehead moved to Ireland, settling in Dublin where he continued to advance Bahaism as well as act in various films and plays, the latter including Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. In 1966, he won the Best Supporting Actor award at the Dublin Theatre Festival for his performance as the night porter in Eugene O'Neill's Hughie, a part he was to return to at the Peacock in 1989.

He also founded the Whitehead Award For Drama in 1966 to encourage new writing in the field of one-act dramas; and, the following year, had a part in Joseph Strick's film version of James Joyce's Ulysses. His television appearances included Passing Through, Caught in a Free State (as the wartime US ambassador to Ireland), and two episodes of the long-running RTE soap Glenroe. His later films included Philadelphia, Here I Come (1975), and the RTE-financed adaptation of Diary of a Madman (1990).

A popular Dublin character, often to be seen passing St Stephen's Green on his way to lunch at the University and Kildare Street Club, Whitehead also wrote three books, including a memoir of Lillian Gish.

His final film was Reaper, a short directed by Stephen Bradley in 1994. Whitehead played an old man living alone in a remote country house who, one stormy night, is visited by Death. Whitehead escorts the Grim One upstairs to a room in which a projector is continuously running his scenes from The Grapes of Wrath. Suitably impressed by this evidence of immortality, Death departs, leaving the old man laughing. For Whitehead, who, even in late years, always referred to his mentor as "Mr Ford", it provided a fond farewell.

John Exshaw

Oothout Zabriskie Whitehead, actor and writer: born New York 18 March 1911; died Dublin 29 July 1998.

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