WASHINGTON, March 17, 2013 – Every year around St. Patrick’s Day, the Chicago River runs green. It’s the City of the Big Shoulders’ unique way of celebrating the fabled Irish holy man not only responsible for bringing Catholicism to Ireland but for dismissing all the Emerald Isle’s snakes as well.
Or so the legend says.
I’ve been told by some Chicago denizens that the saint himself appears in downtown Chicago each year. Hovering over the river, he passes his crozier over the waters, which are instantly transformed into the vividly memorable green of the Emerald Isle.
This story was related to me in a Chicago bar, however, and I have yet to affirm its veracity.
There are a lot less Irish denizens in the Windy City today than there were in those thrilling days of yesteryear. But Chicago’s colorful green river tradition still goes on, no doubt irritating green-freak eco-fanatics who likely don’t regard the river’s temporary emerald hue as very environmentally friendly. Surprisingly, even the EPA’s Storm Troopers have yet to raise a serious stink about it. And they shouldn’t.
We are assured its non-toxic, environmentally safe and harms the water, or things that might live in it.
But we’re not here today to talk about green rivers, green beer, or drunken Saint Paddy’s day revels. We’re here to present the 2016 edition of our Top Ten List of vintage Irish thespians.
Irish men and women—either native born or of Hibernian descent—have come to international prominence in recent history not only in theater but in the movies as well. Given the considerable wit and skill of the Irish when expressing themselves in poetry, song, drama, and storytelling, the phenomenon is scarcely surprising.
Obviously, our list is subjective. You’re free to agree or disagree with our choices and our rankings. And if you wish to add a comment or three, critical or otherwise, just zip through our collection of stuff at this article’s end. Below it, you’ll find a place where you can add those comments. In the meantime, a hearty “Slainté” to all.
10. Una O’Connor. (1880-1959). Born Agnes Teresa McGlade in Belfast, young Una—her eventual stage name—became a stage actress in Ireland and England. But she scored her first signal success in late middle age in a 1933 Noel Coward play entitled “Cavalcade.” When Hollywood decided to film the play, Ms. O’Connor was invited there to reprise her role. She never went back to Ireland.
But more importantly, she was soon noticed by famed horror film director James Whale, the man who really helped make her famous by casting her in his well-known film version of “The Invisible Man,” starring Claude Rains in the title role. O’Connor had a small part in the film as the publican’s wife who memorably screams in terror as the Invisible Man reveals his invisible secret to her.
O’Connor’s’ signature terror seizures proved so over-the-top funny—offering a welcome comedic break in this otherwise somber film—that she was soon in considerable demand to replicate this behavior in other horror and thriller classics, most notably as the Baron’s housekeeper in Whale’s 1935 horror classic, “Bride of Frankenstein.”
O’Connor occasionally had serious roles as well in films like “The Informer” (1935). Her last memorable role was a comic turn in Billy Wilder’s film of Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957). By then, she was a ripe old 77 years of age. She would only live for just two more years. Not a bad Hollywood, career, given the city’s longtime tendency to regard an actress as washed up not long after her 35th birthday or thereabouts.
9. Barry Fitzgerald. (1888-1961). Born William Joseph Shield in Dublin, Fitzgerald started out in life as a civil servant. But, bitten by the acting bug, he soon began to appear onstage in Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre. During this early period of his career, he spent time as the roommate of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, and soon began to appear in his roomie’s classic plays such as “Juno and the Paycock.”
Taking up residence in Hollywood, he was much in demand for character parts, becoming the go-to actor to portray witty, humorous, or simply very Irish roles in a slew of popular movies. Perhaps his most memorable screen appearance was his portrayal of the genial Irish pastor who mentors Bing Crosby’s younger cleric in “Going My Way” (1944) and his humorous, supporting role in the John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara Irish film classic “The Quiet Man” (1952).
8. Aidan Quinn. (b. 1959). Born to Irish émigré parents in Chicago, Quinn has appeared in numerous big budget films including “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Benny and Joon,” “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” and “Michael Collins” where he co-starred with Liam Neeson. His roles tend to be significant but low key. Our personal favorite is his role as Brad Pitt’s conflicted older politician-brother in the vastly underrated film “Legends of the Fall” (1994).
His career seemed to fade somewhat after that 1994 film. But now you can see him on TV as the beleaguered New York police chief frequently enlisting the aid of an updated Sherlock Holmes in the hit show “Elementary.” He co-stars with Jonny Lee Miller (Sherlock) and luscious Lucy Liu’s Dr. Joan Watson, the first-ever female incarnation of that role.
7. Pierce Brosnan. (b. 1953). Hailing from County Louth in the middle of the Irish Republic, Brosnan encountered a difficult childhood when his father abruptly left the family, causing his mother to emigrate to England in search of employment while young Pierce was left with his grandparents.
He originally aspired to be an artist, but eventually found his way into acting. He first discovered fame in the U.S. in the quirky TV detective hit “Remington Steele” (1982-1987) in which he played the quirky title character. During that show’s run, he was approached by Hollywood bigwigs to portray James Bond as a younger replacement for the aging Roger Moore. At the last minute, however, he was forced to decline due to his TV contract clause renewing his character in “Remington Steele.” The role went to Timothy Dalton instead. Ironically, “Remington Steele” was canceled not long after.
When Dalton’s more serious take on Bond proved unpopular with audiences, Brosnan got a rare second chance at the role. He jumped at it, signing on to portray 007 in 1994. He appeared in four Bond films, all of them popular with Bond fans, before the role was abruptly handed off to Daniel Craig in 2005 under somewhat murky circumstances. Probably the age thing again.
On the other hand, Brosnan was never a captive of the Bond series. He continued to star in a number of colorful roles before, during and since Bond, perhaps most notably in the suave 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair.”
6. Maureen O’Hara. (1920-2015). Hailing from the environs of Dublin, this stunning and popular redheaded actress was originally named Maureen FitzSimons before adopting her famous stage name. Trained in theater in Dublin, her skills and her looks attracted the attention of numerous English actors and filmmakers including Charles Laughton. He helped her land the role of the gypsy girl Esmeralda in his own famous starring vehicle, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939). The film was a popular and critical success and young Maureen’s career was launched in earnest.
She continued to appear in classic films such as “The Black Swan” (1942); “Sentimental Journey” (1946); “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947); the popular John Wayne classic “The Quiet Man” (1952); and many others. She effectively retired in the early 1970s, but returned to acting in 1991 to star with the late John Candy in “Only the Lonely.”
O’Hara became an American citizen in 1946. But as her career began to phase down, she returned to Ireland where she established a residence on that nation’s West Coast. In failing health, she eventually returned to the U.S. in 2012, moving in with her grandson in Boise, Idaho, where she recently passed away in October 2015. Washington, D.C. fans of O’Hara will be interested to know that she is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to her third husband, American aviator, Charles F. Blair, Jr.
5. Liam Neeson. (b. 1952). Neeson probably needs little introduction to contemporary filmgoers. Born in County Antrim in current Northern Ireland, he became an amateur boxing champion there in addition to finding himself attracted to stage acting.
After winning small but significant parts in various films, he moved to Hollywood in 1987 and won the starring role in the offbeat action-horror flick “Darkman” (1990). His fame began in earnest when he starred as the title character in “Schindler’s List” (1993). Demonstrating his versatility, he portrayed Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn in the initial revival episode of the “Star Wars” franchise (“Phantom Menace”) in 1999. The fistic skills he’d developed as a young man served him in good stead.
Happily married to English actress Natasha Richardson in 1994, he suffered a major personal tragedy when she was killed in a ski accident in Canada in 2009.
Neeson has continued to appear in numerous films since the 1990s. Even in late middle age, he’s morphed into a surprisingly successful action-film star, most recently in the popular “Taken” film franchise. He is now an American citizen.
4. Richard Harris. (1930-2002). Hailing from the gritty Western Irish city of Limerick, Harris was famed for his numerous and often offbeat film appearances. As a young man, he actually began his career as an up-and-coming rugby star, but was forced to abandon that pursuit after suffering a bout of tuberculosis.
Relocating to England after WWII, he dabbled in directing plays while studying to become an actor, living for many years in poverty as he perfected his craft.
He spent time onstage in England and appeared in small Hollywood film roles in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Reportedly, he didn’t much like his Tinseltown experiences. Worse, he would quarrel with well-known stars like Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston, behavior not likely to boost his career.
But he gradually reconciled himself with movie acting, appearing as King Arthur in the film version of the popular Broadway musical “Camelot” (1967) and as a British adventurer in “A Man Called Horse” (1970). He also took on the uniquely quirky role of English Bob in the Clint Eastwood classic, “Unforgiven” (1992) and the small but significant role of dying philosopher/emperor Marcus Aurelius in “Gladiator” (2000).
Perhaps his crowning achievement was a surprise that occurred at the end of his career when he was cast as the crafty old wizard and headmaster Albus Dumbledore in the first two installments of the lucrative “Harry Potter” film franchise.
Harris died of cancer just prior to the opening of the second Potter film, and was replaced by Michael Gambon in the final films in the series.
3. Kenneth Branagh. (b. 1961). Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Mr. Branagh is as well-known as an actor as he is a director.
Branagh first became prominent for his directorial and starring roles in film versions of Shakespeare’s classic plays, which garnered Academy Award nominations.
More recently, he served as director for the Marvel Comics-based superhero hit, “Thor” (2011). He’s also become well-known as a TV actor for his brilliant portrayal of the existential Swedish detective Kurt Wallander in the English-language “Wallander” television series, which is built on adaptations of author Henning Mankell’s best-selling “Wallander” crime novels. Mr. Branagh also serves as executive producer of this gritty series, whose final season is about to air as we write this.
2. Bing Crosby. (1903-1977). Once one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and still one of popular music’s greatest recording stars, “Der Bingle” was a triple threat: a classic, brilliant baritone back in a time when thin-voiced tenors were still the rage; a snappy, vaudeville-style dancer; and a serious and comedic screen actor with impeccable skills and stage presence even in the absence of classic good looks.
While perhaps better known as a vocalist today, Bing displayed his acting chops in a substantial number of extraordinarily popular films ranging from the sentimental “Going My Way,” to jazzy movie musicals like “Holiday Inn” (and its later, better-known reprise, “White Christmas”) and even to a classic Western like the original “Stagecoach.”
Crosby was also popular in a string of hit comedy “Road” films (like “Road to Utopia”) where he co-starred with his longtime comic sidekick Bob Hope and, of course, the lovely Dorothy Lamour. (Gotta love that fake French name).
Bing later became an important TV personality as well. It seemed like there was nothing the Old Groaner couldn’t do.
Crosby didn’t originate in the Oulde Sod, growing up instead in Tacoma, Washington. But his family was Irish Catholic through and through, something he capitalized on whenever he could.
Sadly, his legendary film and music careers seem largely to have been forgotten in recent years, perhaps damaged some time ago by a poison-pen biography written by one of his sons who, by most accounts, had an axe to grind with daddy.
Perhaps even worse, like his late Hollywood contemporaries Bob Hope and John Wayne, Crosby was also an unabashed American patriot, a real-life role that earns demerit points in today’s Hollywood fame game which tends to resemble the McCarthy Era in reverse.
1. Peter O’Toole. (1932-2013). Although clearly of Irish descent, to the day of his death, Peter O’Toole claimed he was not certain whether he was born in County Galway, Ireland, or in Leeds, Yorkshire, U.K.
In any event, O’Toole was raised a Catholic in England and began his career as a would-be photojournalist. But he eventually enrolled in stage training in England after being rejected for a similar program at Ireland’s famous Abbey Theatre.
O’Toole first appeared in stage and TV roles in London. There he was noticed by David Lean who was looking to cast the lead in “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), after failing to land either of his first choices: Marlon Brando or Albert Finney.
Casting Mr. O’Toole, a virtual unknown, in the title role of this costly epic film proved almost divinely serendipitous for both Lean and O’Toole. The dramatic sweep and scope of the film, which also starred dashing Egyptian actor Omar Shariff, transformed Lean’s epic into a definitive Hollywood blockbuster, simultaneously transforming the photogenic Mr. O’Toole into an instant Hollywood icon. (The film was recently restored to its original widescreen splendor and is now available via DVD.)
Unfortunately, due to ongoing bouts with the bottle, O’Toole’s career didn’t always follow a predictable or positive trajectory over the years. But he continued to land hugely significant roles, including repeat performances as English King Henry II in two widely different classics, “Beckett” with Richard Burton (1964) and “Lion in Winter” with Katherine Hepburn (1968).
In a seeming parody of his own career, but more particularly that of the swashbuckling and equally alcohol-besotted Errol Flynn, Mr. O’Toole scored a comedic coup for his role as a Hollywood has-been in “My Favorite Year” (1982).
Even as he experienced periodic ups and downs, he continued to appear in costume dramas, but eventually chose to retire. In his later years, he resided in the tiny western Irish town of Clifden. While he actually died in London after a long illness, his remains were returned to the west of Ireland, apparently complying with his stated wishes, according to his daughter, Kate.
Honorable Mention: Dominic West. We’d be remiss if we didn’t bring this up-and-comer to your attention. Dominic Gerard Francis Eagleton West is only part-Irish, born, according to his Wikipedia entry, “into a Catholic family of English and Irish descent, in Sheffield, West Riding of Yorkshire, the son of Moya (Cleary), a housewife, and George West, who owned a plastics factory.”
Dominic “attended Eton College and Trinity College, Dublin” and “graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1995.”
The now 46-year old West first grabbed America’s attention with his vivid portrayal of Irish-American Baltimore police detective Jimmy McNulty in HBO’s highly acclaimed police and political drama “The Wire” (2002-2008). Many of the series’ key scenes were filmed in a riotous Baltimore Irish pub frequented by the series’ fictional but very realistic police force. Among his other skills, West’s Baltimore-American accent in this series was so good it was nearly impossible to comprehend that he was born, schooled and launched his career across the pond.
West continues to perform on both sides of the Atlantic as well as in films. He currently stars as Noah Solloway, one half of the romantic duo on the Showtime series “The Affair,” now in its second season on that subscription network.
West is currently a bit too young to classify as “vintage” here. But if he keeps his career going at its current pace, he’ll likely get into our official list at some point.
That’s it for St. Patrick’s Day Irish Movie Stars, 2016. Now it’s time to head off to the local Irish pub before everyone else does…