In its obituary, the Irish Times described O’Herlihy as “prolific and versatile,” a “tall, imposing figure who oozed gravitas on screen whenever required.”
O’Herlihy was nominated for a best actor Academy Award in 1954 for his lead role in Spanish director Luis Bunuel’s “Robinson Crusoe.” The young Irish actor was a comparative Hollywood newcomer and found himself in an Oscar race that was, to say the least, star studded. His fellow nominees that year were Humphrey Bogart, Bing Crosby, James Mason and Marlon Brando, who won the Oscar for “On the Waterfront.”
O’Herlihy was born May 1, 1919. He graduated from University College Dublin as an architect but opted instead for the stage.
As a young stage actor in Dublin, O’Herlihy played the lead role in the original production of Sean O’Casey’s “Red Roses for Me” and also appeared in the world premieres of “The Last Hero” and “A Better Place.” His work impressed movie director Carol Reed, who cast O’Herlihy opposite James Mason in his 1946 film “Odd Man Out.”
O’Herlihy, who had married Dublin native Elsie Bennett in 1945, moved to California in 1947. While Hollywood is today home or a working base to a number of Irish actors, O’Herlihy arrived in a town where Irish-born actors were comparatively thin on the ground.
O’Herlihy’s early days in the U.S. were dominated by theater roles. He appeared in Orson Welles’s “Macbeth” at the Mercury Theatre, John Houseman’s “Measure for Measure” in Los Angeles and “King Lear” at the Houston Shakespeare Festival.
In the early 1950s, O’Herlihy started his own small theater company and wrote plays for it. In one production, an actor took sick at the last minute and O’Herlihy managed to replace him with Marlon Brando, who had earlier confided to him that he wanted to undertake more stage roles. During the performance, the audience was not quite sure who the actor was who was playing the role of a New York taxi driver. A member shouted the big question as the cast took its bows. Brando informed the questioner that his eyes had not been deceiving him.
O’Herlihy made his first U.S. film appearance in Welles’s “Macbeth” in 1948, playing the role of Macduff. It was the beginning of a screen career that would last until his final role as Kennedy family patriarch, Joe Kennedy, in the 1998 made for television movie “The Rat Pack.”
In his early years, O’Herlihy quickly earned a reputation as a talented and versatile character actor and the job offers began to mount, especially after his his Oscar nomination. He played a starring role as army general Warren Black, “Blackie,” opposite Henry Fonda in the 1964 Cold War classic “Fail Safe”; Marshal Ney alongside Rod Steiger’s Napoleon in the 1970 production of “Waterloo”; FDR in the 1977 film “MacArthur” opposite Gregory Peck, and the sinister “Old Man” in the Robocop movies.
In 1987, O’Herlihy returned to his Irish roots when he played the role of Mr. Brown in John Huston’s screen adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead.”
O’Herlihy’s TV career matched his movie one in terms of its variety and longevity. He played the lead role of Doc McPheeters in the 1963 series “The Travels of Jamie McPheeters,” town boss Will Varner in “The Long Hot Summer,” Lt. Col. Max Dodd in the BBC television production of “Colditz” in 1972, and the mysterious Alexander Packard in the cult classic “Twin Peaks” in the early 1990s.
Other roles during the 1960s and ’70s included appearances in “Bonanza,” “Hawaii Five-0” — which for a number of years was directed by his brother, the late Michael O’Herlihy — “Mission Impossible,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” “L.A. Law,” “Murder She Wrote,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” “Ironside” and “Remington Steele,” alongside fellow Irish-born actor, Pierce Brosnan.
O’Herlihy is survived by his wife, Elsie Bennett O’Herlihy, daughters Olwen O’Herlihy Dowling and Patricia O’Herlihy Wisda, sons Gavan, Cormac and Lorcan, 10 grandchildren and one great grandson.
A private family service will be held in Malibu this weekend. O’Herlihy’s remains will be returned to Ireland for burial.
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