A multitalented actor with star quality

Milo O’Shea: 1926-2013

Milo O’Shea in 1983. The Irish actor died in New York earlier this week at the age of 86. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Milo O’Shea in 1983. The Irish actor died in New York earlier this week at the age of 86. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Sat, Apr 6, 2013, 06:03

Milo O’Shea, the well-known stage, film and television actor, who died on Tuesday aged 86, had a phenomenal memory.

Sharing a dressing room with fellow Pike Theatre actor TP McKenna when they were both presenting Bafta technical awards at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, in 1998, O’Shea was able to sing faultlessly from beginning to end a number he had performed in a Pike revue in 1955.

He had brilliant comic timing and, back in the days when theatre in Ireland was largely vocal, could dance as well as sing and was famous as a mime. He also, throughout a career that spanned more than six decades, radiated star quality.

A member of the sixth generation of a Dublin family, he was born in 1926 to Daniel J O’Shea and his wife, Eleanor (née Flanagan), both of whom had performed with the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society.

Maybe that is why he was allowed to appear with Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir at the Gate Theatre, perform on Radio Éireann while still at Synge Street Christian Brothers School, and then pursue an acting career full time.


Spotted by Gielgud
After graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he got his first jobs with famous touring companies including those of Louis D’Alton and Anew McMaster, followed by small roles in Longford Productions at the Gate. While touring the UK with the latter, he was spotted by Sir John Gielgud and cast in his production of Treasure Hunt at the London Apollo.

In June 1952 O’Shea married the actor Maureen Toal, who died last August. They joined Ronald Ibbs’s company on a US tour in lieu of a honeymoon, surviving a crash landing in Iceland en route. When the tour ended they did summer stock, working in tents, and also radio, but O’Shea had to work as an elevator boy at the Waldorf-Astoria and even sell his blood before they returned to Dublin in 1953. There Toal got work in the Irish-language Abbey pantomime.

Having no Irish, O’Shea still managed to get work there – as a mime. At the same time, he starred in the first late-night Pike revue to great acclaim, as he did in all but one of the six twice-yearly revues that followed. In 1954, he played his first acting lead in Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke at the Pike and finally achieved wide recognition later that year in the leading role of Godfrey Quigley’s production of The Seven Year Itch at the Gaiety.

O’Shea thought nothing of going on from this production to appear first in a late-night revue and later still in a hotel cabaret or at one of the many golf clubs where he was a firm favourite. Indeed, on one occasion he topped the bill at the vast Theatre Royal before leading the Follies in the tiny Pike and then doing cabaret.

He starred in many musicals in Dubli n such as Fursey , Carrie and Glory Be! , with which he transferred to London in 1962. After that he starred in countless productions in Dublin, London and on Broadway. These included Mass Appeal in 1983, for which he received a Tony Award nomination and a Drama Desk Award, and the blockbuster Meet Me in St Louis , which ran on Broadway for more than a year in 1989.

After numerous further stage roles in New York, O’Shea returned to Dublin in 1996 to star with David Kelly in The Sunshine Boys at the Gate, having first performed it in the 1970s with Eddie Byrne. He had also returned to the Gate to play in the two-person musical I Do! I Do! in 1973, with singer/actor Kitty Sullivan, whom he married in 1974. His marriage to Toal had ended in divorce the previous year.

The couple settled in New York in 1976, which allowed O’Shea to be equidistant from his main bases of operation, Hollywood and London. They maintained a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park by the Dakota building, and formed a spontaneous welcoming committee for any Irish actors or plays turning up on Broadway.

He had first met Sullivan in 1968, when she was in the cast of the Broadway production of Dear World , in which he starred with Angela Lansbury. He had gone to the US to appear with Lynn Redgrave in Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession and received his first Tony Award nomination in 1969 for the two-hander Staircase with Eli Wallach.


New York fame
He received great acclaim from the New York critics for his performance as Lucky in Waiting for Godot in 1978. So big was his reputation by 1995 that the New York Times gave a clue in its crossword simply as: actor, Milo (five letters).

He was in many of the films shot in Ireland in the 1950s, such as Captain Lightfoot , Rooney and This Other Eden , but he made countless further films. In 1967 alone they ranged from Joseph Strick’s Ulysses , in which he played Bloom, to Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet , which overlapped with Roger Vadim’s Barbarella .

This forced him to dash between Florence, where he was playing Friar Laurence, and Rome, where he was being mad scientist Durand Durand. His character’s name in Barbarella inspired the name of British pop group Duran Duran.

Other films in which he featured included The Verdict with Paul Newman, Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo and Wolf Mankowitz’s The Hebrew Lesson . His last film was Mystics , released in 2003.

His final stage appearance was a homecoming of sorts as Fluther Good in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars 12 years ago at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, directed by Joe Dowling, with Rosaleen Linehan as Bessie Burgess.

O’Shea’s television performances included English series such as Hugh Leonard’s Me Mammy and Tales from the Lazy Acre , and US series such as Ellis Island with Richard Burton, The Golden Girls , Cheers and Fra sier , for which he was nominated for an Emmy. He also appeared frequently on the Johnny Carson programme and the Ed Sullivan Show .

Despite the fact that he seemed to work night and day, O’Shea was always good-humoured and always seemed to find time for a game of golf. He is survived by his wife, Kitty, and his sons, Colm and Steven.