Actor and director on both sides of Atlantic

Vincent Dowling: born September 7th, 1929; died May 10th, 2013

Vincent Dowling: credited with launching Tom Hanks’s career, having directed him in a student production at California State University. Photograph: Tony Gavin

Vincent Dowling: credited with launching Tom Hanks’s career, having directed him in a student production at California State University. Photograph: Tony Gavin

Sat, May 18, 2013, 01:00

The actor and director Vincent Dowling came to national prominence as “Christy” in the long-running Raidió Éireann soap The Kennedys of Castlerosse . An Abbey Theatre actor for more than 20 years, he also led the company on its first tours of the former Soviet Union and Hong Kong. From the mid-1970s onwards he based himself in the United States.

Vincent Gerard Bertrand Dowling was born in 1929 in Dublin, one of the six children of William and Mai Dowling. His father, a seaman, walked out on the family, leaving his mother to rear the children in a basement flat in Merrion Square, Dublin. A £600 loan from a relative facilitated the purchase of a home at Sycamore Road, Mount Merrion.

He was educated at St Mary’s College, Rathmines. After completing his Intermediate Cert he worked for an insurance company.

Following a girlfriend’s example, he joined the Brendan Smith Academy of Acting. He became a professional actor in 1950, playing juvenile leads in a summer season of plays in Portstewart, Co Derry. Later during a fit-up tour he met his first wife, Brenda Doyle, “a very fine all-round company member”.

He left for London in 1951. A small part in a film version of A Christmas Carol , starring Alistair Sim, was followed by a 12-month tour of Britain in My Wife’s Lodger . In 1953 he toured in To See a Fine Lady but, faced with the prospect of two year’s national service, returned to Ireland.

Accepted into the Abbey Theatre company, he was cast in such plays as This Other Eden by Louis D’Alton and The Half-Millionaire by George Bernard Shaw. He also appeared in Lord Moyne’s A Riverside Charade , a spectacular flop that lasted for three performances. He appeared in 30 new plays at the Abbey between 1955 and 1960.

Rising to Frank Dermody’s direction in Eugene O’Neill’s L ong Day’s Journey into Night , Dowling found the experience enlightening and rewarding – “the only time I have experienced enough rehearsal with a great director”.

However, his activities as a member of the Players’ Council in 1965 prompted Abbey manager Ernest Blythe to warn the incoming artistic director Walter Macken: “I have come to distrust anything coming from him [Dowling] as the thin end of a very long wedge.”

He played Fluther Good in The Plough and the Stars , the first play to be produced at the new Abbey Theatre in 1966. He was in 1967 cast in the original production of Borstal Boy , directed by Tomás Mac Anna. A year later he directed The Shadow of a Gunman , which opened in Loughrea, Co Galway, and travelled to Florence.

Following a stint as the Abbey’s deputy artistic director, he took over as director of the Peacock Theatre in 1973. His production of Anthony Cronin’s The Shame of It was “shredded, mashed, and burned to ashes” by the critics, and the play was taken off after a week. Charles Haughey brought a “small entourage of henchmen” and a case of champagne to the final performance.

A drinking companion of Haughey’s, Dowling socialised with the future taoiseach and his cronies in Groome’s Hotel.

In the mid-1970s he took a one-year sabbatical to work in the US, having enjoyed a summer term in 1969 teaching and directing at Loyola College, Chicago. His first marriage long since over, in August 1975 he married Olwen O’Herlihy, daughter of the actor Dan O’Herlihy.

Returning to Ireland, he proposed to the Abbey management that he should divide his time between Ireland and the US but this was was rejected. After moving permanently to the US in 1976, he continued to be associated with the Abbey, as the company’s US producing director, until 1989. In the meantime, he was for nine years artistic and producing director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival at Cleveland, Ohio.

Dowling is credited with launching Tom Hanks’s career, having directed him in a student production at California State University. In 1983 he received an Emmy for producing and directing the PBS film The Playboy of the Western World , based on JM Synge’s play.

He returned to the Abbey to serve as artistic director between 1987 and 1989. Later he founded the Miniature Theatre of Chester, Massachusetts.

This newspaper’s review of his autobiography, Astride the Moon: A Theatrical Life (2000) stated: “Dowling is what used to be called a ‘ladies’ man’, and much of the book is taken up with his bed-hopping through the years ... [showing] a romantic rather than a lecherous nature that seems naïve and rather likeable.”

He is survived by his wife Olwen, the daughters of his first marriage Bairbre, Rachel, Louise and Valerie, and his stepson Cian. His son by the actress Sinéad Cusack, People-Before-Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett, also survives him.