From ‘Barbarella’ to Broadway: versatile Irish actor Milo O’Shea enjoyed long career and cult status

Durable character actor made his stage debut in Dublin at the age of 12

A whole decade ago, Milo O’Shea, who has died in New York at the age of 86, spent an afternoon pummelling this writer with a relentless series of perfectly structured theatrical anecdotes. The one that now takes on a particular poignancy concerned a recent lunch with his son in Wexford.

“Oh, wait till I tell you,” he said. “There was this couple in front of me when I went up to the bar. So, the husband turns to his wife and says: ‘That’s Milo O’Shea.’ And she says: ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Milo O’Shea’s dead!’”

He showed them. O'Shea hadn't finished. Shortly after we met, he appeared in a few episodes of The West Wing as Chief Justice Roy Ashland.

It is true that, like his great chum David Kelly, Milo O'Shea did, by that stage, seem like a character from another era. Both men employed a class of warm humour that spoke of happy nights in story-swelled theatre green rooms. That did not, however, stop him delighting new audiences.


'Me Mammy'
For people of a certain age, O'Shea will forever be associated with two projects from the 1960s: Hugh Leonard's jolly BBC sitcom Me Mammy and Roger Vadim's outrageously camp movie Barbarella . But he kept coming back at you. He was terrific opposite Paul Newman as a judge in The Verdict . Woody Allen cast him in The Purple Rose of Cairo . He received an Emmy nomination for a role in Frasier .

Smart film-makers and television executives recognised a gift for massaging a line into submission that spoke of a hard apprenticeship in touring productions and frantic revues. But there was an attraction within the man that had nothing to do with technique: he came across as a kind uncle, then a kinder grandfather, then a trustworthy ancient.

O'Shea – like Kelly and Gay Byrne an alumnus of Synge Street Christian Brothers – first appeared on stage in a production of Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra for Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir. He was just 12.

He told his dad that he’d like to give this acting thing a shot and the older O’Shea, assuming his son would soon tire of the low pay and long hours, allowed him to go on a tour with Louis D’Alton’s famous company.

He barely seemed to rest in the succeeding 50 years. By accident or design, he sidestepped short-lived leading-man status and became a durable, flexible character actor. As the 1960s progressed, he managed to balance film and television with stage work opposite the greats of the era.

New York
"Well, my reputation was different in different places," he told me in 2003. "In New York I had a serious reputation as a Broadway actor. I did plays like Staircase with Eli Wallach and the musical Dear World with Angela Lansbury. I always had that serious reputation there."

As long ago as 1976, he settled in New York with Kitty Sullivan, his second wife, having decided being equidistant from Hollywood and London suited his peripatetic work habits.

By that stage, a kind of unlikely cult status had attached to him. The cheery paddywhackery of Me Mammy emerged from the same seam that later gave us the unstoppable Brendan O'Carroll.

But Barbarella , in which he played mad scientist Durand Durand, appealed to a funkier crowd. He is, in part, responsible for naming a key band of the New Romantic era. "Oh God, yeah, Duran Duran. Well, Simon LeBon came to see me when I was doing a play called Corpse in London. And I had never heard of them," he recalled. "He was a very nice fellow though."

You wouldn’t expect the agreeable Milo to say anything else.

By the way, it transpired that the couple at the bar were thinking of Richard Harris.