O.Z. `Zebby' Whitehead to be buried in Dublin today

 

The funeral will take place in Dublin today of the actor O.Z. Whitehead, known affectionately in theatre and religious communities as Zebby, who died on Wednesday aged 87.

His acting roles included Al Joe in John Ford's film of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, among other character roles in Hollywood films. American by birth, Mr Whitehead had lived in Dublin since 1963, and was an active member of the Baha'i community, as well as the founder of the O.Z. Whitehead Awards, created for one-act dramas.

"We're all so saddened to hear of Zebby's death," said Mr Patrick Mason, artistic director of the Abbey Theatre. "Such a wonderful maker and supporter of theatre, and of new writing. A part of theatrical history and heritage goes with him."

The actor Patrick Dawson said Mr Whitehead "combined his professional work with his great love for humanity, and by putting his extraordinary faith into action, he struggled for the development of humankind."

Son of a wealthy New York banking family, O.Z. Whitehead spent his childhood in the privileged salons of Manhattan's Upper East Side, summering in the kind of places F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about.

In 1921 his father took him, at the age of 10, to see Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid, Chaplin's classic human tale of a rejected child. From then on Mr Whitehead was passionately interested in the new medium of cinema and equally committed to a personal quest for meaning which would eventually lead him to become a member of the Baha'i faith.

He broke with family tradition by becoming an actor, then an unmentionable profession in WASP circles.

While studying at Harvard with her brother Richard, the young actress Katharine Hepburn encouraged his ambition to work in theatre, a move greeted by his mother with "resigned disapproval", as he later recalled.

Through his friendship with the Hepburns he also met the rising young film director John Ford, who gave him his first screen break by casting him in the character role of Al Joe in The Grapes of Wrath.

A pacifist by conviction, Mr Whitehead joined the US armed forces after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941. "War has the effect of accelerating change in all the worst possible ways," he told this paper in 1982. "People become harder, more ruthless."

He worked in stage, film and television on his return, but was increasingly uncomfortable with the glitzy lifestyle of Hollywood. In 1950 he became a member of the Baha'i faith, a multi-cultural, multi-racial belief system which now has 1,000 members here.

His death coincides with the 50th anniversary of the first Baha'i Spiritual Assembly in Ireland.