Left, Maureen O'Hara in 1939's 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame,' and right, in 'Only the Lonely' (1991).

For, Friday, March 15, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: While thinking about what to post that might reflect St. Patrick’s Day (coming up on Sunday) I stumbled upon my 1991 interview with that eternal Irish rose, Maureen O’Hara, one of the great stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and also a column that I wrote some 26 years later on the occasion of her death (at age 95). The latter began this way:

 ‘One of the perks of being a professional critic is interviewing filmmakers and movie stars whose work you admire.

‘Over my tenure in the 1980s and ’90s I was fortunate enough to sit down with Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Steven Spielberg, the Coen brothers, Jessica Lange, Sally Field, Jack Nicholson, Harrison Ford, Michael Caine, Bill Murray, Glenn Close, Bette Midler, Sigourney Weaver, Jackie Chan and many others.

            ‘And while they all provided the Deseret News with stories that readers seemed interested in during those years, I was personally much more enthused when I was able to interview celebrities whose work extended back to the Golden Age of cinema: James Stewart, Angela Lansbury, Blake Edwards, Charlton Heston, Claire Trevor, Don Ameche, Hal Roach, Lloyd Bridges, Stanley Kramer, etc.

            ‘But right up at the top was Maureen O’Hara.

            ‘A solicitation landed on my desk in early May of 1991 about flying to Los Angeles to do interviews for a new John Candy film titled “Only the Lonely.” Nothing about it sparked my interest until I noticed Maureen O’Hara’s name as co-star. Say what?

            ‘I knew O’Hara had not made a movie for 20 years but to make her return in a comedy as John Candy’s clinging mother? That seemed to push credulity. Still, the press material insisted she’d be there for interviews, so how could I resist? I was on the next plane.’

Below is the interview, published in the Deseret News on May 24, 1991, under the headline, ’20-year absence from the spotlight hasn’t dulled feisty redhead’s glow.’ 

LOS ANGELES — In 1975, at the age of 79, George Burns became a movie star when he made “The Sunshine Boys,” his first movie in 36 years.

James Cagney made headlines in 1981 when his prominent supporting role in “Ragtime” brought him out of a 20-year retirement at the age of 82.

But at least Burns and Cagney had the decency to look 79 and 82, respectively.

Maureen O’Hara doesn’t seem even close to her 71 years.


      John Candy, Maureen O'Hara, 'Only the Lonely'

The flaming redhead star of many a Technicolor adventure in the ’40s and ’50s returns to the screen after a 20-year absence in the comedy-drama “Only the Lonely,” which opens in theaters across the country Friday. It is her first movie since 1971’s “Big Jake,” with John Wayne. (Not counting “The Red Pony,” a TV movie she made the next year.)

“Only the Lonely” casts O’Hara as Rose Muldoon, the clinging mother of Danny Muldoon, a 38-year-old Chicago cop (played by John Candy) who can’t quite untie the apron strings — even when he falls in love.

But O’Hara’s fans may be a bit surprised at the character’s hard edge, a closed-minded bigot who seems determined to keep her son from finding happiness. Not that the character is completely unredemptive — leave it to O’Hara to find ways to make her more sympathetic.

Ask how she managed to do it and she says matter-of-factly: “By just being a bloody good actress.”

O’Hara, still as attractive and feisty as any of the characters she played in a wide range of memorable films, from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with Charles Laughton to “The Quiet Man” with John Wayne to “The Rare Breed” with James Stewart, entered the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills and every head turned in her direction. As she sat at our table, with eight newspaper writers ready to pitch questions, she seemed very much in command of the situation.

Though the role of Rose Muldoon is, as she describes it, “a sort of female Archie Bunker,” O’Hara took it because she felt it was so well written. She was also impressed with writer-director Chris Columbus, the hot young director of the third-biggest movie of all time, “Home Alone.” Columbus wrote the role specifically for O’Hara and then went to a great deal of trouble to track her down.

“Rose is mean,” O’Hara said, “but not intentionally, I think. Many of the things she does are out of fear.” But, she admitted, “It was a challenge, because it was entirely different — sort of being de-glamorized — than anything I’d ever done before. We played her without makeup or anything.”

As for getting back into the swing of acting, O’Hara said being in retirement for nearly 20 years did not cause any trepidation. “I was like a racehorse – raring to go.”


    Maureen O'Hara, Anthony Quinn, 'Only the Lonely'

Columbus said he was a fan of O’Hara’s vintage work and that as he was writing the movie he envisioned her in the role of Rose, despite the fact that she’d never played a character quite this harsh before. “I saw that edge in bits and pieces of her other films — maybe not throughout an entire film and maybe it was softened for most of the films, but there was always a moment. Especially in ‘The Quiet Man,’ where she is one of the toughest women (ever) on screen. That’s a formidable character. As I was writing it she was the only one I had in mind.”

John Candy said he wasn’t quite sure what to expect when he first met O’Hara. “We were in Chicago and she flew in, and she came in the room and we lit up and were beaming when she walked in. There were about 30 people in the room and we all. … ” (Candy feigns a stunned, jaw-dropping look.) “What was the protocol of dealing with such a celebrity? We were all tongue-tied. So we went upstairs and chatted for three hours about John Ford and the Duke (John Wayne). And we’d still be there today, but we had to shoot the movie.”

John Ford directed O’Hara in “The Quiet Man,” “Rio Grande” and “The Wings of Eagles,” all co-starring Wayne, as well as “How Green Was My Valley” and “The Long Gray Line.” O’Hara says he was her favorite director, though he pushed her harder than any other. “I dearly loved him and he was the greatest director I ever worked with, but that didn’t stop him being Irish and me being Irish, and having bad tempers.”

O’Hara also co-starred with Wayne in “McLintock!” and “Big Jake,” and counted him among her closest friends. It was Wayne, along with O’Hara’s third husband, Charles F. Blair, who suggested her retirement after “Big Jake” in 1971. “They thought they’d get a huge argument from me, but I said, ‘Fine.’ ”

Her retirement was never boring, however. Blair, a real-life adventurer, was a retired Air Force brigadier general, having received the Harmon Trophy from President Truman for the first solo flight over the North Pole. He established his own airline in the Virgin Islands and after his death in 1978, O’Hara became the first female airline president in history. She also published a magazine for some years but has since sold both the airline and the publication.

If “Only the Lonely” is a success, will O’Hara be making more movies? “I had never intended to ever work in movies again. Even now I have no agent. I’m not entirely committed to coming back to the picture business.

“But if it was a really good script and I liked the people involved. … ”

EDITOR’S NOTE: After ‘Only the Lonely’ O’Hara made three TV movies (including 1995’s ‘The Christmas Box,’ filmed in Utah). She died in her sleep of natural causes at her home in Boise, Idaho, on Oct. 24, 2015.