And the Oscar goes to…

Today being the last day of May, UCD Archives decided to have a look at the collection of a man who was born on the first day of May nearly one hundred years ago, in 1919. This collection is not one that people would usually associate with UCD Archives, but it gives you a flavour of the diverse range of collections housed in our strong rooms.

Dan O’Herlihy was a stage and screen actor, a drama school founder and a film producer. He was born on 1st May 1919 in Wexford to John O’Herlihy, a civil servant and Ellen née Hanton. When Dan was a year old he moved with his family to Dublin, attended CBS in Dún Laoghaire and went on to study architecture in University College Dublin. During his time as a student in UCD Dan took part in the Irish Drama Festival and was awarded a gold medal for his performance. This in turn led to him being offered work in the Abbey Theatre, performing in over 60 productions by the time he graduated in 1945. On 16th August 1945 Dan married Elsie Bennett in University Church, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin.

In 1944 Dan O’Herlihy got his first big Irish break playing the lead part in the world premiere of Seán O’Casey’s play Red Roses For Me. In 1947 he was offered a part in Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out which effectively opened the door to Hollywood and a long and prolific career in film and television. Dan O’Herlihy’s initial years in Hollywood were spent working mainly in theatre and radio and acting in costume dramas, most of them swashbucklers such as At Sword’s Point, Sword of Venus and The Black Shield of Falworth. He also established the Hollywood School of Drama with a close friend from Dublin, Charlie Davis.

In 1948 Dan O’Herlihy joined Orson WellesMercury Theatre. He starred, alongside Welles, in the stage and film version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which he played the character Macduff, as well as designing most of the sets and the costumes. It was this role that led to him being offered the lead part in Luis Buñuel’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Initially the producers were interested in casting Welles as the shipwrecked Crusoe but, having watched Macbeth, Buñuel considered Welles unsuitable to play the part. As soon as he saw Dan O’Herlihy however, he knew he had found his leading man. The role was hugely demanding with O’Herlihy effectively the only character on screen to carry the story for a large portion of the film.

O’Herlihy’s achievement was recognised when he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1953, only to lose out to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. This wasn’t the only award O’Herlihy was nominated for; he won a Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Centre, Oklahoma in 1961 for his performance in an episode of Rawhide entitled ‘Incident at Dragoon Crossing’ and won a National Horror Motion Picture Association award for best performance by a supporting actor in a horror film in 1983 for Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982).

After his strong performance as Crusoe Dan O’Herlihy focused on character parts which included Marshall Ney in Waterloo, Franklin D. Rossevelt in MacArthur, the sinister Old Man in Robocop I and Robocop II, Grig in The Last Starfighter, Mark Twain in the television drama Mark Twain: Beneath the Laughter and Joe Kennedy in the television film The Rat Pack. He also appeared as the character Mr Brown in John Huston’s final film The Dead. In America O’Herlihy was well known for his television work in many popular series including Twin Peaks (1990-1991); Murder She Wrote (1984, 1886); Battlestar Galactica (1978); The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1965, 1967, 1968) and the character Doc McPheeters in The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters (1963-1964) amongst many others.

In later years Dan O’Herlihy and his lifelong friend Charlie Davis established a film company named after the road in Dún Laoghaire where Dan grew up—Corrig Avenue Films. The company owned the rights to numerous scripts and screenplays, including two that came very close to production. O’Herlihy also found the time to write scripts and screenplays as well as a one man show entitled Five Men With A Pen in which he also acted, produced and directed.

Dan O’Herlihy is credited with over seventy motion pictures, over two hundred and fifty television productions and over fifty stage plays. He died on 17th February 2005 at the age of 85 in his home in Malibu, California.

  • This post was researched and written by Meadhbh Murphy, Archivist, UCD Archives.

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