Milo O’Shea, the legendary Irish actor or “actor who is Irish,” as he preferred, passed away in hospital in New York City on April 2nd from complications of alzheimer’s, his devoted wife Kitty Sullivan at his side. He was 86.
He was a much loved member of the Irish community in New York and will be very missed.
Milo, who had a long career as an actor, comedian, movie and television star, began his career as a child in his native Dublin and made his first appearance on the New York stage in Staircase in 1968.
The Charles Dyer play about an aging gay couple was Broadway’s first serious look at a homosexual relationship, and Milo was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor. Never one to shy away from a controversial role, the year before, Milo had starred as Leopold Bloom in Joseph Strick’s 1967 film version of Ulysses.
Throughout his varied career Milo worked hard to avoid being typecast. “I like to be known as the actor Milo O’Shea who does everything,” he told me in 1986, in the first of several interviews with Irish America magazine.
After two years on Broadway, as Irish Catholic priest Fr. Tim Farley in Mass Appeal, he got floods of offers to play priests, but after the play finished its run he promised himself that he wouldn’t play another priest for at least another five years.
Mass Appeal’s unexpected success kept Milo under contract for an extra year, and as he had signed to work on The Verdict with Paul Newman, it meant endless running back and forth between theater and movie set. Doing a film and a stage play at the same time was nothing new for Milo. A self-proclaimed “workaholic,” he had a history of “doubling up,” as he put it, swearing each time “never to do it again.”
At one time he was under contract to Paramount for two films, Romeo and Juliet and Barbarella. “They made me do the two films at once. After that it became something of a habit.” During the staging of Corpse in London (the play later transferred to Broadway) he was also working on a video with the group Duran Duran, who named themselves after Milo’s part in Barbarella. He played the villainous Dr. Durand Durand in the movie, which starred Jane Fonda, and enjoys a cult following to this day.
“I really enjoyed working with Duran Duran,” Milo said. “I love to work with unusual people and to stretch myself to the limits. I’m not a conservative actor. I like to take chances.”
The unusual included a part in Woody Allen’s acclaimed Purple Rose of Cairo, of which he said, “Woody, unlike other directors, never tells you what he’s going to do. It was an exhilarating experience.”
Milo’s movie credits are numerous, but of the part of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, he spoke with particular fondness. “It was truly a labor of love,” he recalled. “We didn’t get paid but we did it because we felt it was an important film, and it was the best screen play I had ever seen.” Ulysses is still being shown in revival houses and college film club circuits.
For all his success in movies, Milo returned to the stage whenever possible. “I like to explore other mediums,” he said, “but the stage is my first love. It’s the discipline I like. You can’t fool people. I can’t be late. I have to stay mentally and physically in good shape. I never take a drink in the afternoon, maybe one or two after the prformances but you can’t afford to mess around when you have to do eight performances a week.”
Milo attributed his love of the stage to his parents. His father was a singer and his mother a harpist and a dancer. Milo grew up going to the theater in his native Dublin at least once a week. As a boy actor he worked on both radio and stage and, at the tender age of 17, his father encouraged him to join a touring company of players. “A different play every night,” he recalled. “We were in every small town in Ireland from Ballina to Nenagh. The experience equipped me well for a life in the theater.”
The actor never regretted his move to the States. “I could have stayed at home,” he said, “and gone from pantomime to pantomime, but I wouldn’t have been content. To grow as an actor you need to explore new horizons.”
Milo’s last performance was in 2005, in the Irish Repretory Theater’s production of Finian’s Rainbow at the Westport Country Playhouse, where he was often found hanging out with his old pal, Paul Newman, whose wife, Joanne Woodward, was the artistic director at the time. Charlotte Moore, the Rep’s artistic director, who adapted and directed the Yip Harburg, Fred Saidy and Burton Lane show, remembers: “When Milo made his first entrance on opening night, the entire audience stood up. I never saw an audience STAND for an ENTRANCE!”
Of his prodigious brows, Moore recalled: “When we were both doing Meet Me in St. Louis on Broadway, I would often wait for Milo and share a taxi home. One night when I was waiting in his dressing room, he said to me: ‘I’m the only actor who doesn’t have to take off his eyebrows at the end of the show!'”
Milo is survived by his wife, actress, singer and harpist Kitty Sullivan. The couple met while performing together in My Fair Lady. He is also survived by the children from his first marriage to Maureen Toal: his son Colm and daughter-in-law Deirdre and their three children, Paul, Mark and Ellen. Also his son Steven and his partner Melanie Carrick, as well as his cousin Roisin White in Canada and extended family in Ireland. The funeral will take place in his native city of Dublin followed by a memorial in his adopted city of New York. No further details are available at this time.