Milo O'Shea, Tony-Nominated Irish Character Actor, Dies at 86

By Robert Simonson
April 3, 2013

Milo O'Shea, the Irish-born character actor who injected every role with a potent combination of puckishness, Gaelic charm and menace, died April 2 in Manhattan. He was 86.



Short of stature, but armed with a helmet of white hair, piercing eyes, a commanding voice and — arguably his most effective weapon — thick black eyebrows that seemed to have a life there own, Mr. O'Shea was hard to ignore, whether on stage or screen. The twinkle in his very Irish eyes could denote humor and wisdom, or the fact that he's got a dagger in his pocket with your name on it.

He rarely won a starring role, and his film resume was less than stellar, but, whatever the movie, he stood out. He first made his mark as Leopold Bloom in Joseph Strick's controversial 1967 movie of James Joyce's "unfilmable" novel "Ulysses."

He was the helpful Friar Lawrence in Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film of "Romeo and Juliet" (he later played the same role Off-Broadway in 1988); the mad scientist Durand-Durand in the campy, Jane Fonda sci-fi extravaganza "Barbarella" (also 1968); a corrupt and not easily intimidated Boston judge in the Paul Newman picture "The Verdict"; a 1930s film actor trapped playing a priest in a film frozen in time in Woody Allen's "Purple Rose of Cairo"; and an inspector in Vincent Price's horror cult film "Theatre of Blood," in which an actor gets revenge on his critics by killing them all.

His stage roles were more meaty. He was in the original Broadway productions of the Jerry Herman musical Dear World and Trevor Griffiths' The Comedians, playing an instructor at a late-night class for would-be comics. He played opposite Ruth Gordon and Lynn Redgrave in a 1976 production of Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, Alfred P. Doolittle to Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins in a 1981 revival of My Fair Lady, Jamie Cregan to Jason Robards' Cornelius Melody in A Touch of the Poet, and the cold, incommunicative father in a 1994 staging of Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come!

He was twice nominated for a Tony Award, for his Broadway debut in the London-set two-hander Staircase in 1967, and for Bill C. Davis' Mass Appeal. The former, in which he appeared with Eli Wallach, is regarded as the first Broadway play to depict gay men in a serious manner. The latter was arguably his signature stage success. The story of a popular, but complacent priest whose authority is challenged by a firebrand seminarian, it began life Off-Broadway at Stage 73, then the home of Manhattan Theatre Club, and was directed by actress Geraldine Fitzgerald. New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote, "Milo O'Shea has his finest role in years — and appears to be having the time of his life." The drama played 104 performances Off-Broadway and 212 on Broadway. (When it was adapted into a 1984 film, Jack Lemmon got O'Shea's part.)

Off-Broadway, Mr. O'Shea and his Irish actress wife, Kitty Sullivan, performed in a play of their own devising, Alive, Alive Oh! in 1994. Both moved to the United States and adopted New York as their new hometown in the 1970s.

Milo O'Shea was born in Dublin on June 2, 1926. His father was a vocalist, his mother a harpistand ballet teacher. He was educated at the Synge Street Christian Brothers School. Early acting experiences included plays at the Gaiety Theatre. In the early '50s, he performed in a series of plays at the White Barn Theatre on Connecticut, and toured the U.S. with the Dublin Players during the 1951-52 season. In London, he had a success in 1961 with Glory Be! at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

Fame in England came with a starring role in the U.K. sitcom "Me Mammy," in which he played a lecherous company executive, Bunjy Kennefick, whose swinging lifestyle is cramped by his strict Irish Catholic mother. "Something is of the comedy genus of Barry Fitzgerald is evident in the performance of Milo O'Shea," wrote the New York Times.

Milo O’Shea’s first wife, the actress Maureen Toal, died last year. The couple divorced in 1974. He is survived by Kitty Sullivan, and his two sons by his first marriage.