'The Christmas Box,' Wrapped With Care

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Time seems to have stood still for Maureen O'Hara.

At 75, O'Hara hasn't changed much from the days when she starred in such Technicolor classics as "The Black Swan," "The Quiet Man" and "Sinbad the Sailor." She's retained her flawless peaches-and-cream complexion. Her dancing Irish green eyes are still smiling. And she continues to exude the determined--yes, fiery--spirit that made her a top Hollywood star more than 50 years ago.

But don't expect to see her trademark red tresses in her new movie "The Christmas Box," premiering Sunday on CBS. For her role in the Yuletide drama, she's wearing a wig of long, white hair.

And O'Hara is none too happy with the hairpiece. The actress is sitting in her trailer outside a Pasadena mansion where "Christmas Box" is filming, tugging at the wisps of wig hair that keep falling in her face. "This hair!" O'Hara says with a huff in her famous brogue. "The hair is driving me crazy. I don't know if I could ever stand wearing a wig again. They are miserable things."

"The Christmas Box," based on Richard Paul Evan's best-selling Christmas novel, marks the second time O'Hara has stepped in front of the camera since retiring in 1973. Five years ago, she came out of her self-imposed leave to play John Candy's bigoted and domineering Irish mother in "Only the Lonely."

She was summering in Ireland when she received "The Christmas Box" script. As with "Only the Lonely," O'Hara fell in love with the story. And she adores her co-star Richard Thomas, whom she has known since her producer-brother Charles FitzSimons cast him in his 1974 TV-movie version of "The Red Badge of Courage." "He's such a good actor," O'Hara says.

"You read a script and you like it and you think, 'Hmmmmm, that would be fun to do something with,' " says O'Hara, who lives most of the year in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. "It's nice to meet the people and kind of decide if you would enjoy working with them, because to go to work every day and think, 'God. Do I have to be here today?' It's no fun."

In "Christmas Box," which also stars Annette O'Toole, O'Hara plays a strong-willed, rich, lonely and elderly woman who lives by herself and doesn't talk about her past. "She's not nasty, but opinionated, and demands what she wants," O'Hara says.

"Her lawyer is afraid that she's going to die all by herself in this enormous house. She advertises for somebody to come in and cook meals for her and to take care of the garden. Richard Thomas and Annette O'Toole answer the ad. They have a little girl [Kelsey Mulrooney]. It's about how I change and they change."

O'Hara is dressed in the green velvet robe she wore for a scene she just completed. "We did a wonderful scene this morning," she says with enthusiasm. "[Richard] came home from work very late, woke me up, parked his car in the wrong place. He did everything he could do wrong and then went into the kitchen. I walk in and he's drinking orange juice out of the fridge. I put a glass in front of him and indicate he's supposed to put it in a glass and drink it. No dialogue to indicate it."

She clasps her hands together in prayer and looks up to the heavens. "It's going to be a wonderful Christmas story," she says. "Please, God."

O'Hara smiles and points out, "You have had the best [Christmas] movie all of these years." She's modestly referring, of course, to the classic film in which she stars, "Miracle on 34th Street."

For the past 48 years, the delightful Santa Claus fantasy, which also starred John Payne, Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn, has been an integral part of the Christmas season. Says O'Hara: "'There are people who are still terribly important people I know in the world, in the picture business and in the theater, and they wouldn't miss it."

O'Hara never caught the disappointing 1994 remake, but did see an early colorized version of the original. "I think I had purple hair and green lips," she muses. 'I think now there is a better colorized version. It was made in black and white and they should leave it in black and white."

Born Maureen FizSimons in Ireland, the strong-willed colleen began acting at age 6 and joined Dublin's prestigious Abbey Theatre at 14. "If you are an actor or an actress, it's always in your blood," she states.

"My sister Peg, she used to say she was going to be the most famous nun in the world," O'Hara recalls. "I would say I was going to be the most famous actress in the whole world. We used to sit in the sun in the garden in Ireland and talk about what we were going to do. She did become a very famous nun and I went into the picture business."

O'Hara was 18 and set to star in a production at the Abbey when she was asked to make a screen test in England. "I wasn't going to go and an old friend of ours in Dublin who was in the theater spoke to my mother and said: 'This is the third time and if you turn down the third time she is asked to do a movie test, maybe she will never be asked again.' So we got a leave from the Abbey Theatre."

The test was a disaster. "I was put in a gold lame gown, so when I lifted my arms I looked like I was an angel about to fly," she says, laughing. "They put this Mata Hari makeup on me. I was a teen-ager. I had this curly, frizzy red hair. It was just awful. Then my test was to walk into a room and pick up the phone, hang it up, turn to go out, come back, pick it up again, turn to go out, come back, pick it up again and slam it down and go out of the room. That was a movie test? I thought, 'My God, if this is the picture business, I don't want to have anything to do with it.' "

By chance, she met Oscar-winning actor Charles Laughton the next day. He asked if there was any film of her. So O'Hara told him about the screen test. Laughton saw it and told her, "It was just awful. Not that I was awful, but the whole thing was so ridiculous." But Laughton couldn't get her eyes out of his mind. By the time he returned home from seeing the footage, he wanted to sign her to a contract.

Laughton called his associate, Eric Pommer, and insisted he look at the test. Like Laughton, Pommer saw something in O'Hara's eyes. "He called Charles and said, 'You're right. She's wonderful. We're going to sign her up.' That's how it happened."

So Laughton, who changed her name to the much shorter and catchier O'Hara, signed the 18-year-old to a film contract. Together they starred in Alfred Hitchcock's 1939 thriller "Jamaica Inn" and came to America to star in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

When the war broke out in Europe, Laughton sold her contract to RKO. "Then John Ford was at Twentieth-Century Fox and he wanted me for 'How Green Was My Valley.' Fox would not give me the part unless they owned part of me, so they bought one picture a year from RKO studios. And then Fox sold part of me to Universal and they sold part of me again to John Ford to Columbia when I did 'The Long Gray Line' and another bit of me was sold to Warner Bros."

O'Hara has only fond memories of this old studio system. "I think it kept the picture business more of a family," she explains. "We had great showmen as heads of the studios. But people don't want to hear wonderful things about those old boys. They want to make them out to be monsters. They were the boss and yes, they were tough, but there was a unity within a studio. And you were taken care of. You were protected wherever you went. It was a whole system where you were cared for and cared about."

O'Hara made more than 50 films during her 30-year-plus career. One of Hollywood's most versatile actresses, she was equally at home in dramas ("This Land Is Mine"), comedies ("Sitting Pretty"), swashbucklers ("The Black Swan," "The Spanish Main"), musicals ("Do You Love Me?") and westerns ("The Redhead From Wyoming," "Rio Grande"). O'Hara also played opposite some of Hollywood's greatest leading men, including Tyrone Power ("He was a sweetheart"), James Stewart, John Payne, Henry Fonda and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. She made five films with John Wayne--"Rio Grande," "The Quiet Man," "The Wings of Eagles," "McClintock" and "Big Jake."

The Duke, she says with deep affection, "was my great friend." The greatest collaboration between O'Hara, Wayne and director John Ford was the Oscar-winning 1952 classic "The Quiet Man," in which she played an Irish lass who refuses to consummate her marriage to an ex-boxer (Wayne) from America until her brother (Victor McLaglen) pays her dowry.

O'Hara and Ford shook hands and agreed to make "The Quiet Man" back in 1944.

"He had the same agreement with John Wayne, Victor McLaglen and Barry Fitzgerald," she says. "From that time on, we couldn't raise the money to make the movie. Everybody said it was silly, stupid little Irish story and we would never make a penny. Fox turned it down, RKO turned it down. Metro turned it down. They all turned it down even with that cast."

Undaunted, O'Hara went to Ford's boat every summer and took dictation. "I was a very good shorthand typist," she says. "I sat there with my pad and pencil and he would put on his Irish records and would wear my father's hat and he would chew on his handkerchief and he would start to dictate. Then I would go into the club [house] where they had a typewriter and I would type all of his notes. Those were the notes that were used for the script."

As the years passed, O'Hara and Wayne worried if Ford didn't get financing soon, they would be too old for their roles. Finally, Wayne asked Ford if he could take the property to Republic Pictures, which was known mainly for low-budget westerns and serials. Studio head Herb Yates, O'Hara says, read the script and said: "'This is a silly, little Irish story and it will never make a penny, but if the same director and the same producer [Merian C. Cooper] make me a film with the same actors--a western to make up the money you are going to lose on this story-- I will finance it.' So we made 'Rio Grande' to raise the money to make 'The Quiet Man.' It put [Republic] in the big time."

In 1969, she married her third husband--pilot and Air Force hero Charles Blair. Four years later, she retired from Hollywood. Together, the two ran a business, Antilles Air Boats, from their home in St. Croix until Blair was killed in 1978 when the amphibious aircraft he was flying developed engine problems and crashed at sea.

"I quit making movies when I married Charlie Blair and went into aviation," says O'Hara, who is the mother of Bronwyn, now 50, and grandmother of Beau, 24. "I also published the top magazine in the Caribbean." After her husband's death, she became the first woman president of an airline. Eventually, O'Hara sold the airline and the magazine.

"I flew all over the world with Charlie," O'Hara says. "It was well worth quitting the movies just to go off with him adventuring around the world."

"The Christmas Box" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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