The first thing one notices about Maureen O’Hara as she walks onto the set of herlatest TV movie, “The Last Dance,” is how stunning the 80-year-old actress is. She still possesses the peaches-and-cream complexion, striking blue eyes and fiery Irish personality that graced the screen in the ‘40s and ‘50s Technicolor classics “The Quiet Man” and “The Black Swan.”
“I put a wig [of gray hair] on her for this movie and for [the 1995 TV movie] ‘The Christmas Box’ because I was trying to make her look older,” offers the film’s executive producer, Beth Polson, of O’Hara, who made her screen debut in 1939’s “Jamaica Inn,” directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
In “Last Dance,” which also stars Eric Stoltz and Trini Alvarado, O’Hara plays a retired Latin teacher who is unexpectedly reunited with a former student (Stoltz).
This past summer during a break in filming at a school in Pasadena, O’Hara talked about “Last Dance” and her life in Hollywood.
Question: Do kids today recognize you from “Miracle on 34th Street” and the original “The Parent Trap”?
Answer: They always did with “Parent Trap,” “The Quiet Man” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” I was coming from church in New York on 55th Street [recently] and a whole bunch of kids started pulling my coat from the back. I turned around and one of the kids said, “You’re the lady who knows Santa Claus, aren’t you?” I said, “I do . . . very well. What do you want me to tell him?”
Q: What about fan letters?
A: They never stop. I have a stack of them in the house here and I haven’t gotten around to answer them. I’ve made 59 movies and you are constantly astounded at the [letters] that come in on movies that were kind of forgotten. A picture I made years ago called “Sentimental Journey” with John Payne--it’s amazing the mail that comes in on [it]. Or I go to Europe or the Orient, [people will say], “You made my favorite movie.” I think they are going to say “The Quiet Man” or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and it’s “Sentimental Journey.”
Q: “The Last Dance” is your third film with producer Beth Polson. Why do you find her projects so appealing?
A: She doesn’t like filth and oversexed stuff that has no reason to be and she doesn’t like murders and killings. They are all wonderful stories with an uplift for the heart.
Q: In this drama you are playing a retired Latin . . .
A: Schoolteacher. It’s the story when she has a heart attack and she goes into the hospital and the young nurse who takes care of her is one of her ex-students. It’s about how the relationship grows between her and her student and his wife and his two kids.
Q: So is your character loving or cantankerous?
A: You know for me, she has to be a little cantankerous. If she was too bland, it would be too terrible. I have always done spicy women.
Q: Do you like doing a movie every two or three years?
A: Yes, because it keeps you on your toes so you don’t become a coach potato.
Q: Were you familiar with your co-star Eric Stoltz before “Last Dance”?
A: No, honest to goodness I wasn’t. But he’s a fine young actor and has a wonderful pair of eyes. And Trini is a very pretty young girl.
Q: Has Hollywood changed a lot since the ‘40s and ‘50s?
A: No. The actor has to act. The writer had to write. The director has to direct and the producer has to put the whole thing together. But the technical things have changed--film, cameras, computers and computer images.
Q: I know it was a real struggle for director John Ford and you and John Wayne to get the 1952 classic “The Quiet Man” made. Can you talk about the experience?
A: We made “Rio Grande” to raise the money to make “The Quiet Man.” We had a handshake agreement with John Ford in 1944 to make it and it took from ’44 to ’51 to get the money. The studios thought it was such a silly little Irish story and it would never make a penny. And Duke said, “Let’s please send it to old man Yates [Herbert Yates] at Republic Pictures.” That [studio] was a step down for Ford.
[Studio head] Yates said this is a silly little Irish story and it will never make a penny, but if the same outfit--the same producer, actors and director--make a western for me to recoup the money I am going to lose on “The Quiet Man,” then I’ll finance it. That is how “The Quiet Man” was made.
* “The Last Dance” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).