Actor often ‘played Irish’


Milo O’Shea, a versatile Dublin-born stage and screen actor known for his famously bristling, agile eyebrows and roles in such disparate films as “Ulysses,” “Barbarella” and Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” has died. He was 86.

O’Shea, who also appeared in many popular television series, including “Cheers,” “Frasier,” “The West Wing” and “The Golden Girls,” died Tuesday in New York after a short illness, according to Irish news accounts.

Familiar both in starring and supporting roles, he appeared in numerous stage productions before coming to wider attention with his first leading screen role as Leopold Bloom in the 1967 adaptation of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”


O’Shea’s other memorable depictions included playing crazed scientist Dr. Durand Durand in the 1968 cult classic “Barbarella” with Jane Fonda, the well-intentioned Friar Laurence in Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” and the cantankerous trial judge in 1982’s Paul Newman film “The Verdict.”

He made his Broadway debut opposite Eli Wallach in the 1968 play “Staircase,” said to be perhaps the American theater’s first effort to depict gay men in a serious way. He was nominated for a Tony Award for that performance, as well as for his role as a complacent, luxury-loving priest in the 1981 play “Mass Appeal.”

O’Shea played priests, both kindly and malevolent, often in his long career. He also frequently -- and he said, enjoyably -- “played Irish,” depicting Irish characters in such films as “The Matchmaker.” In that 1997 romantic comedy, he played the title character, a gently scheming fellow intent on pairing up the residents of an Irish village, American tourists and other visitors.

That character, O’Shea told the Irish Voice in 1997, was “filled with love, and that’s how I tried to play him. That’s how I try to play all my characters, no matter who they are.”

Born June 2, 1926, in Dublin, Milo O’Shea was a child actor whose father was a singer and mother was a harpist and ballet teacher. At 12 he began appearing in plays at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, and soon after, his father let him go on tour with a theater troupe, expecting the boy to be turned off by the low wages and long hours. Instead, O’Shea was more eager than ever.

He made his London stage debut in 1949, playing a pantry boy in John Gielgud’s production of a jewelry theft caper, “Treasure Hunt,” with the British actress Dame Sybil Thorndike. Queen Mary, mother of the current British monarch, was in the audience one night.

The queen went backstage at intermission and stopped to greet the young actor, asking him to tell her where the jewels were hidden, O’Shea told the Irish Times in 2003. As he hesitated, flustered, Thorndike broke in: “Don’t tell her or she won’t come back” after the intermission.

O’Shea became a household name in England with a starring role in the 1960s BBC sitcom “Me Mammy.” His first major film role came in 1967, when he played the cuckolded protagonist Leopold Bloom in “Ulysses,” the groundbreaking novel long considered unfilmable because of its complexity and sexual content.

O’Shea, who moved to the U.S. in 1976 and became an American citizen, lived in New York with his wife, actress Kitty Sullivan. She survives him, along with sons Colm and Steven from a previous marriage, and a number of grandchildren.