Milo O'Shea dies at 86; Dublin-born actor often 'played Irish'

Milo O'Shea dies at 86; Dublin-born actor often 'played Irish'
Milo O'Shea, left, and Shaun Cassidy hang out in the dressing room of the Huntington Hartford Theater in 1983, when they were costarring in "Mass Appeal." (Los Angeles Times)

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, O'Shea appeared in numerous stage productions before coming to wider attention with his first leading screen role, when he played Leopold Bloom in the 1967 film adaptation of James Joyce's "Ulysses."


Milo O'Shea: The obituary of actor Milo O'Shea in the April 4 LATExtra section referred to Queen Mary as the mother of the current British monarch. She was the grandmother of the current British monarch. —

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 the 1982 film "The Verdict," starring Paul Newman.

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 newspaper 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 his mother a harpist and ballet teacher. He was just 12 when he began appearing in plays at Dublin's well-known Gate Theatre, and soon after, his father allowed him to 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 television 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.

A decade after O'Shea played villainous scientist Durand Durand in "Barbarella," British musicians Nick Rhodes and John Taylor watched the sci-fi classic on TV one night. Inspired, they named their new band, with misspellings, after O'Shea's character, calling it Duran Duran. The actor later reprised the role, arched eyebrow and all, for the group's 1985 concert film "Arena."

On Wednesday, Rhodes paid tribute to O'Shea on the band's website. The actor, Rhodes said, would forever be linked with the character, and "in a small way with a band who couldn't spell his name properly. He will be missed, thanks for the inspiration."

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.