Joseph O’Conor obituary in “The Guardian” in 2001.
Joseph O’Conor was born in Dublin in 1916. He made his professional stage debut in London in 1939 in “Julius Caesar”. His best known work was in the 1966 BBC series “The Forsyte Saga” which was hughly popular. He was also featured in the musical “Oliver” as kindly Mr Brownlow. He died at the age of 90.
The actor Joseph O’Conor, who has died aged 84, appeared in 1966 in BBC Television’s last great success of the black-and-white era, The Forsyte Saga, playing the stern patriarch Old Jolyon.
On the big screen his career ranged from Stranger at my Door (1950) to Luc Besson’s Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999) – taking in Mr Brownlow in the 1968 movie of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! The latter was a role for which, with his authoritative, kindly demeanour, he was perfect casting.
But O’Conor’s natural home was the stage. His 60th and last Shakespearean role was as Duncan to Sir Antony Sher’s Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The production began at Stratford in 1999, then toured. O’Conor was flown home from Japan when his failing heart forced him to step down, but within weeks was back for the Young Vic run, his voice older but his presence still commanding. The production was screened on Channel 4 on New Year’s Day.
O’Conor was born in Seattle to Irish parents and, though almost all his life was spent in south-west London, he remained proudly Irish. He was educated at Cardinal Vaughan School in Kensington, and after the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art made his prewar debut in an Embassy Swiss Cottage production of Julius Caesar. At the end of the 1940s he joined the touring company of the last of the great actor-managers, Donald Wolfit, at the Bedford theatre in Camden Town. Wolfit valued his young protégé, giving him a string of Shakespearean parts. The pair alternated as Othello and Iago, and Wolfit vouchsafed his Gravedigger to O’Conor’s acclaimed Hamlet.
At the Bristol Old Vic in the late 1950s he played many leads – alongside Peter O’Toole among others – including the role of Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. There was also a production of his own early play, The Iron Harp, set in his beloved Ireland. That play gave a first important role to Richard Harris, and O’Conor wrote five others.
West End aside, his career took in an American tour, appearances in the York mystery plays, at the Glasgow Citizens’, and at reps such as Windsor and Guildford. As an incurable company man from the 1970s, he enjoyed several seasons with both the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. His years with the latter were especially happy, founded on great mutual respect and affection.
O’Conor enjoyed a fertile period acting for Jonathan Miller, most notably as the Duke in Measure for Measure in 1975. And the lure in the 70s and 80s of the actor George Murcell’s ill-starred Shakespeare company at the St George’s Theatre in Tufnell Park, London, proved irresistible.
There were many other film appearances, including Tom And Viv (1994) and Elizabeth (1998). A highlight was the festival favourite The Forbidden Quest (1993), directed by Peter Delpuit, which gave O’Conor a unique one-man vehicle as a polar survivor.
I was lucky enough to produce one of the very best of his many TV performances when he led the cast of Drew Griffiths’ and Noel Greig’s Only Connect (1979). As a devout Catholic, O’Conor had an intellectual objection to abortion, adultery and homosexuality, but in his life and work he was understanding and supportive. In Only Connect, he played a man who in extreme youth had had a sexual encounter with the writer and prophet Edward Carpenter. The play confronted a very thorny issue for gay men, that of ageism, and O’Conor embraced the theme with a generous heart.
The production coincided with his marriage to the actress Lizanne Rodger, who was young enough to be his daughter, and so O’Conor had a special connection to the material of the play, which informed his work on it.
In that play, as so often, he was cast older than he was. Kenneth More, who played his son in The Forsyte Saga, was actually two years older than O’Conor, to their shared amusement. Prematurely white-haired, but also unmistakably mature, wise and protective – and sometimes impish and whimsical – he was a natural Chebutykin in Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
He rewrote as novels some of his other plays, such as Inca (sadly eclipsed by Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt Of The Sun) and The Lion Trap. Among his children’s stories, he got to read King Canoodlum and the Great Horned Cheese on television’s Jackanory. In his last months, he completed his memoirs.
He was married first to Naita Moore; they had a daughter Rachel and a son Joseph. With Lizanne Rodger, he had two more children, Charlotte and Kit.
Joseph O’Conor, actor and writer, born February 14 1916; died January 21 2001
His obituary in “The Guardian” can be accessed here.