Dan O’Herlihy

Dan O'Herlihy

Dan O’Herlihy obituary in “The Guardian” in 2005.

When Luis Buñuel, during his long exile in Mexico from Spain, was preparing to shoot The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe (1952), his producers suggested Orson Welles for the title role. But as Buñuel sat down to watch Welles in the film of Macbeth, he immediately thought him “too big and too fat” for the part of the famous castaway. However, the moment the dashing and handsome Dan O’Herlihy, who has died aged 85, appeared as Macduff, Buñuel had found his Crusoe.A film in which an actor is alone on screen for 60 of the 90 minutes running time would seem a foolhardy venture, but the splendid Pathecolour photography, expert editing and O’Herlihy’s well-shaded performance, never allowed it to pall. With superb skill and grace, O’Herlihy moves from a clever but naive youth to the grizzled patriarch, earning himself an Oscar nomination.

The 29-year-old O’Herlihy had been brought to America by Welles for Macbeth (1948) after having made an impression in his film debut as an IRA gunman in Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947). The Wexford-born Irish actor, who had taken up acting to pay for his architectural studies at the National University of Ireland, had already gained a reputation at Dublin’s Gate Theatre (where the teenage Welles had begun his career) in around 50 plays, including the leading role in the first production of Sean O’Casey’s Red Roses For Me (1943). In the text of the play, O’Casey describes Ayamonn Breydon, the working-class Protestant hero, as “tall, well built, twenty-two or so, with deep brown eyes, fair hair, rather bushy, but tidily kept, and his face would remind an interested observer of a rather handsome, firm-minded, thoughtful, and good-humoured bulldog”.O’Herlihy, who eloquently uttered the rousing climactic patriotic speech, fitted the role perfectly. Macbeth led to a 50-year career in Hollywood and on US television, though few leads were forthcoming.

Apart from Robinson Crusoe, one of them was as Alan Breck in a shoestring version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1948) opposite Roddy McDowall (Malcolm in Welles’s Macbeth) as David Balfour. This was followed by several sterling supporting roles in a number of undistinguished swashbucklers such as At Sword’s Point (1952) playing the son of one of the Three Musketeers, and as Prince Hal of Wales in The Black Shield Of Falworth (1954). He was cast as officers in Kiplingesque colonial adventures Soldier’s Three (1952) and Bengal Brigade (1954). He also appeared in Invasion USA (1952), a Red scare sci-fi film, in which he hypnotises patrons drinking at a bar into believing America has been attacked by nuclear weapons.O’Herlihy was sophisticated in Douglas Sirk’s glorious melodrama Imitation Of Life (1959); brutal, in a return to the world of Odd Man Out, as a fanatical, club-footed IRA leader in A Terrible Beauty (1960), and over-the-top in the title role of The Cabinet Of Caligari (1962), a silly remake of the silent expressionistic classic.

One of his best roles in the 1960s was in Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (1964) as Brigadier General Black, ordered by President Henry Fonda to drop an atomic bomb on New York City to show the Russians that bombing Moscow was an error.Television series, including The Long Hot Summer (1965), ironically in the role played by Orson Welles in the film version; Colditz (1972), Nancy Astor (1982) and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1992) kept him busy. In films, he was Franklin D Roosevelt in MacArthur (1977), starring Gregory Peck, and made himself known to a new generation as the mad toy tycoon in Halloween III: Season Of The Witch (1982), as a lizard-like alien in The Last Starfighter (1984), and eerily effective as the cold-blooded cyborg corporation mogul in Robocop (1987) and Robocop 2 (1990).It was all a long way from his Irish theatrical beginnings, though he recouped some of it in John Huston’s melancholically nostalgic valedictory film The Dead (1987), based on a James Joyce short story, in which he played Mr Brown “the gentleman not of our persuasion”.

Dan O’Herlihy is survived by Elsa Bennett, his wife of 59 years, two daughters and three sons.

· Daniel O’Herlihy, actor, born May 1 1919; died February 17 2005

His Guardian obituary by Ronald Bergan can also be accessed here.

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