WTC's Top 10 Irish actors, 2013 edition

Bet you didn't know some of these stars were really Irish. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, March 17, 2013 – As many of us try to jam into teeming Irish pubs today, we’re tempted to remember the timeless comment of that quintessential Irishman Yogi Berra who said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” But drinking isn’t the only thing to remember on St. Paddy’s Day, even if the thirst is upon you.

Irish men and women have come to international prominence in recent history particularly on stage and on the silver screen. And indeed, given the considerable skill of the Irish when expressing themselves in poetry, song, drama, and storytelling, it’s not surprising at all that so many of those who are either native Irish or of Irish descent have made names for themselves in Hollywood over the last century or so.

Here’s our 2013 list of the individuals we currently regard as the most notable movie actors and actresses who hail more or less directly from the Emerald Isle. If it skews a bit contemporary, that’s largely due to the current flood of Irish talent that’s been currently taking Tinseltown by storm. On the other hand, we dropped the hapless Colin Farrell off our position #10 this year. His replacement this year is a better, more consistent historical choice.

Our list is subjective, of course. There are lots more Irish movie and stage thespians who’ve graced our stages and movie theaters over the last century, many of them actually Americans whose ancestors had emigrated to these shores in search of a better life.

But in any event, let’s try these top ten on for size. And a hearty “Slainté” to you all.


SEE RELATED: Top 10 St. Patrick’s Day Irish toasts for 2013

10. Bing Crosby. (1903-1977) We dumped current generation actor Colin Farrell from this slot due to his continuing lack of traction, with his latest Hollywood failure being the très lame “Total Recall” that was supposedly going to one-up the original classic sci-fi thriller starring the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

While wishing him luck in his next career, we’re replacing him with an old favorite of ourse, the more timeless Old Groaner, aka Bing Crosby. While perhaps better known as a vocalist, Bing displayed his acting chops in a great number of films ranging from the sentimental “Going My Way,” to jazzy movie musicals like “Holiday Inn,” and even to a classic Western like the original “Stagecoach.” He was also popular in the string of hit comedy “Road” films (like “Road to Utopia”) where he co-starred with longtime comic sidekick Bob Hope and, of course, the lovely Dorothy Lamour (gotta love that name). He later became an important early TV personality.

Publicity poster for the 1942 film, Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Der Bingle is in the middle, of course.

While Crosby didn’t originate in the Oulde Sod, growing up in Tacoma, Washington, his family, he was nonetheless Irish to a fare-thee-well. We’d place him higher on our list, but his film fame seems to have drifted a bit in recent years, damaged further some time ago by a poison pen biography written by one of his sons who had an axe to grind. A point in his comeback favor: he was educated by Jesuits in both high school and college, the same order joined by our new Jesuit Pope Francis, so this should score the Bingmeister a plenary indulgence not only in Heaven but on any Top Ten list.

9. Una O’Connor. (1880-1959). Una who, you say? Born Agnes Teresa McGlade in Belfast, young Una—her eventual stage name—became a stage actress in Ireland and England, but scored her first signal success in late middle age in a 1933 Noel Coward play entitled Cavalcade. When Hollywood decided to film the play, Ms. O’Connor was invited there to reprise her role. She never went back to Ireland.

Una O'Connor

Una O’Connor meets The Invisible Man (Claude Rains.)

She was soon noticed by famed horror film director James Whale, the man who actually helped make her famous by casting her in his film version of “The Invisible Man,” starring Claude Rains. Ms. O’Connor performed in a supporting role, appearing as the publican’s wife, who memorably screams in terror as the Invisible Man, is, well, revealed to her. But the actress’ terror seizures proved to be so over-the-top funny that she ended up reprising similar roles in other horror and thriller classics, including her role as the Baron’s housekeeper in Whale’s 1935 “Bride of Frankenstein.”

But she occasionally played serious roles as well in films ranging from “The Informer” (1935). Her last memorable role was her comic appearance in Billy Wilder’s otherwise serious film version of Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957).

Aidan Quinn.

Aidan Quinn. (AP)

8. Aidan Quinn. (b. 1959). Born to Irish émigré parents in Chicago, Mr. Quinn has appeared in numerous big budget films including “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Benny and Joon,” “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,” and “Michael Collins” in which he co-starred with Liam Neeson. His roles tend to be significant yet frequently low key. Our personal favorite is his role as Brad Pitt’s conflicted older brother in “Legends of the Fall” (1994).

His career seemed to fade somewhat after that 1994 classic. But now you can see him on TV every week as a the beleaguered New York police chief who deals with the manic, updated Sherlock Holmes in the hit show “Elementary” along with Jonny Lee Miller (Sherlock) and the luscious Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson, the world’s first female incarnation of that role. 

7. Pierce Brosnan. (b. 1953). Hailing from County Louth in the center of the Irish Republic, Mr. Brosnan had a difficult childhood as his father left the family and his mother was forced to emigrate to England to earn a living while young Pierce was left with his grandparents.

He originally aspired to be an artist, but eventually found his way into acting. He first discovered fame in the U.S. in the oddball detective hit Remington Steele (1982-1987) in which he played the quirky title character. During the show’s run, he was approached to portray James Bond, replacing the aging Roger Moore, but he had to decline due to a TV contract renewing his character of “Remington Steele,” and the role went to Timothy Dalton.

Pierce Brosnan.

Pierce Brosnan. (AP)

When Dalton’s serious take on Bond proved increasingly unpopular with audiences, Mr. Brosnan got his second chance and was signed to portray 007 in 1994. He appeared in four Bond films, all of them popular, before the role was given to Daniel Craig in 2005 under somewhat murky circumstances. Mr. Brosnan continued to appear in many films, probably the most popular of which was his 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair.”

6. Liam Neeson. (b. 1952). Mr. Neeson probably needs little introduction to contemporary filmgoers. Born in County Antrim in current Northern Ireland, he became an amateur boxing champion in addition to finding himself attracted to stage acting.

After winning small but significant parts in various films, he moved to Hollywood in 1987 and eventually won the starring role in the strange but notable action-horror flick “Darkman” (1990). But his fame began in earnest when he starred in the title role in “Schindler’s List.” In a significant role shift, he portrayed Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn in the initial revival episode of the Star Wars franchise (“Phantom Menace”) in 1999.

Star Wars.

Liam Neeson (r.) joined by Ewan McGregor in the first chapter of the Star Wars revival. (AP)

He’s appeared in a significant number of film roles since, including a few good films but also a few action potboilers. Married to English actress Natasha Richardson in 1994, he suffered a major personal tragedy when she was killed in a ski accident in Canada in 2009. More recently, even as he enters late middle age, he’s morphed into a surprisingly successful action-film star, particularly in the popular initial film in the current “Taken” franchise. Mr. Neeson is now an American citizen.

5. Barry Fitzgerald. (1888-1961). Born William Joseph Shield in Dublin, Mr. Fitzgerald started out as a civil servant but soon began to appear onstage in Dublin’s famous Abbey Theatre, which we’ve had the pleasure of visiting many times, BTW. He was for a time the roommate of famed playwright Sean O’Casey, and began to make appearances in his roomie’s famous plays like Juno and the Paycock.

Barry Fitzgerald

Barry Fitzgerald in “Going My Way.”

Eventually taking up residence in Hollywood, he was much in demand, becoming the go-to actor to portray witty, humorous, or simply very Irish roles in a slew of popular movies. Perhaps his most famous roles were his appearance as a genial Irish priest alongside Bing Crosby’s younger cleric in “Going My Way (1944) (see above) and his humorous supporting role in the John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara Irish-based classic “The Quiet Man” (1952).

4. Maureen O’Hara. (b. 1920). Hailing from the environs of Dublin, this stunning, popular redheaded actress was originally known as Maureen FitzSimons before adopting her stage name. Trained in theater in Dublin, she attracted the attention of English actors and filmmakers, including Charles Laughton who eventually helped her land the role of the gypsy girl Esmeralda in his classic starring vehicle, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1939. The film was a tremendous popular and critical success and her career was launched in earnest.

Maureen O'Sullivan

Maureen O’Sullivan in PR poster with Tyrone Power.

She continued to appear in classic films such as “The Black Swan” (1942); “Sentimental Journey” (1946); “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947); that popular John Wayne classic “The Quiet Man” (1952); and many others. She effectively retired in the early 1970s, but returned to acting in 1991 to star with the late comedian John Candy in “Only the Lonely.” She became an American citizen in 1946, but has returned to Ireland where she currently resides in County Cork on the Irish southwest coast.

3. Richard Harris. (1930-2002). Hailing from the gritty Western Irish city of Limerick, Mr. Harris is famed for his countless and often offbeat films. As a young man, he was an up-and-coming rugby star but was forced to abandon that pursuit after enduring a bout of tuberculosis. Relocating to England after WWII, he dabbled in directing plays while studying to be an actor, but lived many years in poverty as he studied his craft.

He spent time onstage in England and even appeared in small parts in Hollywood films in the late 1950s and early 1960s but didn’t much like his Tinseltown experiences and quarreled with well-known stars like Marlon Brando and Charleton Heston. But he gradually managed to reconcile himself with movie acting, appearing as King Arthur in the film version of the musical “Camelot” (1967); as a British adventurer in “A Man Called Horse” (1970); the uniquely quirky role of English Bob in the Clint Eastwood classic, “Unforgiven” (1992); and the small but significant role of the dying philosopher/emperor Marcus Aurelius in “Gladiator” (2000).

Richard Harris

Richard Harris (r.) as Dumbledore. Maggie Smith and Miriam Margolies are skeptical, too. (AP)

But perhaps his crowning achievement occurred at the end of his career when he appeared as the crafty old wizard and headmaster Albus Dumbledore in the first two installments of the “Harry Potter” Series. He died of cancer just prior to the opening of the second Potter film.

2. Kenneth Branagh. (b. 1961). Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Mr. Branagh is as well-known as an actor as he is a director. His main claim to fame has been his highly cinematic directing and starring roles in film versions of Shakespeare’s classic plays which have garnered him Academy Award nominations. Most recently, he served as director for the Marvel Comics-based superhero hit, “Thor” (2011). He’s also become well-known as a TV actor for his brilliant portrayal of the somewhat existential Swedish detective Kurt Wallander in the English-language Wallander television series, which is built on adaptations of author Henning Mankell’s best-selling Wallander crime novels. Branagh also serves as executive producer of this gritty series.

Kenneth Branagh.

Kenneth Branagh. (AP)

1. Peter O’Toole. (b. 1932). Although he’s clearly of Irish descent, Peter O’Toole to this day is not certain whether he was born in County Galway, Ireland, or in Leeds, Yorkshire, England. He has birth certificates from both counties! In any event, he was raised as a Catholic in England. He started his career as a would-be photojournalist, but eventually received stage training in England after being rejected for a training program at Ireland’s famed Abbey Theatre.

Mr. O’Toole began to appear in stage and TV roles in London when he was noticed by David Lean who was looking to cast the lead in “Lawrence of Arabia,” after he was unable to obtain either Marlon Brando or Albert Finney to play this significant role. Casting Mr. O’Toole, a virtual unknown, in the title role of this epic film proved a fantastically prescient bet for both Mr. Lean and Mr. O’Toole. The sweep and the scope of this film, which also starred dashing Egyptian actor Omar Shariff, transformed it into a Hollywood blockbuster while simultaneously making the photogenic Mr. O’Toole a Hollywood icon. (The film was recently restored to its original splendor and is now available via DVD.)

Peter O&squot;Toole, Katherine Hepburn, "Lion in Winter."

Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, “Lion in Winter.”

Due to ongoing bouts with the bottle, Mr. O’Toole’s career didn’t always follow a predictable trajectory over the years. But he continued to land hugely significant roles, including repeat performances as English King Henry II in two different classics, “Beckett” with Richard Burton (1964) and “Lion in Winter” with Katherine Hepburn (1968). In a seeming parody of his own career, but more particularly that of the swashbuckling and equally alcohol-besotted Errol Flynn, Mr. O’Toole scored a comedic coup for his role as a Hollywood has-been in “My Favorite Year” (1982). He has continued to appear from time to time in a number of costume dramas. He currently lives in the very small town of Clifden in a rocky, remote part of County Galway.


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington. For Terry’s investing insights, visit his Communities column, The Prudent Man in Politics.


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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