O'Herlihy, Dan (Daniel Peter) (1919–2005), actor, was born 1 May 1919 at Odessa Cottage, Wexford town, son of John Robert O'Herlihy, a civil servant from Cork who later worked in the Department of Industry and Commerce, and his wife Ellen (née Hanton), from Wexford; they had at least one daughter, and a younger son, Michael O'Herlihy (1929–97), a television director. The family moved to Dublin when Daniel was one year old. Educated at CBS Dún Laoghaire, as a teenager he developed literary ambitions. On entering UCD, he applied to study law, but rapidly switched to architecture, which allowed him to use his drawing skills. While a student he published political cartoons in Irish newspapers, under the initials TOC.
Enlisted despite his minimal acting experience to perform in a production of the UCD dramatic society when a cast member walked out two days before an amateur festival, O'Herlihy accepted the offer in a spirit of adventure, won a medal, and was offered a part in a play at the Abbey theatre. He appeared as a 'semi-pro' in about sixty Abbey productions, but was turned down for the permanent company because Ernest Blythe (qv) thought his Irish insufficient (though he spoke and wrote Irish fluently). He also appeared in Gate theatre productions, and joined touring companies during the holidays. He played Major Sirr (qv) at the Gate in 'Lord Edward' (1941) by Christine Longford (qv), and took the lead role of Ayamonn Breydon in the world premiere at the Olympia theatre of 'Red roses for me' (1944) by Sean O'Casey (qv). His commitment to acting being motivated in part by a desire to supplement his allowance of half a crown a week from his father, he further augmented his income by working as a relief announcer on Radio Éireann.
After graduating from UCD, O'Herlihy worked part-time for one year in Dublin Corporation's architecture department, surveying the city's buildings to determine how they might be protected against air raids. He married (16 August 1945) Elsie Bennett, a wartime WAAF and TCD pre-medical student; they had three sons and two daughters. (In a favourite anecdote, he described his future father-in-law asking how he would support his daughter and a family on an architect's salary, and his provoking scorn by observing that he also acted in the evenings; when O'Herlihy further asserted that he would make a fortune in Hollywood, he was thrown out of the house.) He abandoned architecture as a profession after landing roles in two films with Irish settings (but shot at Denham Studios, England): Hungry Hill (1947, dir. Brian Desmond Hurst) and Odd man out (1947, dir. Carol Reed); both films paid more for one day's work than two months as an architect. (He retained a lifelong interest in architecture, and a sense that he was an architect who happened to act; he sometimes designed and/or built his own houses and those of friends and family. His last residence, in Trancas Canyon, Malibu, California, was designed by his architect son Lorcan, and built by O'Herlihy himself.)
O'Herlihy was brought to Hollywood in 1947 by the agent Charles Feldman, with whom he fell out after refusing two studio contracts: 'I didn't want anyone to own me.' O'Herlihy feared that as a studio contract player he could be forced to accept unsuitable roles, thus destroying his long-term prospects. Through a period of considerable financial strain on his young and growing family, he initially got by on radio work, which dried up with the spread of television. Turning down the worst film scripts and accepting the average, in the expectation that good parts would come in time, O'Herlihy deferred to his wife's judgment of scripts; she also helped him to rehearse as 'unpaid script girl'. In later interviews the couple observed that the shared struggles of this period helped them to achieve a notably successful and remarkably plainspoken marriage.
Between 1948 and 1955 O'Herlihy appeared, mostly as a supporting player, in thirteen costume drama pictures; these were mainly low-budget productions, such as William Beaudine's adaptation of Kidnapped (1948), from the adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, for the 'Poverty Row' studio Monogram, in which O'Herlihy played Alan Breck Stewart to the David Balfour of Roddy McDowall. Although O'Herlihy's height (over 6 ft (1.83m)) and reddish-blond good looks were well-suited to this genre, he actively resisted typecasting. In Sword of Venus (1953, dir. Harold Daniels), he was made up effectively to play the role of the elderly villain. Such versatility laid the basis for his later success as a character actor, with a reputation as an 'actor's actor', placing a strong emphasis on spontaneity.
Throughout his career O'Herlihy remained involved in theatre, which he regarded as the actors' medium par excellence (film being a director's medium). He made his only Broadway appearance as Charles Dickens in 'The ivy green' (1949) by Mervyn Nelson. In 1955 he co-founded the Hollywood School of Drama with his boyhood friend and lifelong associate Charles Davis. When a bit player fell ill during the school's production of 'Finian's rainbow', O'Herlihy recruited Marlon Brando – who shortly before had lamented to O'Herlihy that he had not appeared on stage for some time – to take on the part for two nights (to the surprise of audience members). In later life O'Herlihy remarked that the writer was the central creative force in drama and that he would have liked to have been a writer. He wrote several unproduced scripts, and between 1985 and 1997 produced a one-man show of his own devising, 'Five men with a pen', in which he impersonated writers and recited from their works, including W. B. Yeats (qv), James Joyce (qv), George Bernard Shaw (qv), and Mark Twain. In the television movie Mark Twain: behind the laughter (1979), he gave a much-admired performance as the elderly Twain recalling his life, with his actor son Gavan playing Twain's younger self.
In 1948 O'Herlihy joined Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre, and played Macduff in Welles's low-budget film of Macbeth (1948), exercising his architectural skills to design most of the sets, and translating additional dialogue written by Welles into Irish. Welles did not credit O'Herlihy's work as set designer, and their later relations were tense. O'Herlihy's performance in the film led in time to his breakthrough role, the lead in The adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954); the director, Luis Buñuel, responding to a proposal that he cast Welles in the role, screened Macbeth and fixed instead on O'Herlihy. Filmed over a lengthy period in Mexico, the story of a shipwrecked man surviving for twenty-eight years on a remote island demanded that O'Herlihy be alone on screen for the film's first fifty minutes, and that he deploy his acting skills to portray his character ageing from young manhood to late middle age. He also appears briefly as Crusoe's elderly father, glimpsed in a fever-driven nightmare. Critically praised for the performance, O'Herlihy received his only Academy Award nomination, for best actor; he was runner-up in the voting to Marlon Brando for On the waterfront (the other nominees were James Mason for A star is born , Humphrey Bogart for The Caine mutiny, and Bing Crosby for The country girl). O'Herlihy received a letter from his father praising his success in his 'hobby' and asking when he would return to his profession (i.e., architecture).
Beginning in the mid 1950s O'Herlihy appeared frequently on television, some such performances being among his best work. He generally refused to make long-term commitments to a television series, believing that, while potentially profitable, they were especially vulnerable to commercial constraints and could inflict long-term career damage through typecasting. (He turned down a role in the hit 1960s series Lost in space.) The major exceptions were The travels of Jaimie McPheeters (1963–4), a western in which he played the showman father of the juvenile protagonist (Kurt Russell), and The long hot summer (1965–6), for which he was recruited mid-series to replace Edmond O'Brien (who had quarrelled with the producers) as the town boss, Will Varner.
O'Herlihy's career advancement was hindered by consequences of his determined and forceful character. He continued to refuse unsuitable roles, courted notoriety with outspoken political views, and clashed bitterly with his powerful talent agency. Espousing liberal political views from the 1950s (he supported the Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, the darling of the decade's liberal intellectuals), he moved further leftward over time, arousing suspicions in some quarters of his being a communist. His remark that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover – whom the cast of a film were about to meet – would be better described not as an American patriot but as a traitor resulted in his being informally shut out from future work for Warner Brothers Pictures. Some of his films had political themes. In Fail-safe (1964, dir. Sidney Lumet), which depicted an accidental American nuclear attack on Moscow, O'Herlihy plays a 'dovish' American air force general who argues for restraint, and is obliged by the president (Henry Fonda) to destroy New York to convince the Soviets that the attack on them was accidental. O'Herlihy expressed satisfaction that the film deconstructed the Cold War image of Russians as ruthless fanatics. His contempt for Russophobia increased owing to a lengthy period in 1969 in Uzhgorod, western Ukraine, during the filming of Waterloo (1970, dir. Sergei Bondarchuk), in which he played Marshal Ney. (Personal sympathy for Russians did not equate to admiration for the Soviet system; he noted that the USSR had its own rigid class system, and predicted a future youth revolt resembling that of the late 1960s in the West.) O'Herlihy's portrayal of Franklin D. Roosevelt in MacArthur (1977, dir. Joseph Sargent) is regarded as one of his finest, and reflected the intellectual fascination with power and its workings that informed his political commitment.
With the decline of the classic studio system, agents became the major brokers in Hollywood; in 1958 the powerful talent agency MCA acquired Universal Studios, creating a conflict of interest in its representation of clients. When O'Herlihy resisted pressure to reprise the Robinson Crusoe role for a Universal television series (stating that he was loathe to go from Buñuel to TV hack direction), the agency ordered him 'put on ice'. O'Herlihy fired the agency, went public with his complaints, and gave evidence at an anti-trust inquiry, mounted by the Justice department under Attorney General Robert Kennedy, which forced MCA to dissolve its agency component so as to retain control of Universal and its music operations. O'Herlihy's role in the agency's defeat was remembered by MCA executives, who exercised considerable power within Hollywood; their enmity inflicted considerable short-term damage on his career and contributed to his spending more time in Ireland.
O'Herlihy had worked in Ireland on the filming of A terrible beauty (1960; dir. Tay Garnett) as a local IRA commander collaborating with Nazi Germany in the 1940s; the film starred Robert Mitchum. Maintaining that his regular visits to Ireland prevented him from romanticising the country, he noted that the socially ambitious Irish middle classes of the relatively affluent 1960s and 1970s resembled their counterparts in California's San Fernando Valley. He compared the speculatively redeveloped Dublin cityscape of the period to a dishevelled and gap-toothed old man, remarking that it was easy to see from the standard of new building that most Irish architects had emigrated. He and his family lived in Ireland in the mid 1960s and again in 1970–75. Briefly rejoining the Abbey company, he played the lead role of the JFK-emulating publican in the premiere of Tom Murphy's 'The White House' (1972). Asked to become a Labour candidate in the 1973 general election, he declined owing to the impossibility of combining electoral office with the extensive travelling required by his acting career. Finding it necessary to be American-based to remain in demand as a Hollywood actor, and because his children had grown up as Americans, O'Herlihy moved back to America in 1975; he took American citizenship in 1980.
Late film roles included Grig, the friendly alien 'iguana man', in The last starfighter (1984; dir. Nick Castle); the Old Man (boss of the malevolent corporation OmniCorp) in RoboCop (1987; dir. Paul Verhoeven, whom O'Herlihy regarded as one of the best contemporary directors) and in RoboCop 2 (1990; dir. Irvin Kershner); the tipsy protestant guest Mr Brown in The dead (1987), adapted by John Huston (qv) from the story by James Joyce; and the sawmill owner Andrew Packard in six episodes of the surreal television serial Twin Peaks (1990–91). His last role was as Joseph Kennedy Sr in the television movie The Rat Pack (1998).
O'Herlihy died 17 February 2005 in Malibu, California, and is buried in St Ibar cemetery, Wexford. Four of his five children worked in theatre and film: Gavan, Cormac, and Patricia as actors, and Olwen as a producer and visual artist. His grandson Colin O'Herlihy became an actor, and his granddaughter Micaela O'Herlihy a multimedia artist.