Whitehead, O. Z. (Oothout Zabriskie; 'Zebby') (1911–98), actor and Bahá'í pioneer, was born 18 March 1911 in New York city, USA, the son of O. Z. Whitehead, a wealthy banker living in Manhattan's Upper East Side, and his wife Maria. Enjoying a comfortable childhood, he attended the Buckley School off Park Avenue, spending summers on Long Island. Seeing Charlie Chaplin in The kid (1921) inspired Whitehead to act. His father, a private in Teddy Roosevelt's 'Rough Riders' who charged the San Juan heights in Cuba in 1898, was impressed with comrades he met who had attended St Mark's School. Dispatched to this elite boarding prep school in Southborough, Massachusetts, Whitehead jnr excelled at amateur dramatics. Writing, directing and acting, he was president of the dramatics club, sang in the choir and captained the tennis team. Graduating from St Mark's in 1930, while studying English literature at Harvard University and continuing to act, he became a close friend of the playwright Richard Hepburn, Katharine's brother. Playing in Harvard's Hasty Pudding Club shows, Whitehead was increasingly drawn to the Broadway stage. Abandoning his studies without graduating, and taking acting lessons from Boris Marshalov for over two years, he made his Broadway debut in 'The lake' (1933) with Katharine Hepburn in the lead. He featured alongside Henry Fonda and others in 'New faces of 1934', a musical stage revue written and produced by Leonard Sillman. Whitehead's roles were mostly small parts, and he continued to work on Broadway up to 1939.
After making his film debut in The scoundrel (1935), a Noel Coward vehicle, he met John Ford (qv) at the Hepburn family home in Connecticut in 1937. Whitehead is best remembered for playing in Ford's adaptation of John Steinbeck's The grapes of wrath (1940). His well-crafted depiction of Al Joad, a young sharecropper, was portrayed with subtle comic aplomb. Whitehead, flush from this success, played the protagonist, Clarence, alongside Lillian Gish in 'Life with father' during its successful Chicago run (1940). Youthful and plain in appearance, he played average Joes, eccentrics, and younger characters in a range of minor musical and comic films.
Although he was an avowed pacifist opposing US entry into the second world war, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 led Whitehead to enlist out of a sense of patriotic duty. Excluded from active combat due to suffering from curvature of the spine (which periodically afflicted him for the remainder of his life), he was stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii, with the entertainment section of the US army's Special Services office. Organising shows for servicemen on leave, he built sets, manned lighting, produced and compèred, as well as singing, dancing and acting. Discharged on Christmas day 1945, he signed an MGM contract within the rigid studio system then prevalent. Struggling for fulfilling roles, playing down the bill in small films, disenchanted with post-war Hollywood, he lamented the 'simple, zestful place with a charm and a sense of novelty' (Ir. Times, 8 October 1983) that he remembered from the 1930s. He made a living with infrequent bit parts in TV serials such as Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Perry Mason and Alfred Hitchcock presents, but from 1953 lived largely in New York.
After a supporting role in My brother talks to horses (1947; dir., Fred Zinnemann), Whitehead played four supporting roles for Ford who convinced him to return to Hollywood for The last hurrah (1958), playing the mentally deficient son to Basil Rathbone's banker. He was a military doctor in The horse soldiers (1959), a soldier in Two rode together (1961), and played a teenager (although aged 51) ejected from an electoral convention (for being too young to vote) by John Wayne's character in The man who shot Liberty Valance (1962).
Having endured personal and professional disillusionment, he was largely agnostic in religion, but joined the Bahá'í faith in Los Angeles (1950) after meeting a believer in a Sunset Boulevard restaurant. Whitehead embraced the pioneering culture embedded within the faith's core. The life of George Townshend (qv), an early Irish convert, had greatly influenced Whitehead, and after the Bahá'í world congress in London (1963) he volunteered to 'pioneer' in Ireland. Assisting other pioneers and native Bahá'ís in the growth and development of the nascent Irish Bahá'í community, he regularly hosted 'fireside' meetings for friends and believers at his home on Sunday evenings. A committed administrator, Whitehead was elected as one of nine members of the Dublin City Assembly (established 1948) of the faith. He was one of the founding members (1972–87) of the first National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'í faith in Ireland (later know as the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Ireland).
He was a member of the Kildare Street Club and wrote occasional reviews for Irish newspapers. His long-previewed biography of Lillian Gish, whom he knew well, finally appeared as 'Life with Lillian' in The rise and fall of the matinée idol (1974), edited by Anthony Curtis. Writing for a range of Bahá'í publications, Whitehead penned three volumes of history and portraits of early pioneers and leading adherents of the faith: Some early Bahá'ís of the west (1976), Some Bahá'ís to remember (1983), and Portraits of some Bahá'í women (1996).
Often in attendance at the Peacock Theatre reminiscing about his Broadway experiences in the 1930s, he moved in acting circles and took occasional small parts. Schooled in the Stanislavsky method, Whitehead took a keen interest in the Focus Theatre in Dublin, run by Deirdre O'Connell (qv). He enjoyed seeing those working in the arts fulfil their potential, and believed Irish writers and actors had much to offer. His depiction of the night clerk in Eugene O'Neill's 'Hughie' won the best supporting actor award at the Dublin theatre festival in 1965; he reprised the role at the Peacock in 1989. He founded and endowed the Whitehead award for drama for one-act plays (1966); from 1987 it was opened up to plays of any length. After going into abeyance for some time, and some friction with the Arts Council, the award was re-launched in the 1990s.
Appearing as Alexander Dowie in Joseph Strick's film adaptation of Ulysses (1967), Whitehead played the bishop of Durham in The lion in winter (1968), and appeared as Ben Burton in John Quested's film adaptation of Philadelphia, here I come! (1975). Whitehead undertook occasional RTÉ television work, playing the wartime American ambassador to Ireland, David Gray (qv), in the Caught in a free state miniseries (1984); he also appeared in two episodes of Glenroe in the 1980s. He played Willie in 'Happy days' by Samuel Beckett (qv) in the Peacock Theatre (1986), opposite Marie Kean (qv), to strong reviews.
Having lived at addresses on Pembroke Street, Fitzwilliam Square and finally Leeson Street, Dublin, Whitehead died of cancer 29 July 1998 in Dublin; he is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery. His funeral was attended by a wide spectrum of people in Irish society. In 2008 Irish PEN and the Writers' Guild of Ireland launched the Zebbie [sic] theatre awards in Whitehead's memory.