O'Sullivan, Maureen (1911–1998)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

O'Sullivan, Maureen (1911–1998)

Irish-born actress. Born on May 17, 1911, in Boyle, County Roscommon, Ireland; died on June 22, 1998, in Phoenix, Arizona; married John Farrow (a screenwriter), in 1936 (died 1963); married James E. Cushing (a real-estate contractor), in 1983; children: (first marriage) seven, including Michael Farrow (1940–1958) and actress Mia Farrow (b. 1945).

Selected filmography:

Song O' My Heart (1930); So This Is London (1930); Just Imagine (1930); The Princess and the Plumber (1930); A Connecticut Yankee (1931); Skyline (1931); The Big Shot (1931); Tarzan the Ape Man (1932); The Silver Lining (1932); Fast Companions (1932); Skyscraper Souls (1932); Information Kid (1932); Strange Interlude (1932); Okay America (1932); Payment Deferred (1932); Robber's Roost (1933); The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble (1933); Tugboat Annie (1933); Stage Mother (1933); Tarzan and His Mate (1934); The Thin Man (1934); Hide-Out (1934); The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934); David Copperfield (1935); West Point of the Air (1935); Cardinal Richelieu (1935); The Flame Within (1935); Woman Wanted (1935); Anna Karenina (1935); The Bishop Misbehaves (1935); The Voice of Bugle Ann (1936); The Devil Doll (1936); Tarzan Escapes (1936); A Day at the Races (1937); The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937); Between Two Women (1937); My Dear Miss Aldrich (1937); A Yank at Oxford (1938); Hold That Kiss (1938); Port of Seven Seas (1938); The Crowd Roars (1938); Spring Madness (1938); Let Us Live (1939); Tarzan Finds a Son (1939); Sporting Blood (1940); Pride and Prejudice (1940); Maisie Was a Lady (1941); Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941); Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942); The Big Clock (1948); Where Danger Lives (1950); Bonzo Goes to College (1952); All I Desire (1953); Mission Over Korea (1953); Duffy of San Quentin (1954); The Steel Cage (1954); The Tall T (1957); Wild Heritage (1958); Never Too Late (1965); The Phynx (cameo, 1970); Too Scared to Scream (1985); Hannah and Her Sisters (1986); Peggy Sue Got Married (1986); Stranded (1987).

A delicate Irish beauty, actress Maureen O'Sullivan made her mark in film history as Jane, the scantily clad mate of Tarzan in a series of six movies she made with Johnny Weissmuller during the 1930s and and early 1940s. (She was replaced by Brenda Joyce in 1945.) O'Sullivan deserves equal recognition, however, for her more serious roles in such films as The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Cardinal Richelieu (1935), Anna Karenina (1935), and Pride and Prejudice (1940).

The daughter of a British army major, O'Sullivan was born in 1911 in County Roscommon, Ireland, and educated in a convent outside London and at a Paris finishing school. At age 18, with no acting experience, she was discovered by American director Frank Borzage who negotiated her film debut in Song O' My Heart (1930), with the great Irish tenor John McCormack. O'Sullivan subsequently signed a contract with Fox, but eventually transferred to MGM, which produced the popular Tarzan series. The actress, who had never read Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan books, had no idea what she was getting into. When she first met Johnny Weissmuller, "he was standing with just that loin cloth, and he was holding a spear in his hand," she told interviewer Ray Nielsen in 1997, "and he had his foot on a lion that was supposedly dead. It was probably a prop…. Anyway, he was supposed to spear this lion. It was very effective, and he raised his arm, and had the golden makeup on, and I thought he looked absolutely … terrific." The Tarzan movies were immensely popular, although some theatergoers objected to O'Sullivan's minimal costuming. "It started such a furor," she recalled. "Letters started coming in. It added up to thousands of women objecting to my costume…. It's funny. We were unreal people, and yet we were real."

O'Sullivan married director-screenwriter John Farrow in 1936, and had her first child Michael four years later. (Michael would die in an airplane collision in 1958.) Her children eventually numbered seven, including well-known actress Mia Farrow , and O'Sullivan put her career on hold to raise them. As her children

grew more independent, she gradually returned to the screen. "They like to have me come home and tell them what Bob Hope said, and so forth," she said. "It makes their mother seem more exciting." In the 1950s, she hosted the television series "Irish Heritage"; in the 1960s, she appeared in several Broadway and touring theater productions and was briefly a regular on the "Today" show. In 1962, she played opposite Paul Ford in the Broadway production of Never Too Late (1962), a role she reprised in the 1965 film version. O'Sullivan appeared with her daughter Mia in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, playing Mia's mother, in 1985. Her last movies were Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) and Stranded (1987).

John Farrow died in 1963. Twenty years later, O'Sullivan married real-estate contractor James Cushing, and spent her later years commuting between homes in New Hampshire, New York, and Arizona, with frequent visits to her 30 grandchildren. When the actress died in 1998, she was eulogized as much for her spirit as her career. Said her long-time agent John Springer, "She was warm, generous, kind, and loving."


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

"Mia's Mama," in People Weekly. July 6, 1998.

Nielsen, Ray. "A Final Interview with Maureen O'Sullivan (1911–1998)," in Classic Images. August 1998, pp. C10–C13.

"Obituary," in The Day (New London, CT). June 23, 1998.

"Obituary," in Newsday. June 24, 1998.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts