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Maureen O'Hara (1920 - 2015)

(Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images)

Maureen O'Hara (1920 - 2015)

Actress Maureen O'Hara, star of classic movies of the golden age of Hollywood including "Miracle on 34th Street" and "The Quiet Man," died in her sleep Oct. 24, 2015. She was 95.

The Irish-born redhead starred in dozens of films, but she may be remembered best for "Miracle on 34th Street" as well as her work opposite John Wayne in a number of Westerns. Born Aug. 17, 1920, in Dublin, she began her career in London but quickly came to the U.S., with her first major film role in Alfred Hitchcock's "Jamaica Inn." That movie was what prompted her name change, from her maiden FitzSimons to O'Hara – which fit better on theater marquees.

1941's "How Green Was My Valley" was O'Hara's first of several films with director John Ford. Set in Wales but filmed in California, in an elaborately constructed "Welsh" village, it reminded O'Hara of her Celtic home. "It was so authentic, we thought it was Wales," she told the Telegraph. "It was inspiring." Audiences were inspired as well, and the film was a great success that earned 10 Oscar nominations and five wins, though none of them were for O'Hara. Indeed, she would never be nominated for an Academy Award, though she was recognized with an honorary Oscar in 2014, less than a year before her death.

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In 1946, O'Hara became a U.S. citizen, and the following year, she starred in the film with which many identify her most closely, "Miracle on 34th Street." Playing the mother of Natalie Wood's character, O'Hara grew close to the young actress. O'Hara later recalled in her autobiography that the cast and crew knew they were "creating something special" even as they worked. "I don't think I will ever tire of children asking me, 'Are you the lady who knows Santa Claus?'" she wrote. "I always answer, 'Yes, I am. What would you like me to tell him?'"

O'Hara made five movies with frequent co-star Wayne: "Rio Grande," "The Quiet Man," "The Wings of Eagles," "McLintock!" and "Big Jake." Over the years, the two became friends as well as colleagues. Wayne described her with perhaps the highest praise possible from the quintessential man's man: "I've had many friends, and I prefer the company of men, except for Maureen O'Hara," she once recalled him saying. "She is a great guy." But O'Hara also remembered a tender moment with Wayne, their last, as she visited him in his final days: "We adored each other, like brother and sister," she said. "When I left, he reached out and held the collar of my coat and said, 'That's a gorgeous coat. It looks beautiful on you.' Those were the last words he spoke to me."

"The Quiet Man" may be the most notable of the collaborations between O'Hara and Wayne, having been selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Shot in part on location in Ireland, it brought O'Hara back to the land of her youth and featured a number of her countrymen in small roles. She called "The Quiet Man" her favorite of all the films she made, and her family reported that she was listening to its music in the moments leading up to her death. "It is the one I am most proud of," she once said, "and I tend to be very protective of it. I loved Mary Kate Danaher. I loved the hell and fire in her."

O'Hara may have loved that "hell and fire" so much because it reflected an aspect of herself. She was not known as a shy and demure actress – far from it. "I've always been a tough Irish lass," she told the Telegraph, and that toughness shone through whether she was playing a strong frontierswoman on the big screen or standing up to a studio executive who sought to lure her to the casting couch. She was known for her temper, too: She once punched a director after catching him throwing darts at a photo of her. Perhaps the adjective most frequently used to describe her is "fiery," referring as much to her big, bold personality as to her flaming red hair.

The children of O'Hara's earliest fans may remember her best for a later film, "The Parent Trap" (1961). The Disney live-action classic starred O'Hara as the mother of twins played by Hayley Mills. After 1971's "Big Jake," O'Hara largely retired from acting, though she returned in 1991 with "Only the Lonely" opposite John Candy. She called Candy, who played her son, one of her very favorite leading men. In the decade that followed, O'Hara appeared in a number of made-for-TV movies.

When she received word that she'd be presented with an honorary Oscar after so many years of fine performances without receiving the highest honor in the business, O'Hara reportedly cried. She noted to Los Angeles Magazine, "How do you explain the reaction to something you wished you had won? It was wonderful. I was thrilled every time I won a prize in life for acting." But when she went onstage in her wheelchair to accept it – her final public appearance – she displayed a bit of that legendary fire. She spoke beyond the time limit, saying, "Oh no, you have to give me a few more minutes," when an attempt was made to take the microphone from her. When, a few minutes later, her microphone was unclipped from her dress and she was wheeled from the stage, she reportedly kicked off one of her shoes.

In addition to her honorary Oscar, O'Hara was lauded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and membership in the Western Performers Hall of Fame, and she was named Irish American of the Year in 2005. She wrote an autobiography, "'Tis Herself," in 2004. She is survived by her daughter, Bronwyn FitzSimons Price, and her grandson, Conor Beau FitzSimons.

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