We look back on the life and career of the first big Hollywood film star to come out of Ireland: Maureen O’Sullivan.
Actress Maureen O’Sullivan made a name for herself in the movies, and not just any name: O’Sullivan is perhaps best remembered as Jane opposite Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan. We look back on the life and career of the first big Hollywood film star to come out of Ireland.
Maureen Paula O’Sullivan was born 17 May 1911 to Irish Catholic parents in the small town of Boyle, County Roscommon. As a little girl O’Sullivan wanted to be a pilot. While waiting until she was old enough to fly, she attended convent schools, first in Dublin and later London (where her classmates included future movie star Vivien Leigh). Her father was a World War I veteran and an officer with the Connaught Rangers – an Irish regiment of the British Army – and the family did well enough to afford to send her to France for finishing school.
O’Sullivan returned to Dublin to work with the poor and likely would not have gone into acting at all had she not been discovered by Hollywood director Frank Borzage, who was on location filming Song o’ My Heart. Encouraged to take a screen test, she landed a small role and, accompanied by her mother, traveled to Hollywood to complete the film. Two years later, she’d signed an MGM contract and looked to be on the fast track to stardom. In 1932 alone, she appeared in eight films.
One of her big early roles was playing Jane opposite a loinclothed Johnny Weissmuller in 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man, a film that also marked the debut of Cheeta the chimpanzee. O’Sullivan reputedly didn’t get along too well with the chimp, referring to him privately as “that ape son of a [beep].” It didn’t stop her working with the primate on other projects though, and over the next 20 years she would appear in Tarzan and His Mate (which featured a controversial nude swimming scene), Tarzan Escapes, Tarzan Finds a Son!, Tarzan’s Secret Treasure and Tarzan’s New York Adventure. Nor were her appearances with chimps limited to Tarzan flicks – she also appeared in Bonzo Goes to College.
All of which isn’t to imply her career was restricted to lines like, “You Tarzan, Me Jane.” During the 1930s, O’Sullivan also appeared in prestigious films such as The Thin Man, Anna Karenina and David Copperfield. The rising ingénue was a favorite of MGM boss Irving Thalberg and she may well have become one of the biggest stars of the era had he not fallen seriously ill in 1932 (he would die four years later at the age of 37). David O. Selznick, Thalberg’s successor, was less enamored of the actress and it soon became apparent to O’Sullivan that she would never be offered the choicest roles at the studio. In 1942 she convinced MGM to let her out of her contract.
She spent some time caring for her husband, John Farrow, the Australian writer-director who was then returning from the Navy with a case of typhoid. She also wished to be more involved in raising a family that eventually swelled to seven children, including a daughter the world would later know as Mia Farrow.
O’Sullivan didn’t exactly retire, though, still appearing films (albeit fewer of them) throughout the ’40s and ’50s, including the classic 1948 film noir The Big Clock, directed by her husband. She briefly hosted a TV show called Irish Heritage and also began appearing on Broadway. Shortly after her debut her husband died in 1963 of a heart attack at age 58. She’d previously been visited by family tragedy when her eldest son Michael died in a plane crash while taking flight lessons in 1958.
O’Sullivan landed a lucrative job on The Today Show, though this career departure was short-lived. She proved a better interview subject than host and producers felt she’d be out of her depth covering the Atlantic City democratic convention that nominated Lyndon Johnson (her eventual replacement was Barbara Walters, who would stay with the show for 13 years).
When O’Sullivan’s daughter Mia Farrow – who’d gone into acting against the wishes of her father – became involved with Woody Allen, it led to O’Sullivan being cast in Hannah and Her Sisters, playing the onscreen mother of her real-life daughter. In 1987 Allen would fire O’Sullivan from his movie September when he and Farrow ended their relationship.
During the ’80s, O’Sullivan also appeared on the small screen in a range of soap operas, including All My Children, Guiding Light and Search for Tomorrow.
During her later years, she embraced her legacy as Tarzan’s mate Jane, the role that best defined her in the public mind despite her other many roles during a career that spanned half a century.
“It’s nice to be immortal,” she said, “and film has given us immortality.”
Maureen O’Sullivan died 23 June 1998 in Scottsdale, Arizona, age 87.