- Although not nearly as well remembered as most of his Oscar-nominated contemporaries, Dan O’Herlihy was a unique Best Actor contender during the studio era: A relatively little-known performer shortlisted for work in a low-budget and (mostly) foreign production, Luis Buñuel’s Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954).
Dan O’Herlihy was unique Best Actor Oscar nominee during studio era: A ‘non-star’ in low-budget + foreign-made production
Stage, film, television, and radio actor Dan O’Herlihy has an unusual place in film history.
At the time of his Best Actor Academy Award nomination in early 1955 – for his work as the titular hero in Luis Buñuel’s low-budget, Mexican-made (with some U.S. financing) Adventures of Robinson Crusoe – O’Herlihy was undoubtedly the least-known performer to have ever been in the running in a leading role category.
Half a century later – and despite more than 40 feature film credits, ranging from Orson Welles’ Macbeth to Paul Verhoeven’s futuristic thriller RoboCop, and almost 100 TV appearances, among them a recurring part in David Lynch’s cult series Twin Peaks – Dan O’Herlihy remains one of the most obscure studio era players to have been shortlisted for an Oscar for a leading role.
How did that happen?
From the Dublin stage to Hollywood
Upon graduating in architecture at University College Dublin in 1944, Dan O’Herlihy (born Daniel Peter O’Herlihy on May 1, 1919, in Wexford, Ireland) opted to join not a design firm but Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, where he made his debut that same year in Sean O’Casey’s original production of Red Roses for Me.
O’Herlihy’s movie career was launched three years later, in minor roles in two British releases: Carol Reed’s political drama Odd Man Out, starring James Mason, and Brian Desmond Hurst’s melodrama Hungry Hill, headlining Margaret Lockwood and Dennis Price.
“I was more in awe of [Carol Reed] than any director I’ve ever worked with, more even than Buñuel,” O’Herlihy would recall. “He taught me to speak and think on more complicated levels than you do on stage, as film allows for more subtlety.”
These lessons came in handy after O’Herlihy, then nearing 30, signed with Hollywood talent agent (and sometime producer) Charles K. Feldman (A Streetcar Named Desire), whose clients in the previous decade or so had included Joan Bennett, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, and Charles Boyer.
Orson Welles & Robert Louis Stevenson
Dan O’Herlihy made his Hollywood debut in 1948, getting featured in three disparate titles:
- At Universal, George Sherman’s minor crime drama Larceny, in a small role supporting John Payne and Joan Caulfield.
- At the low-grade Monogram, William Beaudine’s relatively high-grade version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, with O’Herlihy’s suave Scottish rebel Alan Breck effortlessly stealing the show from Roddy McDowall’s boy-hero David Balfour.
- At the second-string Republic Pictures, Orson Welles’ relatively lavish – but critically and commercially unsuccessful – adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with O’Herlihy, whose agent helped to put the film together, cast as Macduff.
In the ensuing years, O’Herlihy’s American career flourished on the radio while stalling on the big screen.
“1 antagonized a lot of producers,” he would later tell The Associated Press‘ Bob Thomas. “I knew certain things were bad for a career. I refused B pictures and I wouldn’t play the hero’s friend, because you end up being a piece of furniture. Producers figured it might be all right for a star to turn down roles, but not a newcomer like me.”
Yet, in spite of his professional scruples, following Kidnapped and Macbeth O’Herlihy found himself stuck playing second leads and supporting characters in mostly run-of-the-mill productions (e.g., The Highwayman, Sword of Venus), along with the occasional A title (The Blue Veil, Soldiers Three).
None of these did much to advance his Hollywood standing, but Macbeth eventually would, even if somewhat indirectly, earn him what would become his most notable feature film showcase.
William Shakespeare leads to Daniel Defoe
In 1950, Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, living in exile in Mexico since the end of World War II, began working on a big-screen version of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 classic The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, to be adapted by Oscar-nominated Hollywood screenwriter Hugo Butler (Edison the Man, 1940), himself a political refugee residing in Mexico after being blacklisted in the United States during the Red Scare.
Another Mexican-based refugee, Russian-born producer Óscar Dancigers, whose credits included Buñuel’s 1950 classic The Young and the Damned / Los Olvidados, was tasked with getting the financing and assembling the talent for the psychological adventure drama.
Along with U.S. investor Henry F. Ehrlich, Dancigers suggested that Orson Welles be cast as the mid-17th-century British gentleman, adventurer, Brazil plantation owner, and slave trader stranded all alone for nearly 20 years – plus another decade or so accompanied by a near-victim of cannibals – on a small tropical island off the northern coast of South America.
O’Herlihy would later remember that Buñuel’s reaction to the Orson Welles as Robinson Crusoe suggestion was “No, no, no, all wrong – too fat, too big and too loud.” Dancigers and Ehrlich then insisted that he check out Macbeth, in which Welles “wears furs and has a beard and looks very rugged.” According to O’Herlihy, “So Buñuel sighed and sat down, and then I came on as Macduff and he said, ‘I want him!’ And that’s how I got the film.”
Superficial star turn in accessible Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
One left none too impressed with this Luis Buñuel-Dan O’Herlihy collaboration (shot in both English and Spanish) was New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther. On the occasion of United Artists’ U.S. release of the English-language Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in August 1954, he complained that this Defoe adaptation “does become heavily monotonous after a weary while,” adding that the star’s contributions were at best superficial:
“Dan O’Herlihy does a good straight job of playing the hermit hero, without getting inside the man. His only conspicuous condescension to isolation is a trace of looniness, to be seen when the goat-skin-dressed old fellow wanders along the beach.”
Indeed, unlike Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away, O’Herlihy delivers a broad, silent-era-like performance while failing to convey his character’s fraught psychological state in this wholly “accessible” but, notwithstanding a handful of Buñuelesque touches and several disturbing scenes, disappointingly conventional effort.
Luckily for the Robinson Crusoe portrayer, enough movie critics and review-reading Screen Actors Guild members had a markedly different take on his work.
Enterprising Oscar hopeful
As per Dan O’Herlihy, Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was screened in Los Angeles as the bottom half of a double bill with Vittorio De Sica’s critical and box office flop Indiscretion of an American Wife, starring Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift.
So when O’Herlihy asked United Artists to showcase his film at a Hollywood area theater, the distributor balked. The powers-that-be felt it had already run its course. O’Herlihy, however, felt otherwise.
He decided to use $1,000 out of the $1,250 he had in his bank account to make a professional investment: Half of the money would go to the manager of a Hollywood Boulevard movie house to show Adventures of Robinson Crusoe for a week; the other half would be used to pay for ads inviting, free of charge, Screen Actors Guild members – who, from 1937 to 1956, were allowed to vote for Academy Award nominations in the acting categories.
Academy Awards’ ‘dark horse’
Oscar timing turned out to be propitious: As the nomination ballots were mailed out, Academy and SAG members could check out Dan O’Herlihy and Diana Lynn in the Lux Video Theatre broadcast of the romantic drama “Love Letters,” in the roles Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones had played on the big screen a decade earlier.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the list of nominees on Feb. 12, 1955, the contenders in the Best Actor category consisted of four major stars in four major Hollywood productions – Humphrey Bogart for The Caine Mutiny, Marlon Brando for On the Waterfront, Bing Crosby for The Country Girl, James Mason for A Star Is Born – plus Dan O’Herlihy for the low-budget, mostly Mexican-made Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
Referring to O’Herlihy as “the dark horse of the Academy nominations,” Bob Thomas admitted that he had been able to recognize the Best Actor hopeful (presumably at a Louella Parsons- and Irene Dunne-hosted nominations mini-ceremony at Los Angeles’ Coconut Grove nightclub) “only because I had seen him on a telecast of ‘Love Letters’ … a few weeks ago.”
In fact, no other media member – or, apparently, anybody else in attendance – knew who “the handsome Irishman” was. “I walked right out,” O’Herlihy told Thomas, “and no one said goodby to me.”
Uniquely ‘obscure’ Best Actor Oscar nominee
Besides the lack of Coconut Grove goodbyes, there were two noteworthy – or rather, unique – aspects to Dan O’Herlihy’s Best Actor Oscar nomination:
- His being a relatively obscure performer shortlisted for work in a low-budget, mostly foreign-made independent production during the star-orbiting studio(-controlled) era.
- His having remained relatively little known despite the Oscar nod.
Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry VIII, for the period 1932–33) and Elisabeth Bergner (Escape Me Never, 1935) were already international names when they were nominated for two low-budget foreign (British) productions. Laughton, as a matter of fact, had been featured in half a dozen Hollywood releases (e.g., The Old Dark House, The Sign of the Cross).
Lawrence Tibbett (The Rogue Song, 1929–30), Lynn Fontanne, and Alfred Lunt (the latter two nominated for The Guardsman, 1931–32) didn’t have much of a film career, but all three were top stars in their own arenas by the time they had their names added to the Academy Awards’ roster: Tibbett at the Metropolitan; Fontanne and Lunt on Broadway.
Even the now largely forgotten Alexander Knox, a 1944 Best Actor nominee for Henry King’s costly box office flop Wilson – personally produced by 20th Century Fox honcho Darryl F. Zanuck – at least managed to land a handful of sizable roles in A productions of the 1940s (e.g., Over 21, Sister Kenny) before the Canadian-born actor was forced to leave Hollywood during the McCarthy Era.
Post-Oscar big-screen letdown
As it happened, regardless of his Best Actor Oscar nomination Dan O’Herlihy would continue to play supporting roles in A productions (e.g., The Virgin Queen, Imitation of Life) or, in rare instances, leads in minor fare like Compton Bennett’s 1957 British crime drama That Woman Opposite and, in a dual role opposite Glynis Johns, the 1962 remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Two notable exceptions in the decade following his Academy nod were Mervyn LeRoy’s psychological drama Home Before Dark (1958), with O’Herlihy cast as the detached husband of mentally unstable Jean Simmons, and Sidney Lumet’s nuclear Armageddon thriller Fail-Safe (1964), as a general given a harrowing mission by U.S. President Henry Fonda.
“I got a little uppity,” O’Herlihy would later admit. “I was offered the leading role in The Incredible Shrinking Man, with the offer including a three-film deal with Universal, but I thought that was beneath me. The  film [with Grant Williams as the lead] was a great hit!”
As found in the Dan O’Herlihy papers at the University College Dublin’s School of History and Archives, not helping matters was his becoming “persona non grata for a period of time in the 1960s and early 1970s” as a result of clashes between the actor and top talent agency MCA following the latter’s decision to acquire Universal Pictures, in addition to his refusal to star in a television series based on Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
Later years: Creepy RoboCop Chairman
MCA clashes or no, Dan O’Herlihy was kept busy on television throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In that medium, he is probably best remembered for playing lumber tycoon Andrew Packard in David Lynch’s mondo bizarro mystery drama Twin Peaks (1990–91).
On the big screen, O’Herlihy landed a noteworthy role in 1984, playing the reptilian pilot Grig opposite arcade-gaming teenager turned space hero Lance Guest in Nick Castle’s amusing but commercially disappointing sci-fi adventure The Last Starfighter.
There would also be a couple more memorable feature film roles, both in 1987:
- The booze-loving Mr. Brown, a Protestant amidst Catholics at a party in 1904 Dublin, in John Huston’s elegiac James Joyce adaptation The Dead. O’Herlihy would describe filming as “a lovely experience to be with such a group [of accomplished Irish players] again.”
- The sinister Omni Consumer Products chairman, a.k.a. “The Old Man,” in Paul Verhoeven’s dystopian blockbuster RoboCop. O’Herlihy would reprise what is now his best-known role in Irvin Kershner’s less successful 1990 sequel, RoboCop 2.
Dan O’Herlihy’s final credit was in Rob Cohen’s made-for-television movie The Rat Pack (1998), playing Joseph P. Kennedy.
He died at age 85 in February 2005 at his home in Malibu, Los Angeles County.
“Dan O’Herlihy: Unique Best Actor Oscar Nominee” notes
Daniel O’Herlihy in Robinson Crusoe
In the Academy annals, Dan O’Herlihy – not “Daniel” – is listed as a Best Actor nominee for Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
“Dan O’Herlihy” endnotes
Unless otherwise noted, Dan O’Herlihy’s quotes via Tom Vallance’s O’Herlihy obit in The Independent.
Other significant sources for this Dan O’Herlihy article: A Companion to Luis Buñuel, edited by Rob Stone and Julián Daniel Gutiérrez-Albilla; Rebecca Mina Schreiber’s Cold War Exiles in Mexico; and Tom and Jim Goldrup’s The Encyclopedia of Feature Players of Hollywood, Volume 2.
“Dan O’Herlihy: Studio Era’s Unique Best Actor Oscar Nominee” last updated in October 2021.