A young Maureen Fitz Simmons never considered Hollywood as a part of her future as an actress. She had strictly planned on a career in theater, however, it was not until she was discovered by Charles Laughton that her fate had changed and she became Maureen O’Hara.
When the redhead performed on stage by her real name, Maureen FitzSimmons, her beauty was complimented as “the girl with black cherry eyes” in England. While she trained at the Abbey Theatre School in London, she was offered a screen test at Elstree Studios. Her screen test ended up to be less-than-satisfactory with tacky lighting, heavy make-up, and Maureen who was unsure in how to perform on camera. The experience was so terrible, O’Hara thought, “If this is the movies, I want nothing to do with them.” However, in attendance was actor Charles Laughton who was so enthralled with her wide, expressive eyes that he signed the 17-year old to a seven-year contract with is production company Mayflower Pictures.
Immediately, Laughton and his production partner, Eric Pommers decided a name change had to be made for their new star because FitzSimmons would be too long to fit on a marquee. Despite O’Hara’s protests of changing her name, Laughton chose “Maureen O’Hara.” And he placed her in her first role as “Mary” in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Jamaica Inn” (1939). It was the last of the three films Laughton’s company would produce before he faced bankruptcy.
Eager to see how his discovery would fare in Hollywood, Laughton and his wife traveled with O’Hara from her native Ireland to California. There, RKO Studios offered Laughton the role of “Quasimodo” in their new production of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Although the film would save him from financial troubles, Laughton would not accept the role unless the studio cast O’Hara as “Esmeralda,” insisting she would be perfect for the role of the beautiful gypsy. The studio was forced to agree and cast O’Hara. Amongst the great film releases of 1939, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” held strong numbers at the box office and turned 19-year old O’Hara into a sensation.
It was soon after that Laughton sold O’Hara’s contract to RKO Studios, and from there, she reached new heights on her own. With the invention of Technicolor, Miss. O’Hara’s beauty was amplified. Everyone marveled at her red hair and black cherry eyes in the slew of adventure films including “The Black Swan”(1942). However, she proved to be more than just a “pirate queen,” as the press coined her. Miss. O’Hara also starred in the classic holiday film, “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) as “Doris Walker,” the Macy’s Day Parade Manager who teaches her daughter (Natalie Wood) not to believe in Santa Clause but ends up getting a surprise of her own. And in her career, Miss. O’Hara was the only fiery woman who could stand up to John Wayne in not one, but five films, most notably being “The Quiet Man” (1952) . Miss. O’Hara, who was a longtime friend of “The Duke,” commented, “Speaking as an actress, I wish all actors would be more like Duke – and speaking as a person, it would be nice if all people could be honest and as genuine as he is. This is a real man.”
In 2004, Miss. O’Hara published a controversial memoir titled “Tis Herself.” In the book she recalls her three marriages, her Hollywood years, including an in-depth tell-all of her professional relationship with John Ford and how she was the first American citizen to be recognized by the United States Government as Irish. During the publicity tour, Miss. O’Hara returned to Macy’s department store in New York City on 34th Street to promote her new book, 57 years after her film “Miracle On 34th Street.” Today, at 90 years old, when Miss. O’Hara is interviewed, she proudly proclaims that her goal is to live to be 102 like her mother-in-law.