Milo O’Shea, at 86; Irish character actor was a two-time Tony Award nominee

Milo O’Shea appeared on such shows as “The Golden Girls” and “The West Wing.”
Milo O’Shea appeared on such shows as “The Golden Girls” and “The West Wing.”

NEW YORK — Milo O’Shea, an Irish character actor — recognizable by his black bushy eyebrows, tumble of white hair, and impish smile — whose films included ‘‘Ulysses,’’ ‘’Barbarella,’’ and ‘‘The Verdict,’’ died Tuesday in New York. He was 86.

His death was confirmed by James Deenihan, the arts minister of Ireland. The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said a friend, Turlough McConnell.

In addition to his scores of film roles, Mr. O’Shea appeared on US sitcoms such as ‘‘The Golden Girls,’’ “Cheers,’’ and ‘‘Frasier,’’ and played the chief justice of the Supreme Court on ‘‘The West Wing.’’ He was twice nominated for Tony Awards.


The first time was for his debut performance on Broadway, in the 1968 production of ‘‘Staircase,’’ in which he and Eli Wallach played gay, middle-aged hairdressers in a relationship not much different from many troubled heterosexual marriages. The play, while not commercially successful, came to be regarded as one of the first serious depictions of homosexuality on Broadway.

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That same year he played the kindly Friar Laurence in Franco Zeffirelli’s resplendent film adaptation of ‘‘Romeo and Juliet’’ and the mad scientist Durand Durand in Roger Vadim’s ‘‘Barbarella,’’ a science-fiction fantasy set in the far future, in which he tries to make the comely astronaut Barbarella, played by Jane Fonda, die of pleasure.

A decade later a group of rock musicians in Birmingham, England, named their new band Duran Duran — dropping the final ds — in honor of Mr. O’Shea’s character. A popular nightclub where the group played was called Barbarella’s. When Duran Duran made a concert video in 1984, ‘‘Arena (An Absurd Notion),’’ Mr. O’Shea appeared in it dressed as his ‘‘Barbarella’’ character.

Mr. O’Shea first attained wide visibility as Leopold Bloom in Joseph Strick’s movie ‘‘Ulysses,’’ based on the James Joyce novel. ‘‘Milo O’Shea is perfect as a fortyish, black-haired Bloom, bright-eyed when fun and lust are rising, flaccid, and pathetic when rebuffed,’’ Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times.

In 1981, on Broadway, he played a duplicitous, charming, Mercedes-driving priest in ‘‘Mass Appeal,’’ receiving his second Tony nomination.


On television he was at the center of events in the 1992 episode of ‘‘Cheers’’ in which Woody, the bartender (Woody Harrelson), marries his girlfriend, Kelly (Jackie Swanson). He played an antimarriage minister who could perform the ceremony only if drunk. He succeeded.

Milo O’Shea was born June 2, 1926, in Dublin. His father was in a professional singing duo, and his mother was a harpist and ballerina. They both encouraged him to pursue acting.

At 10, he starred in a radio adaptation of ‘‘Oliver Twist.’’ By 17, he was a full-time actor in a touring company. Two years later he joined one of Ireland’s major theatrical troupes and performed in plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, and Moliere.

He then came to the United States and found work in regional theater. But after strained finances forced him to work as an elevator operator at the Waldorf-Astoria, he returned to Ireland. He had success there and in England, and rode the wave of his ‘‘Ulysses’’ success to return to Manhattan, where he lived for many years.

Mr. O’Shea’s first marriage, to Maureen Toal, ended in divorce. He leaves his wife, Kitty Sullivan; his sons, Colm and Steven; and three grandchildren.


Mr. O’Shea once said he hoped to be known as more than ‘‘the Irishman with the eyebrows.’’ But he allowed that it did not really matter if he was.

‘‘If you’re thinking about your eyebrows when you’re acting,’’ he said, ‘‘you’re not acting properly.’’