Plainclothes Irishman Michael O’Shea

It seems only right to send to commemorate the life of actor Edward Francis Michael Patrick Joseph O’Shea on St. Patrick’s Day. Not only was he Irish American, he was born on March 17 in 1906. He went by the name of Mike O’Shea.

Mike O’Shea in his St. Patrick’s Day garb. Notation on photo is from his friend and fellow actor Ed Begley.
Photo file: Michael O’Shea, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

If things had gone his way, Mike wouldn’t have been an actor. “I always wanted to be a policeman, but I was too short,” explained the five-foot-nine O’Shea in a 1966 interview. “For three years in a row after I turned 20 I tried to join the force,” he recalled, “but the answer was always the same: ‘Try the fire department.'” It’s only natural for him to feel this calling. It was in his blood. His five older brothers had all entered New York City law enforcement. His Irish immigrant father looked after the shoeing of horses for the New York police and fire departments.

Mike O’Shea’s formal education ended in the fifth grade and he went to work running errands and selling newspapers. A husky boy, he soon became head of a neighborhood gang. He had his first crack at show business as a singer at the amateurs and won several contests, a feat he credits to the fact that his gang rooted for him.

In the Prohibition years, O’Shea worked as a comic and emcee in speakeasies and started his own dance band, “Michael O’Shea and His Stationary Gypsies,” where he played banjo and drums. Billing himself as “Eddie O’Shea,” he also acted with stock companies and in radio, until the point he was noticed by the film industry for his 1942 Broadway appearance as a World War II soldier in The Eve of St. Mark.

O’Shea preferred the stage and was somewhat reluctant to enter the Hollywood scene. His first outing as a film actor became his best known when he played wisecracking comic Biff Brannigan who woos Dixie Daisy (played by Barbara Stanwyck) in the RKO Pictures production Lady of Burlesque (1943)

Barbara Stanwyck and Michael O’Shea in a publicity photo from the 1943 film Lady of Burlesque. O’Shea wrote on the photo “Ain’t she sweet? I’m pretty too.”
Photo file: Michael O’Shea, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

But it was in his next film, Jack London, that O’Shea found his own true love in the person of actress Virginia Mayo who played a supporting role in the film. They married in 1947. Her star shined brighter than her husband’s, but that didn’t seem to matter to Mike. The two were married for 26 years until his death from a heart attack in 1973.

Virginia Mayo, Michael O’Shea, and newborn daughter Mary Catherine O’Shea, 1953.
Photo file: Michael O’Shea, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

According to an interview given in 1972, O’Shea finally fulfilled his policeman wishes after a fashion by working as a plainclothes operative for the FBI in the mid-1960s by helping to break up a gambling ring plaguing O’Shea’s home turf of Ventura County, California.

The photo is captioned, “Still interested in law enforcement, Mike O’Shea [right] calls on Sheriff William Hill at his office in the Ventura County courthouse. He regards Hill as ‘a top notch lawman.'” The photo appeared in the May 22, 1966 issue of PC, The Weekly Magazine of Ventura County.
Box 5, Michael O’Shea papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

O’Shea’s papers at the AHC include correspondence, photographs, agency contracts, newspaper clippings documenting his acting career, and more.

Post submitted by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.


This entry was posted in Current events, Holidays, Motion picture actors and actresses, motion picture history, popular culture, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply