Sex sym­bol? I’m a great-grand­mother!

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - CONTENTS -

F ion­nula Flana­gan can’t de­cide whether the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal sys­tem in Ire­land is run on fear, shame or em­bar­rass­ment. Although she’s lived in Los An­ge­les for 42 years, she in­sists that she is con­stantly ex­er­cised about the state of things in Ire­land, from where she and her four sib­lings em­i­grated to Amer­ica in the Six­ties. She’s es­tranged now from her two sis­ters, one of whom lives up the road in San Fran­cisco, the other in Canada, but re­mains close to her two brothers. ‘I’m close to my brother in New Jersey, be­cause we’re close in age, and my other brother who’s in Syd­ney but my sis­ters are alien­ated from me, or I am from them,’ she ad­mits. ‘I think it’s sort of a hall­mark of Ir­ish fam­i­lies that they have splits down the mid­dle.’

Fion­nula’s own fam­ily have had to fight hard to stay to­gether over the years as she and her hus­band, and later her two step­sons, bat­tled with drug and al­co­hol ad­dic­tions. Those tu­mul­tuous years don’t seem to have taken a phys­i­cal toll on Fion­nula, how­ever. At 70, she is as strik­ingly beau­ti­ful as when she landed her first Hol­ly­wood roles as a flame-haired twen­tysome­thing.

To­day, we are sit­ting in the kitchen of her house just off Mul­hol­land Drive — over­look­ing spec­tac­u­lar views of the LA sprawl down to the Pa­cific — a big pot of Barry’s tea on the ta­ble be­tween us. Long a wel­com­ing place for Ir­ish vis­i­tors to LA, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing Os­cars week, the house is full of books, myr­iad paint­ings and sculp­tures of nudes. Fion­nula’s con­stant com­pan­ion, Betty, the black mon­grel she adopted from the res­cue cen­tre and who goes on set with her, dozes nearby. It is quiet here, an oa­sis and a look­out where Fion­nula has lived ever since she moved to the city. ‘I started giv­ing a lit­tle tea party here the week­end of the Os­cars, know­ing that, un­less you’re a nom­i­nee, you don’t get in­vited to any of the big par­ties go­ing on,’ she says. ‘I thought it would be nice to have a lit­tle event for the fam­i­lies. [Nom­i­nees] only get two tick­ets for the Os­cars and they of­ten come with their fam­i­lies and have the hor­ri­ble job of hav­ing to choose who to take. That was the whole pur­pose of the tea party and now ev­ery other Ir­ish per­son in the city hur­ries over for it. I’ve no idea how we man­age to fit them all in, but they spill out onto the pa­tio and it works.’

As one of the very few Ir­ish women to have had such long and sus­tained success on TV and film in Hol­ly­wood, Fion­nula re­grets that so few of her fel­low Ir­ish ac­tresses have made LA their home. The hit 1970s show Rich Man Poor Man — which won Fion­nula an Emmy and launched her in the US — was a mixed bless­ing for her, as success in tele­vi­sion made it more dif­fi­cult for her to break into fea­ture films. But see­ing how tough the busi­ness has be­come, she wouldn’t dream of of­fer­ing any­one ad­vice on their ca­reer.

‘No­body comes to me for ad­vice,’ she says. ‘If any­one had ad­vised me not to go into the busi­ness, I wouldn’t have lis­tened to them any­way. It’s very hard for young ac­tors. They seem to come here around Os­car time, then they go away again. There are very few Ir­ish ac­tresses who come and dig their trench and stay. They come for pi­lot sea­son and if they get a show, they stay, but it takes a few years to be­gin to make a ca­reer. I’m for­tu­nate that I now get in­vited to work in Ire­land and other places, but that didn’t hap­pen im­me­di­ately and it took a long time be­fore I broke into film.’

Tele­vi­sion has been very good to her over the years. She starred in How The West Was Won, the very suc­cess­ful se­ries Brother­hood, had a cou­ple of sea­sons on Lost, and is about to start film­ing De­fi­ance, a new sci-fi se­ries from the pro­duc­ers of Grey’s Anatomy. The ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing on tele­vi­sion and lit­er­ally be­ing in peo­ple’s liv­ing rooms has made for some very strange fan ex­pe­ri­ences for Fion­nula over the years.

‘With tele­vi­sion, you be­come part of the fab­ric of peo­ple’s ev­ery­day lives. When I was do­ing How The West Was Won, I used to get a lot of let­ters from lu­natic asy­lums and peo­ple in prison. I don’t know what they were pro­ject­ing onto me, but I had red hair and I was really cute. I rode horses and I re­fused to wear any of those aw­ful bon­nets.

‘When I was do­ing Lost, it had a kind of mag­i­cal qual­ity that peo­ple iden­ti­fied with; they in­stantly felt they knew th­ese characters. Peo­ple would stop me on the street and scream things at me from traf­fic is­lands. I was walking down the street one day and this man chased me and caught my arm and kept shout­ing, “Eloise! Eloise!” I was think­ing, “That sounds vaguely fa­mil­iar.” Then he caught up with me and he said, “That was your photo on the desk, wasn’t it?” I re­alised he was talk­ing about my char­ac­ter on Lost and he had a whole the­ory about it. I said, “I’m ter­ri­bly sorry. I’m ab­so­lutely the wrong per­son to ask, be­cause I’ve never seen the show. Never.”’

She is brac­ing her­self for sim­i­lar fan in­ten­sity when De­fi­ance — which is set in the near fu­ture on an Earth that is rav­aged by war and in­hab­ited by the sur­viv­ing hu­mans and aliens. It goes on the air next April and will co­in­cide with the launch of a mul­ti­me­dia game. ‘Some­times I won­der what I’m do­ing and think I should be out feed­ing the hens!’ Fion­nula says with a laugh. The of­fers of work keep coming in, though, and she is also writ­ing scripts and hop­ing to pro­duce some of her own work. In the 1970s, she wrote a stage play, James Joyce’s Women later made into a movie. Fion­nula was con­sid­ered a real sex­pot as a young woman and to this day, she reprises Molly Bloom in pri­vate and in per­for­mances on Blooms­day.

It’s an im­pres­sive role for a woman who is now a great-grand­mother. When she met her hus­band, Dr Gar­rett O’Connor, in Baltimore in 1970, he had two boys, aged 10 and 11, and was still mar­ried. Gar­rett di­vorced their mother, who moved back to Eng­land, while he and Fion­nula moved to LA with the boys. She read­ily ad­mits that the shock of rais­ing two pre- teens took its toll, and all of the mem­bers of the fam­ily would go on to fight drug and al­co­hol ad­dic­tions in later years. ‘I was def­i­nitely a wicked step­mother and they were two ter­ror­ists in train­ing, and we had some rough years, but they’ve grown into ter­rific men and I ad­mire them enor­mously. There’s a rea­son why chil­dren come into the world aged zero, so that par­ents have the chance to get used to them. They were sprung on me, like Venus on the half-shell. Both Gar­rett and I were drink­ing and us­ing, and their mother lived far away, and they wanted their par­ents back to­gether. It was very poignant to watch. Ev­ery time they tried to de­stroy me, I had to try to re­mem­ber that. In the end, we all got lucky. They sur­vived me and Gar­rett, and they should be given medals for that!’

Fion­nula’s step­sons are now in their 50s and are them­selves grand­par­ents. They still live nearby, and Fion­nula and her hus­band are a big part of their lives. ‘I was very, very in­volved with the rear­ing of my grand­daugh­ter, Kalina who is now 26 and

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