happy daYS in dublin
Gavan O'Herlihy talks about 'Waiting For Godot' and why he passed up the chance of being a millionaire by 24
Over the past 10 years, it became all the rage for American stars to take improving sabbaticals on the stages of London and Dublin. The West End hosted the likes of David Schwimmer and Brooke Shields, while Christopher Meloni and Jerry Hall headlined plays in Dublin. For the theatres, the added star power helped them through the roughest parts of the recession, while the actors, who were usually taking substantial pay cuts, gained the kind of thespian credibility you just can't glean from a sitcom.
For Gavan O'Herlihy, a one-time sitcom deity, neither of these factors was the primary motivation for his coming to Dublin to rehearse for Samuel Beckett's masterpiece, Waiting For Godot. O'Herlihy's name might not ring bells instantly but he is, in fact, minor Irish acting royalty and split his childhood between the relentless rain of Dublin and the relentless sunshine of southern California.
Every trip to Dublin is a kind of homecoming. His father, Dan, was born in Wexford, attended UCD and would go on to star in the science fiction classic, Robocop. Dan married a Sandymount woman, Elsie Bennett, and they moved lock, stock and barrel to Hollywood where one of their sons, Gavan, was born in 1954 – the same year that Dan was nominated for an Oscar for his role in The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe.
Throughout Gavan's childhood, he would be shuttled back and forth between Dublin and LA, and for a brief period attended Blackrock College. He looked on it, he tells me over tea between rehearsals, "as a blessing. To give a child another perspective from LA is a great thing. There the sun is powerful, the sea is powerful, the money is powerful. But Dublin in those days held its own power. It was dirty and poor and smelly and for a young man from California it had its own magical pull."
When he reached college age, he decided to come back to Ireland to attend Trinity College. "I remember arriving in Dublin at three in the morning," he says. "I had hitched a ride from Shannon with these truckers. The middle guy took his shoes off. And my God he stank. It was like one of those urinals that's never been cleaned and you can't even get to it. It was a foggy early morning; I wandered through Front Square and toward The Buttery. These two young guys came along and sat on the steps and rolled a giant whatchamaycallit [joint] on the steps and it was like 'Welcome to Ireland!'."
O'Herlihy would go on to become college tennis champion – thanks to skills honed on the courts of southern California – and also cut his teeth as an actor while in Ireland. He appeared in college productions as well as plays at the Peacock theatre in Dublin and a production of Waiting For Godot in Tralee.
It was back in the US, however, that Gavan began to achieve worldwide recognition. He won the role of Chuck Cunningham on Happy Days, a show that was already rocketing up the ratings and turning its stars, Henry Winkler and Ron Howard, into household names. O'Herlihy's character had few speaking scenes and by the middle of the first season – which aired in 1974 – Chuck was written out of the script by going off to college. He never returned.
"I didn't understand the humour then," O'Herlihy tells me now. "I still don't – 1950s humour is alien to me. There was some bad blood among the writers and Henry [Winkler] defended me. I was 21 and I said 'I don't want to be dealing with this shit for the next seven years'. From my perspective I was going to make like $1,200 a show. They were going to develop the others. I would have been a millionaire at 24 or 25 but the work would have sucked. I have no regrets whatsoever."
He would go on to reunite with Ron Howard for the 1988 fantasy film Willow, which saw him working with a lot of dwarfs. He tells me he enjoyed the experience. "They [little people] have innate compassion and wisdom. It comes from what they have to deal with in their lives." Onset, he tells me with a twinkle in his eye, they could be quite amorous.
"The same thing happened with the munchkins in the Wizard of Oz apparently. They finally find someone who's 4ft 1in and then there's 150 of them together. They're like 'this is our one shot!'."
Over the years, O'Herlihy would carve out a niche as an actor who could play villains with some relish and appeared in Superman III and in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. In 1980, he moved to England after he was cast in the television series We'll Meet Again. The show was a success, and O'Herlihy purchased a houseboat and lived for a while on the Thames. Finally he moved to a house on a wildlife sanctuary in the Cotswolds and lives there to this day, with his wife and two of his four children. "A lot of people spend their lives trying to get to LA," he tells me of this journey. "I spent mine trying to get the f**k out."
He is relishing his return to the Dublin stage. "Beckett can be difficult or obtuse for people, perhaps, but he's always worth the effort," he tells me. "What he does is he attacks the little truths and vulnerabilities that make up our lives. It's a challenge I'm enjoying."
His parents, unfortunately, won't be around to see his triumphant return to the boards here. His father died in 2005 and his mother is now 90 and too frail to make the long trip from the US.
"She's still a Sandymount girl through and through," he says. "My dad had a big voice, with a big personality and I'm forever grateful that he was my dad. I love being back here, a place they called home, and I hope I do them proud."
Gavan O'Herlihy will appear in Waiting For Godot at The Gaiety Theatre Dublin from October 2-6. Tickets from €15. See www.gaietytheatre.ie or phone 0818 719388. The Dublin Theatre Festival runs from September 26 - October 13. Visit www. dublintheatrefestival.com for full listings.