Who knew that the woman who inspired Betty Boop was raised in an Irish household?
From glamorous baby-talking sweethearts like Helen Kane to tough-guy Mafioso duo James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, these actors together create the definition of a “Hollywood Star.” It comes as no surprise that their thickest connecting string is an Irish one.
Mary Pickford (1892-1979)
Though this true pioneer of a Hollywood actress was awarded the honorary title of “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford attributes many of her values and character inspirations to her Irish roots. Throughout her career, she would recall stories and memories from her mother’s poverty-stricken upbringing in county Kerry, Ireland in order to build connections with her roles, which were typically those of young, honest, penniless female Irish immigrants or Irish Americans (titles include “The Foundling” (1915), “Little Annie Rooney” (1925) and “Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley” (1918)).
With a cunning, confident feminine presence mixed with an innocent “girl-next-door” quality, Pickford carved her way through the male-dominated Hollywood industry, becoming the most highly paid woman in the world by age 27—before women were even allowed to vote.
Her subtleties in body language and facial gestures are known to have influenced Charlie Chaplin, with whom she had a close relationship, as they were both revered in the silent film era.
In a 1965 interview for American television, Pickford noted that she and other Irish actors of the early Hollywood era stuck together and maintained a strong connection. Sometimes endearingly called “the girl with curls” for her
characteristic ringlets of red hair, Pickford was admired for her beauty, but more importantly for her originality, passion, and intelligence in claiming Hollywood her own.
Chauncey Olcott (1858-1932)
Though originally from New York, performer Chancellor Olcott, more informally known as Chauncey, made a successful and celebrated career inspired by his Irish descent.
Debuting in 1880 as a ballad singer in minstrel shows, Olcott went on to find fame on Broadway, having played the role of acclaimed actress Lillian Russell’s leading man in “Pepita; or, The Girl with the Glass Eyes” (1886). Though Russell is credited with having started Olcott’s career, he went on to find a stronger passion in romantic musicals.
Most notably, he starred in “A Romance of Athlone” (1899) and “The Isle O’Dreams” (1912), for which he wrote and composed numbers “My Wild Irish Rose” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” respectively.
His unfortunate death in 1932 catalyzed posthumous recognitions: Warner Bros. released a film titled “My Wild Irish Rose (1947)” about his life (starring Dennis Morgan), and Olcott was later inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.
With a powerful yet sweet, delicate voice, Olcott sang and danced his way to stardom using his Irish roots as fuel, and continued to maintain high reverence after his death.
Charlie Chaplin (1889-1997)
To be fair, film icon and master of silent film Charlie Chaplin is not of Irish descent. However, interestingly enough, starting in 1959 he began to take his family on yearly vacations to the village of Waterville in County Kerry, Ireland, quickly becoming their most beloved visitor.
The English actor/figure is perhaps most widely known for his screen persona “The Tramp” in all his slapstick glory.
Love Irish history? Share your favorite stories with other history buffs in the IrishCentral History Facebook group.
In between directing, acting in, writing, producing, editing and composing the score for manifold famous works unrelated to Ireland, Chaplin always did manage to find time in each year to visit beautiful Waterville. His fourth wife, Oona O’Neill, daughter of Pulitzer-Prize-winning Irish American playwright Eugene O’Neill, is of close Irish descent, so while Chaplin may not be Irish, his children with Oona have roots in the Emerald Isle.
Touched by his commitment to vacationing there, residents of Waterville erected a bronze statue of Chaplin, with a plaque thanking him for his ritual visits. It reads, in Irish and in English, “For the man who made the movies speak in the hearts of millions[,] Charlie spent many years in our midst as a humble guest and friend to many.” In the statue, he wears a comedic poorly buttoned suit, and stands with a quirky hand on his hip and typical expressive smile.
Helen Kane (1904-1966)
Helen Kane, our beloved original “Boop Boop a Doop Girl,” likely the inspiration for the iconic cartoon Betty Boop, also came from an Irish home. Kane’s mother, an Irish immigrant, helped her daughter into minor stardom by reluctantly purchasing her first costume for the role of the queen in a school production—with money tight, a dress of three dollars seemed an ordeal.
But perhaps we can give thanks to this dress and play as the reason Kane fell in love with theater—she quickly made a beeline for vaudeville and kick dancing, easing her way into the world of Hollywood and Broadway in films and plays such as “Stars of the Future” (1922-24) with her young baby-talk voice as her trademark.
She made quite a name for herself in music—of all of her soundtracks, solo performances and songs with her trio “The Three X Sisters,” Kane is recognized mostly for her track “I Wanna be Loved By You,” which was later performed by Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot.”
With her trademark doe eyes and pouty lips, Kane became a scatting, singing, flapping, acting, dancing, baby-talking extraordinaire with lovable grace and glamor. Who would have guessed that Betty Boop’s inspiration came from an Irish household?
Sara Allgood (1879-1950)
Born in the heart of Dublin, Sara Allgood, also known as Sally Allgood, began acting at Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre. Allgood had a warm, comforting, and perhaps matronly appearance; because of these features, in films, she was often typecast as Irish mothers, landladies, neighborhood gossips, and the like.
She is best remembered for her role in the motion picture “How Green Was My Valley” as Mrs. Morgan, the mother of a family of Welsh miners, for which she received an Academy Award nomination.
Allgood keeps a stunning filmography under her belt, having starred in around fifty notable films, including “Cheaper by the Dozen” (1950), “Jane Eyre” (1943), “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1941), “My Wild Irish Rose” (1947) about Chauncey Olcott.
She also starred in quite a few early Hitchcock films such as “Sabotage” (1936), “Blackmail” (1929), and “Juno and the Paycock” (1930), in which her sister, actress Maire O’Neill, starred as well.
She was heavily involved in the opening of the Irish National Theatre Society and was a close friend of widely acclaimed Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Yeats’ muse, Irish revolutionary and feminist Maud Gonne, was a greatly influential teacher to Allgood and her sister Maire.
Helen Hayes (1900-1993)
Helen Hayes, one of only twelve people to win an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony), had Irish Catholic maternal grandparents who emigrated from Ireland during the Great Famine.
After she won the Academy Award for best actress in “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” (1931), she skyrocketed into fame with films such as Hemingway adaptation “A Farewell to Arms” (1932), “What Every Woman Knows” (1934), “The White Sister” (1933) opposite Clark Gable, and many, many more.
Hayes’s heart was more strongly in Broadway, however, and preferred the stage to the big screen. Lucille Ball once wrote her a fan letter, and with mutual admiration, Hayes suggested that they work together one day, which they did in 1971. Hayes appeared on an episode of “Here’s Lucy” titled “Lucy and the Little Old Woman” as a destitute Irish woman in search of work.
Hayes was proud of her Irish roots; she was a great Irish dancer, and in a magazine interview, after the mention of her small stature, she playfully referred to herself as “a little Irish biddy.”
As a widely admired, award-winning actress and a renowned philanthropist, Hayes, unfortunately, passed away on Saint Patrick’s Day of 1993.
Maureen O’Sullivan (1911-1988)
You may recognize her as the curious American Jane from "Tarzan", but Maureen O’Sullivan is as Irish as it gets. Born in Boyle, County Roscommon, Ireland, O’Sullivan attended a convent school in Dublin as a girl.
O’Sullivan, the mother of actress Mia Farrow, found success in the 1931 film “A Connecticut Yankee,” and after acting for twelve years, she took a hiatus to raise seven children, but flashed her charming smile to the world once again in 1948 film “The Big Clock,” which was directed by her then-husband John Farrow.
Though O’Sullivan got an early start in Hollywood, and will forever hold the title of classic actress and beauty, she continued strong in Hollywood all throughout the eighties, in recognizable films such as “Peggy Sue Got Married” alongside Nicolas Cage and in Woody Allen’s acclaimed film “Hannah and her Sisters,” both of which were released in 1986.
Geraldine Fitzgerald (1913-2005)
Another charming and talented Irish Hollywood starlet is Geraldine Fitzgerald, born in Greystones, County Wicklow, Ireland. Before she discovered her true talent for acting, she studied painting at the Dublin School of Art.
She starred in countless films, but her most notable achievements were an Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Isabella Linton in “Wuthering Heights” (1939) and her leading role in the American box-office hit “Dark Victory” (1939).
Since “Dark Victory,” she made quite a name for herself in American film and television, acting in part of the “Poltergeist” horror film series in 1986 and a few comedies such as “Arthur” (1981). She made a debut on one of America’s favorite sitcoms, The Golden Girls, as well.
The Irish actress had an energetic run on Broadway, and she also received a Tony Award nomination for her directing of a play titled “Mass Appeal” about a Roman-Catholic pastor and a young deacon.
Rex Ingram (1892-1950)
Rex Ingram, born in Dublin in 1882, became one of the most talented and acclaimed directors in Hollywood history, gaining the title of “the Silent Master” for his ability to create numerous blockbuster hits in the silent-film era.
Though many silent-film directors such as Hitchcock went on to direct talking pictures, Ingram stayed true to his passion and eventually faded into silent obscurity—not for a second, however, did he stop influencing today’s directors.
He is respected by virtually every person in Hollywood; director Erich von Stroheim once referred to him as the world’s greatest director. His 1921 Blockbuster hit “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” hugely inspired Martin Scorsese, who repeatedly played the film back to himself as he reimagined his own film “Hugo” (2011), a tribute to silent film.
Ingram was also a well-known actor in over twenty films such as “Love in Morocco” (1933) in which he played dashing André Duval, or short film “Camille” (1926) in which he played Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell.
James Cagney (1899-1986)
Another very famous star of Irish descent is actor and dancer James Cagney.
Though he was indeed a highly impressive dancer, most of his fame comes from his films, in which he was often typecast as the aggressive or violent “tough guy” who always ended up being a little bit more multi-faceted than what met the eye.
Some of these roles were in films such as “Taxi!” or cult gangster film “Public Enemy,” or “Angels with Dirty Faces” alongside other Irish-American actor Pat O’Brien. Cagney and O’Brien starred together in 1935 film “The Irish in Us” as the New York City O’Hara brothers.
A surefire Hollywood legend, Cagney starred in an incredible amount of successful films, many of which belonged to Warner Bros. In 1974, Cagney received The American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, and is respected and remembered for his eloquence, his distinctive voice, and his ability to pull off sharp lines or deadpan comedy in serious films.
Pat O’Brien (1899-1983)
Our last old Hollywood actor of Irish descent showcased his Irish roots loudly and proudly with every bone in his body. Pat O’Brien was often referred to as “Hollywood’s Irishman in Residence” by the press, as most of his roles were that of Irish or Irish-American men.
He wore the Irish badge with honor in Hollywood and was often associated with the aforementioned actor James Cagney, as they were a dynamic duo (“Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938), “The Irish in Us” (1935), and many more). He was most famous in the 1930s and 40s for his roles of figureheads such as military leaders, cops, and priests, demanding attention and respect in and out of character. All four of O’Brien’s grandparents hail from County Cork, Ireland. O’Brien, Cagney, and other Irish-American actors such as Frank McHugh and Spencer Tracy often used to meet and converse together regularly, calling themselves “the Boys Club”—but Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky referred to them, jokingly, as “the Irish Mafia.”
* Originally published in 2016, updated in June 2023.