Maureen O'sullivan Finds Her Star Reborn Playing Mother to Her Daughter in Hannah and Her Sisters

updated 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Her daughter urged her to do it. So did the funnyman filmmaker her daughter has been seeing exclusively onscreen and off for the past six years. But when Woody Allen pressed Maureen O'Sullivan about playing the role of Mia Farrow's mother in his film, Hannah and Her Sisters, the veteran actress demurred. "I'm too old to play Mia's mother," said Maureen, 74. "But you are my mother," argued Mia, 41. "So I am," answered a fretful Maureen, "but will it photograph properly?"

Woody and Mia eventually convinced the elegant O'Sullivan that she'd photograph just fine, and Maureen, who hasn't done a feature film since 1970's The Phynx, is glad they prevailed. An actress for 56 years in 60 films (her six as Jane to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan still cling to the memory, thanks to TV reruns), O'Sullivan has crowned her career with Hannah. Raved the New York Times: "In all that time, she's never had five minutes on screen to equal her work here."

O'Sullivan admits she is enjoying the Hannah hoopla despite her initial reservations. When Maureen married retired construction company exec James Cushing, now 65, nearly three years ago, she thought playing lady of their New Hampshire home and Arizona condo had replaced acting. Her husband encouraged a comeback. "I thought, come on, I'm not a kid, you know," says Maureen, her words belied by the colleen's lilt in her voice, as clover fresh as the day she left her native Ireland for Hollywood in 1929.

Of course the lady is entitled to a little R and R. During her 27-year marriage to writer-director John Farrow, she cut down on her film output to raise four daughters (Mia, Prudence, Stephanie, Tisa) and three sons (Michael, Patrick, John). The eldest, Michael, was killed at 19 in a 1958 plane crash. When her husband died of a heart attack in 1963, the widow supported her large family by going to work in television, movies and, most notably, onstage in Never Too Late and later in Mornings at Seven.

But until Hannah, says O'Sullivan, "I really didn't pay attention. My career was all just one pleasant blur." Woody put her on her mettle. In the beginning they locked horns over her character, described in Woody's script as "a boozy old flirt with a filthy mouth." O'Sullivan saw her more sympathetically than Woody. "She was pretty much a bitch, but she's a zippy old gal, and I got to like her," says Maureen. "I don't mean to sound conceited, but I think Woody ended up liking her, too."

O'Sullivan good-naturedly admits that her son-in-law manqué used a few of his famed biographical brush strokes in creating her character. "Woody is around us quite a bit, and I yell and scream; these four-letter words have a way of slipping out," she says. If you want to get her started, mention those chimps she worked with during her Tarzan days. "Cheetah, that bastard, bit me whenever he could," she says, adding that "the apes were all homosexuals, eager to wrap their paws around Johnny's thighs. They were jealous of me, and I loathed them." Working with the fastidious Woody was a joy in comparison. "For years Mia's family has been lucky for me," says Woody, 50. He gave Mia's sister Tisa, now 34, a role in Manhattan and used Stephanie, now 36, in The Purple Rose of Cairo. But unlike Woody's character in Hannah, he hasn't, says O'Sullivan, shown romantic interest in more than one of her daughters. "It would take a dirty mind to think that," she says with a twinkle.

After Mia's failed marriages to crooner Frank Sinatra and conductor André Previn, don't expect Maureen to nudge her daughter to the altar. "I don't care at all if Woody and Mia do or do not get married," says O'Sullivan. "I can see that they are good for the children and good for each other. Who am I to push this bondage on them?" O'Sullivan gives her ethereal daughter high marks for being a strong mother to eight kids, five of them adopted, and three from her second marriage to Previn. "It's a very placid household," says Maureen. "Their fights are usually over who is better—Beethoven or Bach."

Maureen knows she's an influence on Mia's love for large families. The daughter of a major in the British Army, Maureen has one brother and three sisters. Her memories of leaving home at 18 to shoot her first Hollywood film, Song O' My Heart, made her hunger for family. "I don't think John wanted quite so many. I could see a pained look on his face every time I told him I was pregnant. But he acted very Catholic about it, and so I selfishly went ahead and had children." Mia has remembered Maureen as "a terrific mother, full of fairy tales. I sort of romanticized her—and my father, too."

O'Sullivan refuses to see life any other way. "Do you think I'm a Pollyanna?" she asks, with an expression that says if you do, so be it. "I still have the feeling that anything can happen. Look, I got him," she says, reaching over to press her husband James's hand. She takes pride, he says, in keeping her family together, just as she did in Hannah. "There isn't a period in any given week when they don't check in with each other," says James. "Yeah," Maureen says with a grin, "probably just making sure I'm not becoming a boozy old broad." Hardly. Hannah has set O'Sullivan back into action. Family may still come first, but kids are no longer the only thing that matters. This fall she'll be seen with Kathleen Turner in Francis Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married and is eager for more work. "I feel there are all kinds of new things I haven't done before," she says. "Grandmothers are boring." And that outburst, ladies and gentlemen, brings Maureen O'Sullivan as close as she's ever come to heresy.

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