Michael O’Shea: Leading Man in “Lady of Burlesque”

How perfect is it that Michael O’Shea (1906-1973) was born of a St. Patrick’s Day?

Irish Catholic Hartford native O’Shea is best remembered, at least among my set, as the male lead Biff Brannigan a.k.a. “Comedian” in the Barbara Stanwyck classic Lady of Burlesque (1943), his first film. The younger brother of five cops, O’Shea couldn’t meet the height requirement to don a uniform himself so he worked instead as a private detective, a bodyguard, a bricklayer, and most importantly a vaudevillian. As a kid he had toured the circuits with a unit starring boxer Jack Johnson. He also worked in speakeasies and nightclubs. O’Shea played banjo and drums, worked as a comedian and emcee, and for awhile had his own band “The Stationary Gypsies”. Next he acted on radio shows like Superman, Gangbusters, and Mr. District Attorney (later also acting in the film adaptation of that show in 1947).

Billed as Eddie O’Shea he starred in Maxwell Anderson’s play The Eve of St. Marks on Broadway in 1942, along with Aline MacMahon and Martin Ritt. He would also star in the Hollywood adaptation two years later. His second film, the bio-pic Jack London (1943), co-starred Virginia Mayo, whom he married in 1947. His other early pictures were Man from Frisco (1944, directed by Robert Florey), Something for the Boys (1944, with Carmen Miranda), It’s a Pleasure (1945, with Sonja Henie), and Circumstantial Evidence (1945, with Lloyd Nolan). A decision to return to Broadway to star in a revival of The Red Mill (1945-47) seems to have hampered the momentum of his Hollywood career. When he returned to Hollywood it was mostly in B movies an supporting parts, in things like the western The Last of the Redmen (1947) with Jon Hall, Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets! (1951), and the Mitzi Gaynor musical Bloodhounds of Broadway (1952). From 1954 through 1956 he starred in his own tv sitcom It’s a Great Life, featuring James Dunn and Frances Bavier, later known for playing Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show. In 1960 O’Shea and Mayo co-starred in a pilot called McGarry and His Mouse, which was not picked up. His last credit is a 1971 episode of Adam-12.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous