Arthur O’Connell: From “Picnic” to “Poseidon”

I first became aware of Irish-American character actor Arthur O’Connell (1908-1981) at a young age; he was in the first movie I ever saw in a cinema, The Poseidon Adventure (1972). At this stage in his life it was easy to mix O’Connell up with Jack Albertson, who was also in the film: both had long white hair and mustaches. O’Connell’s was the smaller of the two parts; he played the heroic priest who opts to remain behind in the dining saloon and minister to the injured rather than join the group of passengers climbing toward the hull in the upturned vessel. He was close to the end of his long career at this point.

Originally from New York City, O’Connell started out in vaudeville and stock companies. From 1938 through 1942 he appeared in bit roles in two dozen Hollywood films, including Citizen Kane (1941) and Blondie’s Blessed Event (1942). His largest roles at this stage were in comedy shorts in 1940: ‘Taint Legal with Edgar Kennedy, Bested by a Beard, and He Asked for It, both with Leon Errol.

When World War Two came O’Connell enlisted at the rank of Sergeant. He directed and appeared in a show called Army Play-by-Play in 1943 and this is what first took him to Broadway. He toiled for another dozen years in bit movie roles again, until he finally broke through his career impasse with a plum role in the original Broadway production of William Inge’s Picnic (1953-54) and the film version as well (1955). He was nominated for an Oscar for that performance and for the next 20 years his roles were much better. His subsequent films included Inge’s Bus Stop (1956), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), The Proud Ones (1956), The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), Operation Mad Ball (1957), Man of the West (1958), Gidget (1959), and Anatomy of a Murder (1959, his second Oscar nomination). He was in Hound Dog Man (1959), which oddly stars Fabian and not Elvis, but he did also appear in the Elvis musicals Follow That Dream (1962) and Kissin’ Cousins (1964). There was also Operation Petticoat (1959), Cimarron (1960), Misty (1961), Pocketful of Miracles (1961), 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), The Great Race (1965), Fantastic Voyage (1966), The Reluctant Astronaut (1970), Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came (1970), There Was a Crooked Man…(1970), Ben (1972), and The Hiding Place (1975), his last film.

On television he was a regular on the short-lived sitcom The Second Hundred Years (1967-68), and guest starred on such programs as My Three Sons, Ironside, Bonanza, Cannon, McCloud, and Room 222. His last screen credit was in a 1975 episode of Emergency! 

To learn more about vaudeville, where Arthur O’Connell got his start, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.