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Actress Maureen O'Hara of 'Miracle on 34th Street' Dies at 95

Maureen O'Hara, the flame-haired Irish movie star who appeared in classics ranging from the grim "How Green Was My Valley" to the uplifting "Miracle on 34th Street" and bantered unforgettably with John Wayne in several films, has died. She was 95.

O'Hara died in her sleep at her home in Boise, Idaho, said Johnny Nicoletti, her longtime manager.

"She passed peacefully surrounded by her loving family as they celebrated her life listening to music from her favorite movie, 'The Quiet Man,'" said a statement from her family.

"As an actress, Maureen O'Hara brought unyielding strength and sudden sensitivity to every role she played. Her characters were feisty and fearless, just as she was in real life. She was also proudly Irish and spent her entire lifetime sharing her heritage and the wonderful culture of the Emerald Isle with the world," said a family biography.

O'Hara came to Hollywood to star in the 1939 "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and went on to a long career.

During her movie heyday, she became known as the Queen of Technicolor because of the camera's love affair with her vivid hair, pale complexion and fiery nature.

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After her start in Hollywood with "Hunchback" and some minor films at RKO, she was borrowed by 20th Century Fox to play the beautiful young daughter in the 1941 saga of a coal-mining family, "How Green Was My Valley."

"How Green Was My Valley" went on to win five Oscars including best picture and best director for John Ford, beating out Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane" among others. It was the first of several films she made under the direction of Ford, who grouchy nature seemed to melt in her presence.

Universal Pictures | Getty Images

The popularity of "How Green Was My Valley" confirmed O'Hara's status as a Hollywood star. RKO and Fox shared her contract, and her most successful films were made at Fox.

They included "Miracle on 34th Street," the classic 1947 Christmas story in which O'Hara was little Natalie Wood's skeptical mother and among those charmed by Edmund Gwenn as a man who believed he was Santa Claus.

Other films included the costume drama "The Foxes of Harrow" (Rex Harrison, 1947); the comedy "Sitting Pretty" (Clifton Webb, 1948); and the sports comedy "Father Was a Fullback" (Fred MacMurray, 1949).

With Ford's "Rio Grande" in 1950, O'Hara became Wayne's favorite leading lady. The most successful of their five films was the 1952 "The Quiet Man," also directed by Ford, in which she matched Wayne blow for blow in a classic donnybrook.

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O'Hara's other movies with Wayne were "The Wings of Eagles" (1957), "McClintock!" (1963) and "Big Jake" (1971).

After her studio contracts ended, she remained busy. She played the mother of twins, both played by Hayley Mills, who conspire to reunite their divorced parents in the 1961 Disney comedy "The Parent Trap."

She was also in "Spencer's Mountain" with Henry Fonda (1963), a precursor to TV's "The Waltons"; and a Western, "The Rare Breed," with James Stewart (1966).

In 1968, she married her third husband, Brig. Gen. Charles Blair. After "Big Jake," she quit movies to live with him in the Virgin Islands, where he operated an airline. He died in a plane crash in 1978.

"Being married to Charlie Blair and traveling all over the world with him, believe me, was enough for any woman," she said in a 1995 Associated Press interview. "It was the best time of my life."

She returned to movies in 1991 for a role that writer-director Chris Columbus had written especially for her, as John Candy's feisty mother in a sentimental drama, "Only the Lonely." It was not a box-office success.

Over the following decade, she did three TV movies: "The Christmas Box," based on a best-selling book, a perennial holiday attraction; "Cab to Canada," a road picture; and "The Last Dance."

While making "The Christmas Box" in 1995, she admitted that roles for someone her age (75), were scarce: "The older a man gets, the younger the parts that he plays. The older a woman gets, you've got to find parts that are believable. Since I'm not a frail character, it's not that easy."

Maureen FitzSimons was born in 1920 near Dublin, Ireland. Her mother was a well-known opera singer, and her father owned a string of soccer teams. Through her father, she learned to love sports; through her mother, she and her five siblings were exposed to the theater.

"My first ambition was to be the No. 1 actress in the world," she recalled in 1999. "And when the whole world bowed at my feet, I would retire in glory and never do anything again."

She is survived by her daughter, Bronwyn FitzSimons of Glengarriff, Ireland; her grandson, Conor FitzSimons of Boise and two great-grandchildren.