Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Ever noticed that there are a lot of Irish-American characters in major roles on television and in film? It’s true! And these aren’t just any old characters. Writers love to give Irish-American names to the indispensable, no-nonsense problem-solvers who become icons, to the scrappy, soulful, hardscrabble people who make real the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Irish-American filmic and TV-based characters might have to bend the rules or take a drink now and then, but they tend to be the ones fighting for the rest of us when we’re not looking. You can see a really long list of them here:
…to which I added a few names and managed to prune down to the best of the best. I allowed no real people (played by actors) – no John or Bobby Kennedy, no James Dolittle, no Annie Sullivan. This St. Patrick’s Day, we celebrate how writers and actors stretch to appeal to the Irish-American in all of us…and about how hollow TV & film history would be without them. In honor of Ireland’s 32 counties, here are the Top 32. 16 from TV and 16 from movies.
I’m just going to present the TV list without adornment until someone like vulture.com or buzzfeed wants to pay me for this shamrocklicious content:
Matt Dillon (played by James Arness on Gunsmoke, 1955-1975)
Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock, 2006-2013)
Jessica Fletcher (played by Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote, 1984-1996)
Tommy Gavin (played by Denis Leary on Rescue Me, 2004-2011)
Vic Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis on The Shield, 2002-2008)
Sam Malone (played by Ted Danson on Cheers, 1982-1993)
Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes on Homeland, 2011- )
Ally McBeal (played by Calista Flockhart on Ally McBeal, 1997-2002)
Jack McCoy (played by Sam Waterston on Law & Order, 1994-2010)
MacKenzie McHale (played by Emily Mortimer on The Newsroom, 2012- )
Jimmy McNulty (played by Dominic West on The Wire, 2002-2006)
Patrick Murray (played by Jonathan Groff on Looking, 2014- )
Chloe O’Brian (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub on 24, 2003-2010)
Ryan O’Reily (played by Dean Winters on Oz, 1997-2003)
Dana Scully (played by Gillian Anderson on The X-Files, 1993-2002)
Nucky Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi on Boardwalk Empire, 2010- )
But Faith and Begorrah! I have to say a few little words about my Top 16 cinematic Irish-Americans:
Harry Callahan (played by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry films, 1971, 1973, 1976, 1983, 1988) – Perhaps America’s favorite taciturn cop, who along with Popeye Doyle may have invented the modern action genre. Before Harry, you couldn’t protect and avenge victims of violent crime using rather violent methods yourself. Now, you can’t help it. But Harry had to be Irish so that he didn’t seem like an ethnic bully. “Go ahead make my day” doesn’t even make our day as much as “I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
Sarah Connor (as played by Linda Hamilton in the Terminator films, 1984, 1991) – Yes, “Sarah Connor” is as Irish a name as Maureen O’Hara. We’re lucky to have Sarah in the culture, especially when we think of how mealy-mouthed she was at the beginning of the first film, transforming into the embodiment of kick-ass-itude in the second. And she’s not just some video-game-like babe drone: she summons forth a world of female fears when she has to fight the psychiatric establishment just to get them to believe the truth. Could she also be the hardest-working and hardest-loving single mom in cinema history? “If a machine can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.” Still works.
Billy Costigan (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed, 2006) – Not everyone will agree with this, and you could make a case on this list for a half-dozen other characters from this film (this list only allows one character from any film), but this may be DiCaprio’s best performance. You believe he’s as worthless as they say he is, yet you later believe he might be fooling Costello almost in spite of himself. There are layers of truth and untruth and more truth here, and DiCaprio never hits a false note. Of all the Irish mob movies, this one gets deepest into the modern desperate fear of never amounting to anything, and DiCaprio perfects that theme.
Popeye Doyle (played by Gene Hackman in The French Connection films, 1971, 1975) – During the same year as the first Dirty Harry film, Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman basically invented the modern anti-hero, though Hackman got the Oscar (and his film got Best Picture). The genius of Doyle as a character – fully realized through Hackman’s incredible performance – is that you think you’re on his side right up until the very end, when you realize that you’ve been wrong all along. As characters, Callahan and Doyle were direct reactions to “something-American” labels, which only came into vogue in the late 1960s as reactions to the civil rights movement. As the 1970s began, as Americans wished to confront the crime epidemic on their streets without seeming racist, white bread wouldn’t do. Irish bread was just ethnic enough.
Father Eddie Flanagan (played by Spencer Tracy in the Boys Town films, 1938, 1941) – If you have some vague awareness of onscreen Irish-American priests as cranky, take-no-guff heart-of-gold do-gooders, that all gets back to this performance, which was indelible enough to merit a sequel back in a time before automatic sequels. Spencer Tracy had the range of 360-degree turret, but this role was probably closest to who he really was, and like all the great actors he played “himself” with a kind of without-a-net intensity. You believe the highs and the lows. You want these kids to somehow succeed for his sake.
Jerry Maguire (played by Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, 1996) – Actually, he didn’t have us at hello. He had us with the very first line, “So this is the world, and there are almost six billion people on it. When I was a kid, there were three. It’s hard to keep up.” He’s talking to us like our inner voice because he is us, or at least everyone we were told we were supposed to be – and we can’t be that anymore. Just because this is a romantic comedy doesn’t mean it’s not about a very real, existential crisis. In fact, in the best Annie Hall-Sullivan’s Travels tradition, the romance is an outgrowth of a crisis instead of the other way around. Jerry didn’t have to show us the money – he showed us his soul.
Sean Maguire (played by Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, 1997) – “Will Hunting” isn’t an Irish name, Southie or not. Oddly, neither Matt Damon nor Ben Affleck have quite had their all-time iconic Irish-American role, which gives us something to look forward to. Damon has said that he and Affleck wrote the psychoanalyst Sean to have all the best lines, and he does, but Williams plays his bitterness and obsession with the dead with a stark, unsentimental realism that anyone from an Irish family recognizes immediately. Why do Irish feel so close to oceans of regret? Whatever it is, “It’s not your fault.” Damn kid stole my line.
Jimmy Markum (played by Sean Penn in Mystic River, 2003) – Again, you could make a case for others in this cast. Again, as with Tracy in Boys Town, you’ve got an actor who can do anything playing someone like the kind of men he knew growing up. But Sean Penn turns everything we thought we knew upside down. The thought of him screaming for his daughter sends chills down your back ten years after you’ve seen the movie. The posture, the line readings…Markum accepts that he’s never going to be John Kennedy. He has given up the Irish-American dream, but he will not forsake his dignity, nor his small place in the community…not on your life or anyone else’s. A chilling vision of Pride…in the Name of Pride.
John McClane (played by Bruce Willis in the Die Hard films, 1988, 1990, 1995, 2007, 2013) – You think 80s action stars, you think Stallone Arnold Willis, but the fact that the latter is based on one film says something about the shadow it cast. Entertainment Weekly’s best action film ever is based in a prismatic building, reflecting the prismatic multi-racial L.A. (the so-called “yellow peril” of Asians taking over is countered by European terrorists and a racist threat to a Mexican) – not surprisingly, it needed an Irishman (with African-American help) to show us the way. A sort of post-Cold War Dirty Harry, John McClane has become so fundamental to our ecosystems that it’s hard to imagine how we ever did without him. Every time Will Smith or Channing Tatum or The Rock cracks wise in the face of explosions – that’s McClane. Yippie-ki-erin-go-bragh, motherf*ker.
Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox in the Back to the Future films, 1985, 1989, 1990) – Eric Stoltz is arguably a better actor than Fox, so why did director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg replace Stoltz after two weeks of filming him as Marty? On one level, we’ll never know; on another, Fox is Marty as no one else could be, right? For so many young actors in the 1980s, often including Stoltz, acting was about bad-boy attitude (think The Outsiders, The Brat Pack); I suspect Spielberg wanted something closer to a now-teenage Elliott from E.T. But Fox as Marty goes beyond innocence; he’s also more like a cross between his parents, equal parts clean-nerd and cynic/romantic-wisecracker. As the only real nerd on this list, note that an Irish-descended nerd still has enough pluck and grit to cross 130 years to help his loved ones.
Randall McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975) Irish Nicholson may be (he says so), but that didn’t stop people from grousing when they first heard he’d be playing the character described in Ken Kesey’s counterculture masterwork like this: “redheaded with long red sideburns…broad as Papa was tall…and he’s hard in a different way from Papa, kind of the way a baseball is hard across the scuffed leather.” But director Milos Forman defended his movie-star choice because that’s our lens (unlike the novel’s Chief) that enabled a cast of unknowns to feel like a true mental asylum…and a true microcosm of society. It’s Nicholson’s best moment because it unites his two styles; Randall is very much a lead and very much part of an ensemble – just the way every Irish-American feels about himself. Outside of Schindler’s List, it’s the most searing drama still in the imdb Top 20 – showing we’re all a little Bull Goose Loony.
Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, 1939) – Only the lead role in the biggest film of all time. Has any woman ever had more screen time in a single film? Maybe Cleopatra, maybe not. More than that, Scarlett is a durable role model – she may be a wilting violet at first, but she learns to pick cotton and run a business and become a proto-feminist by 1870s standards. Generations have loved her for good reasons. Her Irish-American-ness is key to navigating the film’s conflicting attitudes toward slaves; Margaret Mitchell knew better than to make Tara’s owners bluebloods – you think Depression audiences would have rooted for that? Instead we know that Scarlett’s father was an underdog, like most first-generation Irish, and thus we hope Scarlett won’t go hungry again.
Ellis “Red” Redding (played by Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, 1994) – Shouldn’t be on this list? Some people will tell you there’s no such thing as “black Irish”; even in the age of Obama, some people still have problems accepting whites’ black heritage and blacks’ white heritage. When Andy asks Red about his name, Morgan Freeman intones “I guess it’s because I’m Irish” with a wide smile that spoke to Freeman’s 57 years of living with light skin and spackles of freckles on his cheeks. The “Red” of Stephen King’s novella was clearly as white and rugged as R.P. McMurphy, and there Andy and Red came together as blueblood and hardened felon, but the movie doubles down by bringing together white and black Irish. America’s favorite film (on imdb) began as a tale spun by an Irishman…and ended minting America’s favorite narrator (Freeman). Maybe that says something about Irishness. Maybe I just miss my friend.
Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham, 1988) In a career of amazing roles, Sarandon was never quite as wonderful as when she said, “Never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of her career.” Hollywood should have made 10 more Broadcast Newses – but they only made one, the following year, with a timeless soul-of-the-earth woman having to choose between the dumb lunk she finds cute and the already-washed-up-in-his-early-30s man she ought to love. The Irish connection to baseball has been alluded to in 100 Red Sox stories (mostly in print, not film), but Sarandon brought the suffering, pragmatic soul of the connection right here. You wish Annie Savoy were in 15 more movies, or at least 15 years of your life.
Rocky Sullivan (played by James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces, 1938) – Cagney exploded into America’s consciousness in The Public Enemy, but neither his Tom Powers or his other gangster roles were clearly marked as Irish (perhaps for good reason). During the same year that Spencer Tracy found his ethnic calling as a shepherd of poor miscreant boys, Cagney did the exact same thing in a film that holds up a little better. Cagney may have rarely played more than himself, but what a self to play – the perpetual underdog with a chip on his shoulder as big as the Cliffs of Moher, never more than a few knocks from the gutter. Cagney was the first movie star to be the Irish-American dream come true, and that’s no small part of why it makes sense when all the kids in this film want to be him.
Sean Thornton (played by John Wayne in The Quiet Man, 1952) – Probably Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen or maybe Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan deserves the final spot on this list, but instead of an Irish gangster, how about John Wayne as an American journeying to Ireland to find his roots? John Wayne is never anyone but John Wayne, but somehow that works for a man on an identity quest in the beautiful land of blarney and bitter beers. The fight that ends the movie is a little mini-epic, a sort of five-minute roundhouse of swagger and bluster that somehow summarizes everything wonderful and horrible about being Irish. The film’s director, John Ford, was perhaps the greatest filmic Irish-American success story, going from parents off the boat to building the Hollywood of the world’s dreams. He led the way for the rest of this list, which will just keep growing.
Who did I miss?