Dublin-born Barry Fitzgerald discounted his family's insistence that he was a descendant of 18th-century Irish patriot William Orr, but he readily admitted to being a childhood acquaintance of poet James Joyce. Educated at Civil Service College, Fitzgerald became a junior executive at the Unemployment Insurance Division, while moonlighting as a supernumerary at Dublin's famed Abbey Theatre. His first speaking role was in a 1915 production; his only line was "'Tis meet it should," which unfortunately emerged as "'Tis sheet it mould." A gust of laughter emanated from the audience, and Fitzgerald became a comedian then and there (at least, that was his story). By 1929, Fitzgerald felt secure enough as an actor to finally quit his day job with Unemployment Insurance; that same year, he briefly roomed with playwright Sean O'Casey, who subsequently wrote The Silver Tassle especially for Fitzgerald. In 1936, Fitzgerald was brought to Hollywood by John Ford to repeat his stage role in Ford's film version of The Plough and the Stars. It was the first of several Ford productions to co-star Fitzgerald; the best of these were How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952). In 1944, Fitzgerald (a lifelong Protestant) was cast as feisty Roman Catholic priest Father Fitzgibbon in Leo McCarey's Going My Way, a role which won him an Academy Award. He spent the rest of his career playing variations on Fitzgibbon, laying on the Irish blarney rather thickly at times. His last film role was as a 110-year-old poacher in the Irish-filmed Broth of A Boy (1959). Barry Fitzgerald was the brother of character actor Arthur Shields, whose resemblance to Barry bordered on the uncanny.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Worked as a civil servant in the Unemployment Insurance Division before turning to acting full-time in 1929; used a pseudonym to act so his co-workers wouldn't discover his secret.
- Roomed with playwright Sean O'Casey and starred in his play The Plough and the Stars, which was made into one of Fitzgerald's first Hollywood films, directed by John Ford.
- Owns the distinction of being the only actor nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars for the same film (Going My Way, 1944). Academy rule changes prevented any repeat occurrences.
- Broke the head off his Best Supporting Actor Oscar while practicing his golf swing. Metal shortages during WWII resulted in plaster statues at the time.
- Appeared with his younger brother Arthur Shields in six films, most notably The Quiet Man (1952).
- Depicted on a stamp of Ireland in 1988, 100 years after his birth.