EXCLUSIVE: At age 84, Margaret O’Brien has no plans to slow down.
O’Brien, who was one of the most sought-after-child stars of the 1940s, has led a successful decades-long career that has allowed her to share the screen with numerous legends of Hollywood’s golden era, including Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Young and James Cagney – just to name a few. She was one of a dozen child performers who earned a special juvenile Oscar.
At age 7, O’Brien was granted the special Academy Award by her idol Bob Hope for “Outstanding Child Actress of 1944,” the Los Angeles Times reported. The statuette went missing when O’Brien was 17 and it wouldn’t be discovered until 50 years later, the outlet shared.
The star spoke to Fox News about what has kept her going, how her missing Oscar was returned and what it was really like working with Taylor,
Fox News: What can audiences expect from your upcoming film “Love in Bel-Aire”?
Margaret O’Brien: It’s a love story, a feel-good one which I think we all need right now. I’m the matriarch of the family trying to get everybody together. And Joey Lawrence from the show “Blossom” is in it. It was a very fun project to do and a wonderful, comfortable set to be on. Everyone was really like a family trying to work hard.
Fox News: Was it like working with Joey Lawrence?
O’Brien: Oh he was very nice. Absolutely easygoing. Very compatible to work with. It was really a fun film to do. Luckily we did it just before the virus came… I have several projects in the works so I’m eager to get back to work once it’s safe to do so.
Fox News: What has kept you going as an actress?
O’Brien: I’ve always enjoyed acting. I think that’s key. And my mother never forced me to pursue it. As a matter of fact, she would always say, “You don’t have to do this. If you ever want to stop, just say the word.”
I know other child actors weren’t as lucky. They were pushed by stage mothers to make money for the family, even if they didn’t want to. They were given so much responsibility at a young age and once that was taken away, they weren’t prepared for the real world.
When I wasn’t acting, my mother made sure I focused on my studies. I attended a small studio school and then had a tutor while we were filming. But if I ever wanted to do something, like go to prom, I did it. I’m very lucky I had the kind of mother I had. And I still love acting. It gives me joy.
Fox News: How were you discovered?
O’Brien: Well, my mother was a very famous Spanish dancer. So was my aunt. They were in contract in those days with the dance company led by Rita Hayworth’s father. Rita was also in the company as a very young girl. So I came from a show business family. But when I was two, my mom brought me a little commercial contract. So that’s how it started really.
My mother was having some pictures taken for the marquee of a theater with Paul Hesse, a very famous photographer at the time. He was here in Hollywood. In fact, his building is still on Sunset. It’s been closed, but that’s one place they haven’t torn down. Well, my mother didn’t have a babysitter or a dogsitter. She had a wonderful little Cocker spaniel mix name Maggie and she was trained to behave and so forth. So my mother brought me and Maggie along.
The photographer took one look at us and said, “That’s the face I want! That’s what I’m looking for!” My mom thought it was her. My aunt thought it was her. But it was the dog. And then he said, “Well, the baby’s kind of cute, too.” He took a picture of me with Maggie and it made the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. After that, we modeled for Paul Hesse. When the studio was casting for a small part, I was called in. And soon enough, I was under contract at MGM.
Fox News: It’s been reported that your Oscar was returned to you in 1995 after it had gone missing. What happened?
O’Brien: We had a maid at the time and she had taken it to her house to polish. Well, somehow she disappeared. I don’t know what happened, but my mother knew. For years, I’ve always dreamed of finding that Oscar again. I always look wherever I could. I never gave up on hope.
Years later when [the maid] passed away, her children were clearing out different things and they saw this little Oscar. They didn’t think it was real. And they sold everything, including the Oscar, to this antique dealer. They just thought it was a really good imitation of one of those false Oscars you could buy on Hollywood Boulevard.
Then the Oscar was heading to this auction. But the auctioneers there kept looking at it and they went, “Wait a minute, this looks totally different.” It was totally different. It had a round base that was used in the ‘40s that we don’t see anymore. And it was in a special size. It was going to be auctioned off for a lot of money.
But at the time, The Academy strongly enforced that you couldn’t sell Oscars. They were always looking out for Oscars that were potentially being sold so they could be returned. So they found these auctioneers to confirm it was real. The Academy said, “This either has to go back to Margaret O’Brien and her family, or it has to go back to The Academy. It cannot be sold.” So reluctantly, they returned it to me. *laughs*. And I’m one of the few people that was represented with the same Oscar twice! The Academy gave me a little ceremony. My life has been quite the adventure *laughs*. I’m lucky.
Fox News: How did you escape Hollywood’s so-called child star curse?
O’Brien: I think that was all due to my mother. She was a wonderful person to be with. Whenever I wasn’t doing a movie, she and I would travel to exotic countries. And it was a lot of fun. I loved it. So growing up, I was working, but I was also experiencing different cultures, different countries. We had a great time together. And we had a wonderful relationship.
Looking back, I would say my mother was ahead of her time. Women back then didn’t usually go to restaurants by themselves. But my mom would take me. And I loved it. I still love visiting beautiful restaurants today. She taught me that I could go in with all my confidence and meet new people, talk to different people on my own. There was life to be experienced beyond the studio. If I’m ever having a bad day, I just get out of bed, dress up, and visit a lovely restaurant. I have to thank my mother for that.
Fox News: It’s been said you and June Allyson were the town criers of MGM. What’s the story behind that?
O’Brien: We were sort of in competition of who could cry the most and the fastest. When I was filming “Meet Me in St. Louis,” I was having a hard time crying because Judy Garland was making me laugh and smile throughout the whole snowman scene. So when it came time for me to cry, I was having a hard time. My mother came over and said, “If you’re having a hard time, why don’t I have the makeup man put the false tears on your face?”
But the goal was to always cry real tears. I’ve never had trouble crying real tears for a scene. And June certainly didn’t. So that made me cry! *laughs*. That’s how I did that crying scene. I thought I was going to lose the competition with June. But you know, June and I had a wonderful time filming “Little Women.” And by then, I was tired of that competition. We got along beautifully – everyone on set, including Elizabeth Taylor. We always thought of ourselves as little women. So we always stayed in touch after filming and remained friends.
Fox News: What was your initial impression of Elizabeth Taylor?
O’Brien: Oh, Elizabeth was just so lovely. She was always very nice to me. I was younger and I admired her so much. She would always bring along her animals and she would let me play with them. And we were so excited to film “Little Women” because we were going to wear our beautiful costumes by Walter Plunkett.
But I always loved seeing Elizabeth on the lot. She always waved hello. Her mother and my mother became very good friends. We all watched out for each other. And they weren’t afraid to stand up to [MGM co-founder] Louis B. Mayer. Our mothers were very strong, but they were also quite attractive, which helped when they had to go in and say, “We want this for our daughters.” *laughs*.
Fox News: Which star in MGM surprised you the most?
O’Brien: You know, I don’t think anyone surprised me. I was very fortunate to work with wonderful people. And we were all grateful to work. I did two movies with Marsha Hunt and we became great friends. As a matter of fact, I had tea with her before the pandemic. She’s 103 and looks exactly the same!
I think the only person who was difficult to work with was Wallace Beery. But, I had a wonderful director name S. Sylvan Simon who was incredibly helpful during filming. But that was honestly the only incident. One actress I really wanted to meet was Vivien Leigh. The studio arranged for me to have tea with her when I went to London.
I remember I was absolutely in awe of her. When I was at the studio, I would sit and watch Vivien Leigh’s movies all day in the projection room. They would run it for me at the studio when I had a little time off. I remember she was so gracious. That’s a wonderful memory, too.