Widely regarded as the greatest Irish actor of the latter half of the 20th Century, Donal McCann was predominantly known for his stage career wherein he emerged as a major interpreter of the works of his countrymen including Samuel Beckett, Sean O'Casey, Sebastian Barry and, most importantly, Brian Friel. And as with other actors whose major focus was the theater, he amassed only a small, if memorable, body of work in films and television.
Born and raised in Dublin, McCann was the son of politician and playwright John J McCann (who twice served as Lord Mayor of Dublin) and his former schoolteacher wife. After a brief go at studying architecture, he worked as a copy boy for the EVENING PRESS while taking acting lessons and performing in amateur theatricals and in bit parts at the Abbey Theatre. When he began getting speaking roles at the Abbey--and reviews in the newspapers--McCann was forced to quit his day job. Concentrating on his burgeoning career, he went on to achieve notoriety playing the mythic Irish hero Cuchulainn in W.B. Yeats' "On Baile Strand" in 1966. That same year, McCann entered films playing a prisoner in the Disney adventure "The Fighting Prince of Donegal". Three years later, he garnered widespread attention playing Estragon to Peter O'Toole's Vladimir in Beckett's modern classic "Waiting for Godot". Over the next three decades, although he battled the twin demons of depression and alcoholism, McCann turned in one well-praised turn after another. In 1971, he cut a dashing Jean to Helen Mirren's "Miss Julie" (a production that was filmed for the BBC) and went on to distinguished work in O'Casey's "The Plough and the Stars" and "Juno and the Paycock". He also triumphed in a reinterpretation of the lead in Brian Friel's play "Faith Healer" in 1980, a watermark in fruitful collaboration that also included "Translations" (1988) and "Wonderful Tennessee" (1993). In what was to be his final stage role, McCann offered a mesmerizing, beautifully realized turn as a senile police officer in Sebastian Barry's "The Steward of Christendom" (1995-97), which caused NEWSWEEK to hail him as "a world-class star", the NEW YORK OBSERVER to declaim his work as "a performance of unarguable greatness" and THE NEW YORK TIMES to refer to him as "the astonishing Irish actor . . . widely regarded as the finest of them all."
Between these acclaimed theatrical turns, McCann managed to squeeze in roles in films and TV. The actor, who eschewed stardom and reportedly turned down offers from Hollywood, offered a fine portrayal of a man who unwittingly befriends a highwayman (John Hurt) in John Huston's "Sinful Davey" (1969) and proved effective as the dashing Phineas Finn in the 1974 BBC production "The Pallisers" (broadcast in the USA on PBS in 1977). In 1982, Neil Jordan tapped the actor to play a corrupt cop in "Angel" and Pat O'Connor used him effectively as the father of the title character in "Cal" (1984), a drama set against the backdrop of the Catholic-Protestant "troubles" in Northern Ireland. Huston once again offered McCann a terrific part--in this case what many feel is the best screen work the actor did--playing Gabriel Conroy, the husband who comes to realize that his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) never loved him. Without any histrionics, he conveyed a full range of emotions that this revelation sparks.
In another literary adaptation. "December Bride" (1990; released in the USA in 1994), McCann and Ciaran Hinds played brothers who fell in love with the same woman (Saskia Reeves) and form a menage-a-trois that shocks their small community. He was superb as the drunken father of a teenager whose lives are disrupted by the arrival of a mysterious actress (Beverly D'Angelo) in Neil Jordan's "The Miracle" (1991). He went on to portray an Irish painter with whom a teenaged girl (Liv Tyler) visits in Bernardo Bertolucci's "Stealing Beauty" (1996) and the Irish uncle of a mixed race American (Hill Harper) in "The Nephew" (1998). McCann's final film role reteamed him with Beverly D'Angelo as turn-of-the-century husband and wife theater owners in John Turturro's paean to acting "Illuminata" (released in 1999).