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'The Christmas Box,' Wrapped With Care


Time seems to have stood still for Maureen O'Hara.

At 75, O'Hara hasn't changed much from the days when she starred in such Technicolor classics as "The Black Swan," "The Quiet Man" and "Sinbad the Sailor." She's retained her flawless peaches-and-cream complexion. Her dancing Irish green eyes are still smiling. And she continues to exude the determined--yes, fiery--spirit that made her a top Hollywood star more than 50 years ago.

But don't expect to see her trademark red tresses in her new movie "The Christmas Box," premiering Sunday on CBS. For her role in the Yuletide drama, she's wearing a wig of long, white hair.

And O'Hara is none too happy with the hairpiece. The actress is sitting in her trailer outside a Pasadena mansion where "Christmas Box" is filming, tugging at the wisps of wig hair that keep falling in her face. "This hair!" O'Hara says with a huff in her famous brogue. "The hair is driving me crazy. I don't know if I could ever stand wearing a wig again. They are miserable things."

"The Christmas Box," based on Richard Paul Evan's best-selling Christmas novel, marks the second time O'Hara has stepped in front of the camera since retiring in 1973. Five years ago, she came out of her self-imposed leave to play John Candy's bigoted and domineering Irish mother in "Only the Lonely."

She was summering in Ireland when she received "The Christmas Box" script. As with "Only the Lonely," O'Hara fell in love with the story. And she adores her co-star Richard Thomas, whom she has known since her producer-brother Charles FitzSimons cast him in his 1974 TV-movie version of "The Red Badge of Courage." "He's such a good actor," O'Hara says.

"You read a script and you like it and you think, 'Hmmmmm, that would be fun to do something with,' " says O'Hara, who lives most of the year in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. "It's nice to meet the people and kind of decide if you would enjoy working with them, because to go to work every day and think, 'God. Do I have to be here today?' It's no fun."

In "Christmas Box," which also stars Annette O'Toole, O'Hara plays a strong-willed, rich, lonely and elderly woman who lives by herself and doesn't talk about her past. "She's not nasty, but opinionated, and demands what she wants," O'Hara says.

"Her lawyer is afraid that she's going to die all by herself in this enormous house. She advertises for somebody to come in and cook meals for her and to take care of the garden. Richard Thomas and Annette O'Toole answer the ad. They have a little girl [Kelsey Mulrooney]. It's about how I change and they change."

O'Hara is dressed in the green velvet robe she wore for a scene she just completed. "We did a wonderful scene this morning," she says with enthusiasm. "[Richard] came home from work very late, woke me up, parked his car in the wrong place. He did everything he could do wrong and then went into the kitchen. I walk in and he's drinking orange juice out of the fridge. I put a glass in front of him and indicate he's supposed to put it in a glass and drink it. No dialogue to indicate it."

She clasps her hands together in prayer and looks up to the heavens. "It's going to be a wonderful Christmas story," she says. "Please, God."

O'Hara smiles and points out, "You have had the best [Christmas] movie all of these years." She's modestly referring, of course, to the classic film in which she stars, "Miracle on 34th Street."

For the past 48 years, the delightful Santa Claus fantasy, which also starred John Payne, Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn, has been an integral part of the Christmas season. Says O'Hara: "'There are people who are still terribly important people I know in the world, in the picture business and in the theater, and they wouldn't miss it."

O'Hara never caught the disappointing 1994 remake, but did see an early colorized version of the original. "I think I had purple hair and green lips," she muses. 'I think now there is a better colorized version. It was made in black and white and they should leave it in black and white."

Born Maureen FizSimons in Ireland, the strong-willed colleen began acting at age 6 and joined Dublin's prestigious Abbey Theatre at 14. "If you are an actor or an actress, it's always in your blood," she states.

"My sister Peg, she used to say she was going to be the most famous nun in the world," O'Hara recalls. "I would say I was going to be the most famous actress in the whole world. We used to sit in the sun in the garden in Ireland and talk about what we were going to do. She did become a very famous nun and I went into the picture business."

O'Hara was 18 and set to star in a production at the Abbey when she was asked to make a screen test in England. "I wasn't going to go and an old friend of ours in Dublin who was in the theater spoke to my mother and said: 'This is the third time and if you turn down the third time she is asked to do a movie test, maybe she will never be asked again.' So we got a leave from the Abbey Theatre."

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