(June 26th, 2020) Veteran Buffalo Actor Michael O’Hear passed away this week after a long illness. Writer/Director/Producer Greg Lamberson wrote this tribute to one of the very talented acting fixtures in our Buffalo Film Community:
Michael O’Hear, Peter Cushing, and Donald Pleasance
By Gregory Lamberson
“What are they going to say about him? What? Are they going to say that he was a KIND man? He was a WISE man? He had PLANS? He had WISDOM? Bullshit, man!” – Dennis Hopper, Apocalypse Now
Except for that last bit, Dennis Hopper could have been asking a rhetorical question about actor and director Michael O’Hear, who left us on June 24, 2020 after many long illnesses.
My friend Alex McBryde, who acted with Michael on the screen and stage, posted, “I have known Michael O’Hear since 2003, and there’s no way to sum up our friendship in a Facebook post.” He was correct, so I wrote an epic essay about Michael which I distilled into this tribute, which is still too long for anyone to read who didn’t know him – a niche audience, like those for the projects he worked on out of love for his craft.
The first thing you should know about Michael is that he was a kind, gentle, and good man. Really, that’s enough: how many can say the same? So you have the gist of what I have to say right there if you don’t want to read through this account of our filmography together.
Michael politely introduced himself to me probably 15 years ago, after a local horror event. He was always polite, even when agitated. I’m sure he wore his trademark jacket, vest and tie ensemble, but it may just be that I have CG’d that wardrobe into my memory: it’s easy to picture him wearing that outfit as a Chaplinesque everyman in a silent film (but somehow still managing a British accent).
In 2009, I cast Michael in SLIME CITY MASSACRE, my first “Buffalo” feature, and made him my 1st Assistant Director and casting director. He was good in the film and worked hard on it – I doubt he knew how hard it would be when I told him it would be “fun.” He and John Renna, who did double duty a production manager and a cast member, were already friends, and I loved watching them bicker on set…and off set…and on the next set… and at social gatherings. I may miss watching those two go at it more than anything. Paul McGinnis, Rod Durick, Arick Szymecki, “Alex Mack” and Bob Bozek were all on that shoot. These are “my guys” – the foundation of my film family: we may squabble or bitch about each other to each other, but we always come together again. For me, this shoot was the dawning of the current Buffalo film industry, and Michael was at Ground Zero, the ruins around the Central Terminal station, where we filmed. Watch him in the BTS webisode series SLIME CITY SURVIVOR on YouTube and on the Blu-ray and you will get a good look at his sincere nature and hard work ethic.
After SCM, Emil Novak and I formed Buffalo Screams Horror Film Festival, and Michael was one of our original volunteers. The second thing you should know about Michael is that he loved movies as much as anyone I know, especially Hammer films, and Peter Cushing was his idol. When Chris Scioli and I rebooted the festival as Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival, Michael stayed on with us. Some years he pre-screened films for selection, some years he served as a judge, some he was a photographer; he just wanted to participate however he could. We gave him our Local Hero Award – possibly our first, I don’t recall – and I christened him “Buffalo’s Donald Pleasance” because he seemed to appear in every local short and feature. He wore that nickname with pride.
Sam Qualiana, who came to our attention through the festival, cast Michael as a salty, eyepatch-wearing update of Ahab in his debut feature, SNOW SHARK: ANCIENT SNOW BEAST, which I produced. Michael was thrilled to play such a colorful character, and devoured the scenery like the shark chewed on John. The third thing you should know about Michael is he loved to work with young filmmakers; he loved their passion and enthusiasm and the way that they had not yet become jaded or embroiled in local rivalries. He regularly attended local screenings by first time filmmakers and always found something positive to say about each one.
Michael loved to act, but “he had plans” – he wanted to make movies. He asked me to finish a screenplay for a vampire feature he started writing with John, and attempted to shoot what I gave him, but it didn’t work out: he quickly learned that while he was always willing to make time for other people’s projects, the gesture wasn’t always reciprocated. The fourth thing you need to know about Michael is that he desperately wanted to create, and although he did a lot of theatre at one time, film was his chosen medium. He was frustrated by the fractures and infighting that tends to exist in low budget film communities all over the country, nut learned to navigate the egos better than anyone I know.
Once, when I was desperate for money, he hired me to write a feature script for him to star in and direct. He was a character actor, and we both knew he would make an unorthodox leading man, but I tailored the script to his strengths and offered to produce it so it would actually get made. Once we had investors, I became his assistant director to protect their investment – I didn’t want the film to end up the way the vampire film had. DRY BONES was the project on which we had the greatest collaboration, and he took it very seriously: during prep I joked that he should dye his hair blonde to look younger, and he didn’t realize I was joking and showed up at my house shortly before shooting with blonde hair…
On the first day of filming it became clear to everyone that Michael was sick and physically incapable of directing – he needed all his strength just to get through the shoot as the lead actor. It was hard to see him winded after one take of going up the stairs in my house. I wasn’t thrilled to take over directing because I wanted to do bigger movies than SCM, not smaller ones, and this was a very low budget film. But we got through it, he was good in it, and I know he was thrilled to act opposite our friend Debbie Rochon, an independent film icon. I loved seeing him and john play off each other, and this film really showcases their chemistry and friendship. We shot much of the film in my house on weekends, and it drove me crazy that he would show up early, before we were ready to receive people – but an actor arriving early is better than an actor arriving late, and on all the films we worked on together – and there were many beyond those I directed – I cannot remember waiting for Michael once…and he was the slowest driver I’ve ever known. He was always ready and eager to help in any way he could, on every project.
When Michael had to deliver his most dramatic lines in the climax of DRY BONES, he suddenly and inexplicably “slipped” into a British accent. We all looked at each other and burst into laughter. “What the hell was THAT?” The laughter finally subsided, and I called for a second take… and he did the same thing! We were dying. Here was the lead and co-director of a film not only completely losing character but becoming a different character. But here is why that moment was so touching: Peter Cushing was Michael’s hero, and on this small project, he had the chance to take center stage and, in his mind, become Peter Cushing. We never discussed that, but I know it’s what happened. I honestly think he lived his dream on that film, and you can see these outtakes in the extra features on the DVD.
Almost immediately after the shoot wrapped, I learned that Michael had been admitted into a hospital in Niagara Falls: I had to learn this from someone else because he was never the type of person to bother others with his problems. I surprised him with a visit, and realized just how hard our low-key shoot had been on him, even with me calling the shots. This was in 2013, and from that point on I viewed him as a frail human being who could not be trusted to put his own health above his desire to create movie magic (or in our case, parlor tricks). John remembers me telling him not to cast Michael in anything until he was healthy again or it would kill him; years later he told Michael how I had “black listed” him for a couple of years, and I can only imagine Michael’s reaction. DRY BONES is an offbeat horror comedy, and Michael had more input into it than anything else he worked on; he gave Paul his first big acting role in a film and brought Kim Piazza, whom he knew from his theatre days, into our circle, and although he only got to direct a couple of scenes on set, he rehearsed most of the cast during prep. I hope he was proud of the finished project. Dread Central’s reviewer found himself how surprised how much he liked the film and wrote, “you do fall in love with O’Hear’s lead character.”
Next for us came Debbie Rochon’s directorial debut, MODEL HUNGER, which I line produced and assistant directed. From the beginning Debbie wanted Michael in the cast based on her experiences with him on SCM and DRY BONES. I was sworn to secrecy and teased Michael mercilessly that something good was coming but withheld details, and he grew visibly annoyed with me. He got to act opposite Lynn Lowry and Tiffany Shepis, and he told me Debbie was his favorite director.
When I read Paul’s screenplay for KILLER RACK, I knew I had to direct it. I also knew that Michael had co-created his character and was part of the package, and I doubted he was physically able to handle a large part again. After his first day of shooting I was convinced he would have to be replaced: he was so weak that he had a hard time projecting his voice. I told Paul my fears. I told Michael my fears. And Michael not only stepped up his game, but gave his best, downright brilliant, performance as Detective Bartles, opposite Alex as Detective James. The film screened at many film festivals and received glowing reviews, and Bartles and James became fan favorites. It was extremely gratifying for Michael, and he, Alex and Paul discussed doing a spinoff, but it never happened; life got in the way for everyone.
Michael was a fan of my novel Johnny Gruesome, but I didn’t have a part for him in the film version we did a few years ago. John convinced me to include him in some way, so I gave him a cameo as a funeral director. That was John being a true friend when I was focused on the project. When it came time to shoot WIDOW’S POINT, one sequence called for four guys to play poker in our haunted lighthouse in 1933. It was a chance to put John, Paul, Michael and Bill Brown together one more time. I don’t know anything about poker, so we all got together and rehearsed a scene I hadn’t even written, which was a lot of fun. The final sequence is pretty short, but an extended version will appear as an extra on the DVD. During editing I realized that Michael had given the most natural performance I’d ever seen from him; he even got to laugh (appropriately enough, at John’s character). The film will be released in September, and it’s hard to believe that was the last time I will ever direct Michael.
Michael was part of my film family, but he was part of the larger Buffalo film community as well, and the theatre community: he appeared in so many shorts and features that his IMDB page isn’t even close to comprehensive, and he was a “go to guy” for many local directors. People attending Buffalo Dreams were used to seeing him on screen throughout the festival, not just shooting photos of filmmakers at our banner. Almost every time I worked for Chris Ray, Michael was on board as an extra. The last time I saw him in person was in December, on the set of the action film ASSAULT ON VA-33. It was a cold shoot, and I saw him having trouble getting onto the floor where he spent most of his screen time, and then standing, and did my best to look after him. As always, he was happy just to be a part of something. Anytime I had to track down one of his fellow extras, I knew to ask him first.
Here is the fifth thing you need to know about Michael: he had a lot of friends, probably more than he realized, but he was a lonely man. He lived in Lewiston, a little too removed from the different circles he belonged to, and anytime he was not involved in a project it depressed him. He would post that he was not getting any roles, but in fact he worked on more projects than anyone. It is unfortunate that most of the outpouring of love for him came when he was on his deathbed, something we all need to consider, especially now, during this pandemic.
I regret that I couldn’t visit Michael at the hospital this all important last time because of Covid-19 concerns, and that I didn’t get through to his room via phone when he was still able to speak, but I’m glad I finally did get through at the end and told him how much he meant to me. I do most of my socializing on set and at the festival, and that’s how I spent most of my time with him – long, intense days – but I will remember him attending my daughter’s birthday parties, which often turned into raucous affairs after all of the “normal” people left. He was a better friend to me than I was to him, but I’m glad our films feature some of his best work.
I took it for granted that Michael would always be around, because he always was around, putting himself out there. Googling his name, I was surprised to find an excerpt from my novel The Frenzy Wolves – I had named a character after him and completely forgot doing so. I suspect many of us will look for ways to assign him posthumous cameos from now on. I looked at our personal FB messages before writing this. Michael dreamed of making a giallo film – an Italian style murder thriller – and in his last message to me said he wanted me to write it even though he could not pay me at the time because he was looking for work. I explained that my family was in the middle of a health crisis (which was only just beginning, unfortunately) and had to turn him down.
In March, Michael was admitted to Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital to have a kidney blockage removed. Complications kept him there for three months until he died. Things will honestly not be the same without Buffalo’s Donald Pleasance. I miss him already.
“Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
– Rudyard Kipling