The Thorn Birds Cast: A Mini-Series About Australia Filmed In The U.S.
Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward in 'The Thorn Birds.' Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images
Based on the 1977 novel of the same name by Australian author Colleen McCullough, The Thorn Birds was the highest-rated miniseries in television history other than Roots. Airing for only a few days from March 27th to March 30th, 1983, the drama starring Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward and Barbara Stanwyck and others captivated the millions who gathered around their TVs to watch the Cleary family experience tragedy and triumph as they moved from New Zealand to Australia to work on their aunt’s farm. The Thorn Birds covers three separate generations that span from 1915-1969 and involves viewers’ favorite topics such as forbidden love, death, and an abundance of scandal. The cast was made up of numerous actors who'd already seen successful careers in entertainment, but others had their biggest breakthroughs in The Thorn Birds.
Richard Chamberlain As Ralph De Bricassart
Richard Chamberlain plays the community’s priest Ralph, who falls in love with the young Cleary daughter Meggie. Their affair is kept secret as Ralph is much older than Meggie and was expected to be more of a father figure to the young girl. As Meggie grows older and matures, they fall desperately in love and begin their secret love affair. Chamberlain had become a sensation in his 20s playing the title character in the series Dr. Kildare and later starred in another mini series Shogun in 1980. He was also the first Jason Bourne, playing author Robert Ludlum's heroic character in the made-for-TV movie version of The Bourne Identity in 1988.
Rachel Ward As Meggie Cleary
Meggie Cleary’s mother was so focused on her sons that Meggie grew up pretty much on her own without typical adult knowledge of the world. The naive daughter married Luke O’Neill, who only cared about the Cleary family’s wealth, and their relationship turned abusive. Meggie ends up leaving Luke to begin her affair with the priest and in turn ends up pregnant. To avoid gossip and judgement, Meggie claims her son Dean as Luke’s child. Ralph doesn't learn he is the true father until the end of the series, as Meggie was trying to protect his reputation and status as a priest. Rachel Ward began her career as a model and played small roles in film and television, but her great breakthrough was certainly The Thorn Birds. She was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for “Best Actress-Miniseries or Television Film” in 1984 for her role as Meggie. Ward and Bryan Brown (Luke O’Neill) ended up falling madly in love on set and eventually married and are still together to this day.
Barbara Stanwyck As Mary Carson
Mary Carson was Paddy Cleary’s sister and the rich aunt who owns the sheep farm. She offers the Cleary family the opportunity to work on her farm and guarantees a life of wealth if they take the offer, which they obviously do accept. Barbara Stanwyck was a force to be reckoned with, an actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood who'd been the highest-paid woman in America in 1944. She made 85 films in 38 years in Hollywood, and had been an actress for nearly six decades by 1983.
Although the role of Mary was originally brought to Audrey Hepburn, Stanwyck proved to be the perfect choice as her realistic performance was extremely convincing. Stanwyck was an absolute beauty and even though she was in her seventies during the series’ filming, the makeup artists had to use their resources to make her appear even older.
Christopher Plummer As Archbishop Vittorio di Contini-Verchese
The archbishop was Ralph’s mentor who guided him along his own priest journey. Plummer was a Canadian actor who performed more on stage than on screen. After he first debuted on Broadway in 1954, he continued to play in various plays and musicals including Cyrano and Othello, and the lead roles in Hamlet at Elsinore, Macbeth, King Lear, and Barrymore.
A generation of moviegoers remember Plummer for his performance as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound Of Music (1965), and his other pre-Thorn Birds movie roles include Commodus in The Fall Of The Roman Empire (1964) and Rudyard Kipling in The Man Who Would Be King (1975). Plummer died in 2021.
Piper Laurie As Anne Mueller
Anne Mueller becomes a close friend to Meggie after she offers her a job while married to Luke. Piper Laurie had previously acted in The Huster (1961) and Carrie (1976) and would go on to star in Children Of A Lesser God (1986). She was nominated for an Academy Award for her roles in each of these films.
Jean Simmons As Fee Cleary
Fee Cleary was the wife of Paddy and mother of the Cleary children. She seems to be the perfect wife and mother until she reveals her past affair with a married politician. Simmons was another one of the extremely talented actresses in the series whose career extended through multiple decades. She was nominated for the Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actress” for Hamlet (1948) and won the Golden Globe for “Best Actress” for her role in Guys And Dolls and starred in numerous other successful feature films including Elmer Gantry and Spartacus.
Richard Kiley As Paddy Cleary
Paddy is the father and head of the Cleary family who makes the executive decision to move his family to Australia. Kiley was a successful actor who appeared in various films and television series, but was even more well-known for his roles in musicals and won the Tony Award for “Best Actor In A Musical” two separate times. Because of his deep baritone voice, Kiley also narrated multiple documentaries and films.
Bryan Brown As Luke O’Neill
As Meggie’s first husband who treats her terribly, Luke O’Neill was not the favorite character of the show. However, it turns out Bryan Brown was a wonderful husband in real life to Rachel Ward as their marriage is still going strong in the present day. Although the series took place in Australia, Brown was actually the only true Australian actor on set and has appeared in over eighty films and television series (both in Australia and other countries) throughout his entire career.
Mare Winningham As Justine O’Neill
Justine was the true daughter of Meggie and Luke O’Neill who becomes quite promiscuous as she grows up and matures. Justine relocates to Europe as an adult, but later regrets her decisions and her way of life and longs to return to Australia to make up for these mistakes. Although Meggie desperately misses her daughter, she urges Justine to stay abroad because she is certain her life will be much happier away from their chaotic family. Winningham also appeared in the popular films and series of the ‘80s including St. Elmo’s Fire, Miracle Mile, and Turner & Hooch and has been nominated for seven Emmy Awards along with winning “Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Miniseries Or Movie” for her role in Amber Waves (1980).
Philip Anglim As Dane O’Neill
Dane O’Neill was the son of Ralph and Meggie who takes Luke’s last name as Meggie keeps his true father’s identity secret from everyone, including Ralph. Naive from his true relationship to his son, Ralph becomes a mentor to Dane as he grows up and also desires to become a priest. Dane brings the greatest tragedy to the series after he drowns while trying to rescue two women stuck in an aggressive current. After Dane’s death and the resulting family depression, Maggie reveals the truth to Ralph about his son. The shock causes Ralph’s heart and attack and he dies in Meggie’s arms. Anglim was another stage actor who often played in other tragedies that included the stage and television editions of The Elephant Man and the lead role in Macbeth.
Tags: Barbara Stanwyck | Cast Lists From Popular TV Shows | Christopher Plummer | Jean Simmons | Mare Winningham | Philip Anglim | Piper Laurie | Rachel Ward | Richard Chamberlain | Richard Kiley | The Thorn Birds | TV Miniseries
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