August 14, 1978 12:00 PM

How many couples remember the precise moment they met in such affectionate detail, especially after nine years? “He was very handsome and very interesting,” says actress Fionnula Flanagan. “He had such a lively mind. He talked a lot. I had never met a psychiatrist before.”

Dr. Garrett O’Connor is rhapsodic: “I found her fresh, beautiful, attractive, intelligent, witty. In other words,” he adds, “it was instant love.”

Today their marriage is flourishing, as is each professionally. Flanagan, 36, an Emmy winner as the maid in Rich Man, Poor Man, is the spirited 5’2″ Aunt Molly who helps 6’6½” James Arness handle all those children on How the West Was Won. O’Connor, 41, is an associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA and an international authority on human behavior in groups and organizations. He’s also an amateur actor of some experience who is currently appearing in L.A. with his wife in James Joyce’s Women, a script she herself wrote and edited. (One of the women is, of course, Molly Bloom, and Fionnula plays her in the nude.)

Success too often sounds simple, but for Flanagan and O’Connor to reach this point in their lives took all the luck of the Irish. Both grew up in Dublin, she the daughter of a newspaperman and he the son of the dean of the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. They were unaware of each other, however, until her starring role in Brian Friel’s Lovers took her in late 1968 to, of all places, Baltimore. A member of the cast had been saying for months, whenever anyone was ailing, “Just wait till we get to Baltimore, I’ll take you to the best Irish doctor there is.”

Once Flanagan and O’Connor were introduced, and the rockets had gone off, certain difficulties were recognized: her peripatetic career, and the wife and two sons already in his life. The wife was an English nurse he had married at 21.

There was no thought of Fionnula giving up her profession. She is one of those actresses who knew almost from birth what she would do. “I never wanted to be anything else,” she says. “As kids we used to do plays and I was always pressing my brothers and sisters into service. We were rather poor and it was the only kind of entertainment we had.”

Welded by her very name to Ireland, Fionnula grew up steeped in Gaelic tradition and folkways. (It is pronounced finoola, means “fair shoulders” and comes from the sad legend of a girl transformed into a swan for 900 years.) “Each Sunday,” Flanagan recalls of her youth, “we’d go to musicals at my grandmother’s house in old Dublin, which was like the Dublin that Joyce wrote about. The women would drink port and the men whiskey. Others might have a raspberry cordial. Pale tenors would sing.” Fionnula absorbed it all from behind a book.

When she was 13, her legal secretary mother urged her to join a community theater group. The next year Fionnula appeared in Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. The fling with O’Casey, she says, “really appalled the nuns” at her convent school. At 17, she went to the University of Fribourg in Switzerland to study French and Italian, but after two years was back in Dublin, auditioning for the Abbey Theatre.

Chosen as an apprentice, Fionnula was dismissed after a year and a half “because they didn’t know what to do with me.” She quickly landed a role in a Gaelic play, The Trial. Her performance as an unwed mother shocked Dublin audiences but won her a critics’ award for performance of the year. Next came O’Casey and Shakespearean roles with the Old Vic and work on British and Irish TV. Lovers brought her to America and Doctor O’Connor, who was then struggling to support his family on a junior faculty salary at Johns Hopkins.

“After we met, I had to see her,” Garrett says, “but she was always touring from city to city. You can just imagine, I developed an awful lot of emergencies. We’d meet for half an hour in an airport, a zoo, wherever we could get together.”

Once Garrett impulsively walked out of a convention in Miami and flew to Cleveland, where Fionnula’s play had opened. Neither wanted friends in the cast to know of his visit so he disguised himself as an injured Sikh, darkening his face with makeup under a swatch of gauze bandages and wearing ophthalmic glasses having opaque lenses with only slits in the middle.

“I called myself Dr. Gulpa O’Connor from Calcutta,” he says, mimicking the Indian accent he used. “I wanted to see the first part of the play, but I couldn’t see through the slits to find my seat. I attracted more attention than I diverted.”

Intrigued by her own travels in this country—and Garrett’s transcontinental devotion—Fionnula found herself weighing her desire to stay in the U.S. against the uncertainties of employment here. “In Europe, I had worked steadily for years; here, I soon learned that actors went three, six or more months between jobs.”

Fionnula was able to find work whenever she wanted it. Her performances here have already won her both the Emmy and a Tony nomination as Molly Bloom in Ulysses in Nighttown. Before her present series, she joined the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and appeared on TV in Gunsmoke and Mary White, among other shows. In 1970, when O’Connor’s divorce was final (“We had outlived our happiness—I have no regrets”), Fionnula at last came to Baltimore to live with him. In 1972, eight months after he left his job as head of Hopkins’ drug abuse center for UCLA, they were married.

Garrett’s sons, 11 and 13 at the time, moved in with them and Fionnula made a dismaying discovery. “To be a stepparent is very trying. The newlyweds don’t really want to share much. Everyone is very nervous. It took a couple of years, for example, before we could have a good fight.” With the help of a family therapist, she found, however, that “you will grow, they will grow, things will get better.” (Fionnula tends to deprecate her stepparenting. Garrett says, “She’s been truly extraordinary with the boys.”)

After all it took to get together, the O’Connors now do not feel they must remain inseparable to be content. In 1977 Fionnula moved to Venice, Calif. for three months to put together her Joyce play (in which her husband portrays an itinerant Irishman who begins and ends each scene with his harmonica). “I don’t think married people need to be together all the time,” she explains. “Garrett knew this was something I had to do and he supported me completely. I got so deep into the work that if the phone rang, I wasn’t interested. I couldn’t leave it alone.”

Garrett nods in agreement about the months apart. “They gave me time to work on some problems of my own,” he says, indicating the corner of the house where he does his writing.

“When you feel ‘married,’ ” adds the therapist, “is often the time when you feel freest to do other things.”

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