Obituary: Kate O’Mara, actress

Kate O'Mara: Actress who specialised in big roles ' bringing a mixture of majesty and melodrama. Picture: AP
Kate O'Mara: Actress who specialised in big roles ' bringing a mixture of majesty and melodrama. Picture: AP
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Born: 10 August, 1939, in Leicester. Died 30 March, 2014, in Sussex, aged 74

WITH narrow, alluring green eyes and cheek bones as sharply angled as the shoulders on the jackets she wore on Dynasty, Kate O’Mara brought a striking presence and exotic quality to everything in which she appeared.

She presented a curious mixture of majesty and melodrama. She never underplayed a part and specialised in big roles – ancient queens, ruthless business tycoons and duplicitous schemers. In the 1980s she was a dangerous renegade Time Lady on Doctor Who and a little later Joanna Lumley’s untrustworthy, long-lost sister in Absolutely Fabulous.

But O’Mara was probably best known as Caress Morell, the nasty, younger sister of Joan Collins’s equally nasty socialite businesswoman character Alexis Colby in the big-budget American soap opera Dynasty.

O’Mara joined the series in 1986 when her character was released from a Caracas jail. Caress returns to the US with the intention of writing a book exposing Alexis’s dodgy past, but Alexis simply buys the publishing company. Caress then gets mixed up in the sort of family intrigues, kidnap and blackmail plots that were pretty much par for the course on these glitzy American soaps at the time.

There always seemed to be a hint of melodrama about O’Mara. She begins her autobiography Vamp Until Ready with a story about her displeasure at being ignored at her parents’ cocktail party when she was a toddler and deciding to attract attention by going into the swimming pool at the deep end, even though she had never been taught to swim. “I completed a length and emerged triumphant from the water, like a diminutive Aphrodite rising from the sea,” she wrote. “I received my first standing ovation.”

But there was genuine tragedy in O’Mara’s personal life, too. She revealed in her autobiography that as a young woman she had been raped. She was married and divorced twice, or maybe three times – there seems to be some doubt and the book leaves much unclear.

As a young, struggling actress, she gave a son up for adoption. She already had one son from a previous relationship. Her younger son made contact with her as an adult, though it ended unhappily when he discussed the relationship publicly. “It was a terrible shock to have such a private thing all over the papers,” she said in one interview.

Her elder son struggled to cope with life after he was hit by a car in 2010. Dickon O’Mara worked as a theatre stage manager and set designer and reportedly dated the actress Jenny Agutter. He sustained brain damage in the accident and struggled with drink, drugs and depression. He and his mother lived together in a village in Warwickshire, but she asked him to move out and he hanged himself while she was away.

O’Mara was born Frances Carroll in Leicester in 1939. Her father was an RAF officer and her mother an actress. She went to a series of boarding schools, studied stage design and set painting at art school in Tunbridge Wells in Kent, but switched to acting in the mid-1960s.

She appeared in several hit television series, including No Hiding Place, Danger Man and The Saint, on which she played three different characters in two years.

While working on No Hiding Place, she met actor Jeremy Young. They subsequently married in the local registry office, with just two witnesses and her son Dickon, and then went for a Chinese meal. They divorced in the mid-1970s. Another marriage, to the actor Richard Willis, lasted only three years in the 1990s.

O’Mara provided sex and glamour in the Hammer horror films The Vampire Lovers and The Horror of Frankenstein, and was in The Tamarind Seed, with Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif. But her big break came with a regular role as the boss of an air freight business in the hit drama series The Brothers in the mid-1970s.

She switched from air to sea in the drama series Triangle, playing the new chief purser on a North Sea ferry, who also happens to be the boss’s daughter. Dynasty raised her profile, with a big international audience. It was one of the two really big American soaps of the time, the other being Dallas.

Back in the UK after her American sojourn, O’Mara continued the nautical theme in Howards’ Way, the BBC’s popular drama series set among the yachting set on the south coast of England. It was described as “the Dallas of the seas”.

Throughout her career, O’Mara continued to work regularly in theatre as well as television. She appeared in several productions in Scotland, including: The Rattle of a Simple Man at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, in 1977; Night and Day at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, in 1980; and The Taming of the Shrew at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, in 1987.

As well as her autobiography, she also wrote a couple of novels and a survival book for the modern woman, in which she discussed diet, exercise, sex and hormone replacement.