John Joseph “Jack” MacGowran (October 13, 1918 – January 31, 1973) was an Irish character actor, most famous for playing the alcoholic director Burke Dennings in The Exorcist.
MacGowran was born on October 13th 1918 in Dublin, Ireland. He established his professional reputation as a member of the Abbey Players in Dublin, while he achieved stage renown for his knowing interpretations of the works of Samuel Beckett. He appeared as Lucky in Waiting For Godot at the Royal Court Theatre, and with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Endgame at the Aldwych Theatre. He released an LP record, MacGowran Speaking Beckett, to coincide with Samuel Beckett's 60th birthday in 1966, and won the 1970-71 Obie for Best Performance By an Actor in the off-Broadway play MacGowran in the works of Beckett.
He also specialised in the work of Sean O'Casey, creating the role of Joxer in the Broadway musical Juno in 1959, based on O'Casey's 1924 play about The Troubles, Juno and the Paycock. Fittingly, he played O'Casey's brother Archie in Young Cassidy (1965), one of John Ford's last films (which the director had to abandon due to ill health).
In 1954 he moved to London, where he became a member of The Royal Shakespeare Company. There he struck up a lasting friendship with Peter O'Toole, whom he later appeared alongside in Richard Brooks' Lord Jim (1965).
However he apparently had a somewhat fractious relationship with Royal Shakespeare Director Peter Hall. He was Old Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice and when the set arrived Hall called all the cast into the theatre to view it. McGowran was not there, still in his dressing room. An assistant was sent to fetch him. He returned alone: “Mr MacGowran says, Mr. Hall, that if you had read the play you would know that Old Gobbo was blind.”
MacGowran's film career started in Ireland with the film No Resting Place (1951), and many of his earlier films were set in Ireland. Notably The Quiet Man (1952), The Gentle Gunman (1952), Rooney (1958) and Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959).
In 1966 Roman Polanski cast him as a gangster in Cul-de-sac, before creating Professor Abronsius in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) especially for him. Other notable film appearances include the Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), Tony Richardson's Tom Jones (1963), David Lean's Doctor Zhivago (1965), Richard Lester's How I Won the War (1967), and the leading role of Professor Collins in Wonderwall (1968). Also appeared in “The Happening”; an episode of The Champions. His last film was The Exorcist (1973).
In 1963, he married Aileen Gloria Nugent, daughter of the Irish MP and Senator of the Free State Sir Walter Nugent.
While in New York City filming his scenes for The Exorcist (1973), MacGowran died of complications resulting from the recent London flu epidemic. He was 54 years old. His daughter is actress Tara MacGowran.