O'Rourke c. 1986
Heather Michele O'Rourke
December 27, 1975
|Died||February 1, 1988 (aged 12)|
San Diego, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Congenital Stenosis of the Intestine causing Septic Shock|
|Resting place||Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery|
Heather Michele O'Rourke (December 27, 1975 – February 1, 1988) was an American child actress. She made her debut after being discovered by director Steven Spielberg while visiting MGM studios. Spielberg promptly cast her in the horror film Poltergeist (1982) as Carol Anne Freeling, and O'Rourke earned recognition for her performance. She then reprised the role in the second and third installments. O'Rourke was also recognized for her work in television, and appeared in recurring roles on Happy Days from 1982 to 1983, on Webster in 1983, as well as appearing in the television-film Surviving in 1985.
Throughout her career, O'Rourke had been nominated for six Young Artist Awards, winning one for her role in Webster, and appeared in a total of three films (all of which are from the Poltergeist franchise) and twelve television series, before her death at the age of 12 from cardiac arrest and septic shock caused by an intestinal stenosis.
Life and career
Heather Michele O'Rourke was born on December 27, 1975, in San Diego, California, to Kathleen and Michael O'Rourke. Her mother worked as a seamstress and her father was a carpenter. She had an older sister, Tammy O'Rourke, also an actress. Her parents divorced in 1981, and O'Rourke's mother married part-time truck driver Jim Peele in 1984, while they were living in a trailer park in Anaheim, California.
Her success later allowed the family to purchase a home in Big Bear Lake, California. Between acting jobs, O'Rourke attended Big Bear Elementary School where she was president of her 5th grade class. At the time of her death, the family was living in Lakeside, California, a suburb of San Diego.
Film and television career
In a contemporary interview with American Premiere magazine, producer Steven Spielberg explained that he was looking for a "beatific four-year-old child...every mother's dream" for the lead in his horror film Poltergeist (1982). While eating in the MGM commissary, Spielberg saw five-year-old O'Rourke having lunch with her mother while older sister Tammy was shooting Pennies from Heaven. After his lunch, Spielberg approached the family and offered O'Rourke the Poltergeist role; she was signed the next day, beating Drew Barrymore, who was also up for the role.
In the Poltergeist trilogy, O'Rourke played Carol Anne Freeling, a young suburban girl who becomes the conduit and target for supernatural entities. The New York Times noted that she had played the key role in the films and commented, "With her wide eyes, long blonde hair and soft voice, she was so striking that the sequel played off her presence." During the production of the original Poltergeist, Spielberg twice accommodated the child actress when frightened. When scared by performing a particular stunt, Spielberg replaced O'Rourke with a stunt double wearing a blonde wig; and when disturbed by the portrayal of child abuse, Spielberg did not require her to perform the take again. For her work in Poltergeist, O'Rourke earned between $35,000 and $100,000. O'Rourke played the role in all three films.
O'Rourke's delivery of the lines "They're here!" in the first film, and "They're baa-aack!" in the second (that film's tagline), placed her in the collective pop culture consciousness of the United States. "They're here!" is ranked #69 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Movie Quotes.
After her work in Poltergeist (1982), O'Rourke secured several television and TV movie roles. In April 1983, she starred as herself alongside Morey Amsterdam and well-known Walt Disney animated characters in the hour-long television special, Believe You Can...and You Can! She also appeared in CHiPs, Webster, The New Leave It to Beaver, Our House, and had a recurring role on Happy Days as Heather Pfister. She also appeared in the television movies Massarati and the Brain and Surviving: A Family in Crisis.
In early 1987, O'Rourke became ill with giardiasis, which she contracted from well water at her family's home in Big Bear Lake. She was subsequently diagnosed as having Crohn's disease. She was prescribed cortisone injections to treat the disease during the time she was filming Poltergeist III. The steroidal injections resulted in facial swelling of the cheeks, which O'Rourke's mother said she was very self-conscious about.
On January 31, 1988, O'Rourke began exhibiting flu-like symptoms. The following morning she collapsed in her home, and was rushed to Community Hospital in El Cajon. En route, she suffered cardiac arrest, but paramedics were able to restart her heart at 9:25 a.m. She was subsequently air-flighted to the Children’s Hospital of San Diego, where it was discovered she had intestinal stenosis, she went into emergency surgery. Heather survied the surgery but suffered another cardiac arrest whilst being transfered to the recovery room, Doctors performed CPR for over 30 mins but sadly at 2:43 pm Heather passed. O'Rourke's cause of death was ruled congenital stenosis of the intestine complicated by septic shock.
Daniel Hollander, the head of gastroenterology at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center stated that O'Rourke's death was "distinctly unusual" as she lacked prior symptoms of the bowel defect: "I would have expected a lot of [digestive] difficulties throughout her life and not just to have developed a problem all of a sudden." However, gastroenterologist Frank Sinatra of the Children's Hospital Los Angeles stated that it was possible for congenital bowel narrowing to cause sudden death without symptoms if an infection caused the bowel to rupture.
|1982||Poltergeist||Carol Anne Freeling|||
|1982||Massarati and the Brain||Skye Henry||Television film|||
|1985||Surviving: A Family in Crisis||Sarah Brogan||Television film|||
|1986||Poltergeist II: The Other Side||Carol Anne Freeling|||
|1986||Around the Bend||The Daughter||Television film|||
|1988||Poltergeist III||Carol Anne Freeling|||
|1981||Fantasy Island||Liza Blake (age 5)||Episode: "Elizabeth's Baby / The Artist and the Lady"|||
|1982–1983||Happy Days||Heather Pfister||Recurring role, 12 episodes|||
|1983||CHiPs||Lindsey||Episode: "Fun House"|||
|1983||Matt Houston||Sunny Kimball||Episode: "The Woman in White"|||
|1984||Finder of Lost Loves||Jillian Marsh||Episode: "Yesterday's Child"|||
|1986–1987||The New Leave It to Beaver||Heather||Episodes: "Material Girl", "Bad Poetry"|||
|1987||Our House||Dana||Episode: "A Point of View"|||
|1987||Rocky Road||Russian Girl||Episode: "Moscow on the Boardwalk"|||
Awards and nominations
|1983||Young Artist Award||Best Young Actress in a Comedy Series||Happy Days||Nominated|
|1983||Young Artist Award||Best Young Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture||Poltergeist||Nominated|
|1984||Young Artist Award||Best Young Actress, Guest in a Television Series||Webster||Nominated|
|1985||Young Artist Award||Best Young Actress, Guest in a Television Series||Webster||Won|
|1986||Young Artist Award||Exceptional Performance by a Young Actress in a Television Special or Mini-Series||Surviving||Nominated|
|1987||Young Artist Award||Exceptional Performance by a Young Actress Starring in a Feature Film - Comedy or Drama||Poltergeist II: The Other Side||Nominated|
- "Heather O'Rourke death certificate" (PDF). Autopsyfiles. Retrieved March 28, 2018.
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- Harvey & Harvey 1996, p. 122.
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- on YouTube (A Current Affair)
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- "Heather O'Rourke, Star of 'Poltergeist' movies, dies at 12". San Jose Mercury News. February 2, 1988. p. 6A.
- "Heather O'Rourke Filmography". AllMovie. Archived from the original on January 1, 2020.
- "Heather O'Rourke". Film Industry Digest. Archived from the original on January 1, 2020.
- Lentz 1983, p. 1237.
- "Heather O'Rourke Credits". TV Guide. Archived from the original on January 1, 2020.
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