O'Rourke in her last production, Poltergeist III
December 27, 1975|
Santee, San Diego, California, US
|Died||February 1, 1988
San Diego, California, US
Cause of death
|Cardiac arrest caused by
septic shock due to intestinal stenosis
|Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery
|Other names||Heather Michelle O'Rourke|
|Notable work(s)||Poltergeist film trilogy|
|Relatives||Tammy O'Rourke (sister)|
A native of San Diego, O'Rourke was discovered at the age of five by director Steven Spielberg while she was eating lunch with her mother at the MGM commissary. Spielberg cast her as Carol Anne Freeling, a little girl abducted by ghosts in the 1982 horror film Poltergeist. She would go on to reprise the role of Carol Anne in the second and third installments. In addition to her roles in the Poltergeist film series, O'Rourke also had a recurring role on Happy Days from 1982 to 1983, and made several television guest appearances.
O'Rourke was born in San Diego, California to Kathleen and Michael O'Rourke. Her mother worked as a seamstress and her father was a construction worker. She had an older sister, Tammy. Kathleen and Michael divorced in 1981, and O'Rourke's mother married truck driver James A. "Jim" Peele in 1984. After her parents' divorce, O'Rourke rarely saw her birth father and called her stepfather "Dad".
Before O'Rourke began acting, the family lived in a trailer park in Anaheim. Her success later allowed the family to purchase a home in Big Bear Lake, California. In between acting jobs, O'Rourke attended Big Bear Elementary School where she was president of her class. At the time of her death, the family was living in Lakeside, California.
In a contemporary interview with American Premiere magazine, director Steven Spielberg explained that he was looking for a "'beatific' four-year-old child...every mother's dream" for the lead in his 1982 horror film Poltergeist. While eating in the MGM commissary, Spielberg saw five-year-old Heather 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 up for the role.
Poltergeist film series
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 adult abuse toward the child characters, Spielberg did not require her to perform the take again. For her work in Poltergeist, O'Rourke earned between US$35,000–$100,000. O'Rourke played the role in all three films. O'Rourke and Zelda Rubinstein were the only original cast members to appear in the third film, Poltergeist III.
O'Rourke's performance of her famous line from Poltergeist
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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.
After her work in 1982's Poltergeist, 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. In the television movies Massarati and the Brain and 1985's Surviving: A Family in Crisis, she played Skye Henry and Sarah Brogan, respectively.
O'Rourke became ill in early 1987 and was misdiagnosed by doctors at Kaiser Permanente Hospital as having Crohn's disease. She was prescribed cortisone to treat the disease, which reportedly caused her cheeks to appear puffy and large. On January 31, 1988, O'Rourke suddenly became ill again, vomiting and unable to keep anything down. The next morning she collapsed while preparing to leave for the hospital and her stepfather called paramedics. O'Rourke suffered a cardiac arrest en route to the hospital, and after resuscitation she was airlifted by helicopter to Children's Hospital and Health Center in San Diego, where she died later that day.
Speaking to reporters, O'Rourke's manager David Wardlow initially announced that it was believed she died of influenza. However, hospital spokesman Vincent Bond announced that O'Rourke died during surgery to repair an acute bowel obstruction (caused by congenital stenosis of the intestine) complicated by septic shock; this report was corroborated by the San Diego County coroner's office on February 3, two days after her death. Later reports changed the specific cause of death to cardiac arrest caused by septic shock brought on by the intestinal stenosis.
On May 25, 1988, Sanford M. Gage, the O'Rourke family attorney, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Kaiser Foundation Hospital in San Diego. O'Rourke had been seen by doctors at Kaiser since birth, and the suit claimed that they failed to properly diagnose her long-standing small-bowel obstruction: had they not simply treated her for Crohn's disease with prescription drugs, she could have been cured by means of a simple operation; and this misdiagnosis caused O'Rourke's death. Kaiser Permanente spokeswoman Janice Seib responded: "We have reviewed the case extensively, and we believe that the diagnosis and the course of action taken by our physicians was entirely appropriate. It's a very complex case, complicated by a number of factors, and not given to any simple answers." The case went to arbitration and was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
O'Rourke's death complicated Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's marketing for her last work, Poltergeist III, out of fear of appearing to be exploiting her death. Tom Skerritt and Nancy Allen, O'Rourke's co-stars, were discouraged from giving interviews about the film to avoid questions about her death. O'Rourke died four months before the theatrical release of Poltergeist III, which was dedicated to her memory.
O'Rourke's death (as well as four others) has been attributed to a supposed curse on the Poltergeist films and those associated with them; this urban legend supposedly stems from a real human skeleton used as a prop in the first film. According to backstage personnel, the ghost of O'Rourke herself haunts Paramount Pictures' stage #19, where she filmed episodes of Happy Days.
On September 26, 2008, DirecTV began airing a national TV advertisement developed by Deutsch; directed by Erich Joiner and cinematographed by Daniel Mindel, the advert features O'Rourke's famous "They're here!" scene from Poltergeist blended with contemporary footage of her co-star, Craig T. Nelson, intended to mimic the film. After the advertisement drew criticism from bloggers and columnists for exploiting O'Rourke, DirecTV responded in a Q&A session with readers of The New York Times. Jon Gieselman, DirecTV's senior vice president for advertising and public relations, explained that O'Rourke's family "was involved in the spot from start to finish [and that] Heather’s mother not only approved, [...] she also commented that Heather’s inclusion was a wonderful tribute to her daughter."
|1982||Poltergeist||Carol Anne Freeling|
|1986||Poltergeist II: The Other Side|
|1988||Poltergeist III||Released posthumously|
|1981||Fantasy Island||Liz Blake Aged 5||Episode: "Elizabeth's Baby/The Artist and the Lady"|
|1982||Massarati and the Brain||Skye Henry||Television film|
|1982-1983||Happy Days||Heather Pfister||12 episodes|
|1983||CHiPs||Lindsey||Episode: "Fun House"|
|1983||Matt Houston||Sunny Kimball||Segment: "The Woman in White"|
|1984||Finder of Lost Loves||Jillian Marsh||Episode: "Yesterday's Child"|
|1985||Surviving||Sarah Brogan||Television film|
|1986||Around the Bend||The Daughter||Television film|
|1986-1987||The New Leave It to Beaver||Heather||2 episodes|
|1987||Our House||Dana||Episode: "A Point of View"|
|1987||Rocky Road||Russian Girl||Episode: "Moscow on the Boardwalk"|
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