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Tracings O’Donovan Rossa’s Tinseltown tie: TV writer John Whelpley

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Olivia Tracey

For those of you in colder climes, shivering your way through December, let me warm your bones with a somewhat more exotic picture. I’m lounging on the deck of a Malibu beach home in 70 degrees of hazy sunshine. The sparkling Pacific waves roll in over the shoreline as I inhale the breathtaking scenery, fresh orange juice in one hand, pen and paper in the other. Believe it or not, I’m working. By my side is Hollywood writer/producer John Whelpley, an Irish-American success who, somewhat ironically, hit the Hollywood big time by being everything that Tinseltown is not: quiet, humble, behind the scenes.

Mind you, this New York-born and L.A.-reared prodigy is very vocal about his Irish roots, of which he is especially proud. Of course he has every reason to be, considering that he is the first great-great grandson of no less than one of our historic heroes, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. The connection is on his mother’s side, with his maternal grandmother Isobel O’Donovan Rossa being the granddaughter of the Irish patriot. He remembers his childhood years, listening to his family stories about O’Donovan-Rossa’s heroism, his atrocious treatment at the hands of the British during his 19-year imprisonment, his involvement with the Fenians and the Phoenix Society, his connections with James Stephens and Padraig Pearse, his exile to New York, his books, "Irish Rebels" and "My Years in English Prisons," and his contribution to the plotting of the 1916 Rising, before which he died while in his 80s.

Whelpley has obviously inherited his great-great grandfather’s literary skill and has certainly put it to good use. Beginning his professional career in the mailroom at Twentieth Century Fox, he eventually got a welcome break when Aaron Spelling gave him a position as his ideas boy, looking for scripts and stories, otherwise known as director of development. Spelling also tutored him on how to write for television and no doubt did a good job as Whelpley then poured out such blockbuster TV hits as "Charlie’s Angels," "Fantasy Island," "Love Boat" and "Beverly Hills 90210" of which he wrote 75 episodes. He can also take credit for Paramount’s "MacGyver" and Fox’s "Trapper John MD," the latter being his favorite as it allowed him to explore his childhood dream of being a doctor. Unfortunately, chemistry was not his forte.

He derives great satisfaction from the fact that in his 22-year career, he has managed to write every genre within the medium of television, including comedy, action adventure, medical drama and science fiction, including "Star Trek" and "Outer Limits." He also wrote and produced his own independent film last year, which has sold to 15 countries worldwide and is still selling, and he is currently putting the final touches to a comedy.

He usually writes in cafes away from the phone, only accepting emergency calls related to his adorable 7-year-old son, aptly named Donovan. It takes him a average of two to three weeks to write one episode of a TV show, although he recalls having done it under pressure in a sleepless 48 hours. How did he do it? "Caffeine, fear and the money," he quickly responded.

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With a schedule like that, it’s not surprising that he might need a vacation from time to time, and less surprising again that he should take it in Ireland. He has visited his ancestral home no fewer than 18 times since his first trip, which he remembers with much fondness and good humor. He took off, age 20, with a backpack from Colorado Springs, where he was then selling encyclopedias, and hitchhiked north to Montreal to catch a bargain ‘r Italia flight to Rome. From there he hitchhiked across Europe through France, caught the ferry from Calais to Dover, met up with a rock-and-roll band, traveled with them from Brighton to Leeds, and finally hitchhiked his way to Hollyhead, where he made his way by ferry to Dun Laoire. He recalls staying in a bed and breakfast in Dublin where the owners, on learning about his impressive ancestry, wanted to call Gay Byrne to arrange an interview. However, not being the self-promoting type and feeling a little sparse on his ancestral knowledge, Whelpley declined the popular radio show.

However, he did manage to see much of the country from Dublin to Skibbereen, Clonakilty and Donegal. Just before his departure, possessing all of $5, an apple and a return ticket to Montreal, he remembers standing on the cliffs at Doolin, a rainbow arching over the already divine scene as he vowed to himself that if he was ever to get married, it was on those cliffs that the proposal would take place. Sure enough, his romantic theory translated to reality as, 14 years later, he got down on bended knee to propose to his love, Carroll. Unfortunately, the couple has since divorced but are on friendly terms.

However, for now John Whelpley is a happy man. With plans to expand his career into film, he is also content to stay in television, and aspires to write and executive produce a TV show shot in Ireland for a major U.S. network. He also dreams of buying an Irish property of historical significance for restoration but is a little daunted by the current Celtic Tiger real estate boom. Then again, Mr. Whelpley, the Irish TV hit could be just the ticket to building castles on Irish soil. And let’s face it, with your versatile columnist here, you’ve got a ready-made Irish thoroughbred to co-write and star in the show. Now that’s what I call a plan!

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