Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell obituary

<span>Photograph: Clive Limpkin/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Clive Limpkin/Rex/Shutterstock

Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, who has died aged 93, had acting roles in three films directed by her father, Alfred Hitchcock, though she longed to appear in others. “I would have loved it if he had believed in nepotism so I could have done more pictures with him,” she said in 1997. “But he only cast people if he thought they were absolutely right for the part.” Her ambitions were modest. “I wanted to act but I never wanted to be a star,” she said in 1984. “I knew that stars aren’t happy, and it’s darned hard work, too.”

Her most memorable performance was in Strangers on a Train (1951). It was slyly funny of her father to cast her as Barbara, a young woman morbidly fascinated by murder – a chip off the old Hitchcock, in other words. At a party, she gazes from across the room in slow-dawning horror as the killer, Bruno (Robert Walker), demonstrates to another guest his theory that strangulation is the ideal method of murder. Closing his hands around her throat, he glances up to see Barbara staring at him, and is reminded immediately of the woman he has already killed. In his delusional state, he almost throttles the volunteer.

“By the very act of watching, Barbara involuntarily eggs him on,” wrote the critic John Wrathall. “It’s a moment that encapsulates one of Hitchcock’s most deep-rooted themes – that simply by looking on, the viewer is somehow implicated.”

Her first experience on one of her father’s films had come when she helped run lines with Edna May Wonacott, the child actor in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), but her debut appearance for him was in Stage Fright (1950), in which she played a drama student named Chubby Bannister; the film is set at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada), at which she was studying at the time.

In Psycho (1960), Pat plays the garrulous office worker Caroline, who feels miffed when a wealthy customer flirts with her colleague, Marion (Janet Leigh), rather than with her. “I guess he must have noticed my wedding ring,” she says, consoling herself.

Between 1955 and 1960, she starred in 10 episodes of the long-running television mystery series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Whenever they needed a maid with an English accent,” she joked), though none directed by her father. She also had small parts in The Mudlark (1950), with Irene Dunne and Alec Guinness, and Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956).

Known to everyone as Pat (“I don’t know where this calling me Patricia has come from”), she was born in London, the only child of Hitchcock and his wife, Alma (nee Reville), who was a screenwriter and editor as well as her husband’s closest adviser. Pat moved with her parents to California in 1939 when her father went to Hollywood to make his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Her life received its share of glitter and glamour: a party to celebrate her graduation from high school was attended by Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant.

She harboured acting aspirations from a young age and made her Broadway debut aged 13 in the comedy Solitaire. She was back on Broadway two years later in Violet, written by Whitfield Cook, who later co-wrote Stage Fright and Strangers on a Train. “Papa Hitchcock will have no scolding to do, for Pat whoops it up like a seasoned trouper,” gushed one critic.

The Hitchcock family sitting at a table
Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, centre, in 1956 with her husband Joseph (standing), her parents Alfred and Alma Hitchcock, and her daughters Tere Carrubba and Mary Stone. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

It was her father who had sent her to England to study: “When he realised I wanted to be an actress, he didn’t raise any objections. But he packed me off to Rada from America to make sure I did it right.” When she began to drift away from acting after marrying Joseph O’Connell in 1952, Hitchcock did not conceal his delight, writing of his relief “when our daughter … decided that being the mother of sticky-fingered children required all her creative attention”.

Theirs was a relationship that could, from the outside at least, appear curious or even cruel. She was made to eat alone in the kitchen as a child, and sent away to boarding school for two years from the age of eight. Her father sometimes came home late at night from the studio and painted her face in clown makeup while she slept, so that she would get a start when she looked in the mirror in the morning. She claimed not to have been perturbed by this. “I wasn’t frightened. I always knew it was him.”

He arranged her wardrobe, “as though she were one of his leading ladies”, wrote Edward White in The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock. Once she reached adolescence they often went together on shopping trips. “He had very definite ideas for me, of what was appropriate to my personality,” she said.

It was he who made the decision that she wouldn’t be attending college. “I would have liked to go to university,” she said. “I should have gone.” And it was he, too, who bet $100 that her fear of heights would prevent her from riding a ferris wheel on the set of Strangers on a Train. She later disputed the account given in Donald Spoto’s 1983 biography, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, which claimed she was left at the top of the wheel in darkness for an hour. She said it was a mere 35 seconds, and that “the only ‘sadistic’ part was that I never got the hundred dollars”.

Her father died in 1980, and Pat inherited his estate after the death of her mother two years later. She was a fierce guardian of their legacy and reputation. She pointed out to this paper in 1999 that her mother had “much more to do with the films than she has ever been given credit for. He depended on her for everything, absolutely everything.” She profiled her mother’s life and achievements in the 2003 book Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man, co-written with Laurent Bouzereau.

Though her father’s films scarcely needed championing, his reputation took some knocks over the years. Pat was quick to dismiss notions of his “dark” imagination (“He was a brilliant film-maker and he knew how to tell a story, that’s all”) and the testimony of actors such as Tippi Hedren, who claimed he had been predatory and even violent in his behaviour (“Nonsense”).

Joseph predeceased her in 1994. She is survived by their daughters, Tere, Mary and Katie, as well as by six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

• Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, actor, born 7 July 1928; died 9 August 2021