O.Z. “Zebby” Whitehead Remembered by John Kelleher

23rd November 2020 by admin

Some fifty years ago, when my brother Terry and I were students at UCD, our bijou flat near Leeson Street Bridge played host to many a lively Dramsoc party. Our parents, knowing how much of our living allowance we’d be likely to leave in the tills of Hartigans, Kirwan House and O’Dwyers, prudently arranged with the management of the nearby Grey Door restaurant/guesthouse on Upper Pembroke Street for us to eat there twice daily during term-time.

This came with a welcome bonus – at that time, Zebbie Whitehead was resident at the Grey Door. Terry and I became regular and avid listeners as he shared memories of Broadway, Hollywood, Katherine Hepburn – the great love of his life – John Ford, Henry Fonda and many others.

He told us he never once regretted the decision not to invest at an early stage in the Broadway run of Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’. Had he done so, he told us, he would have made pots of money as the original ‘angel’ investors also had a piece of the movie, which went on to win multiple Oscars. However, Zebbie, a devout member of the Bahá’í faith, strongly disapproved of Albee’s subject matter. Though he never said it, I often wondered if he had influenced Katherine Hepburn’s decision to turn down the role of Martha, a part that earned Elizabeth Taylor the Academy Award.

Coincidentally, three years later, when I was a rookie on my trainee producer/director course with RTE, Zebbie kindly accepted my offer to direct him in another play by Edward Albee, ‘The Zoo Story’. Needless to say, he shone.

My memories of Zebbie remain strong: his shy, diffident manner, his intelligence,  his warmth and that gentle charming smile. I am so glad he continues to be remembered through the ZeBBies.

John Kelleher


O.Z. “Zebby” Whitehead (1911-1998) Remembered by John Lynch

23rd November 2020 by admin

The tall, thin and gangly sandy-haired sixty-five-year old American gentlemen rose from his seat and to a hushed audience at the Dublin Arts Festival announced: “The winner of the O.Z. Whitehead Award for new writing 1976 is John Lynch for his wonderful play “Poor Old Joe”.  He then proceeded to present the winning prize to the journalist and writer Kevin O’Connor.  There was a loud round of applause followed by confusion as Kevin identified himself and explained that he knew John Lynch but he couldn’t see him anywhere in the room.  The committee had not invited me, made a wrong identification on the night, and poor Mr. O.Z. Whitehead, affectionately known as Zebby, was upset beyond belief.  His concern was not for himself, however, but for the insult and offence he felt the mix up had caused to me.  I took no offence at all and told him I was delighted to win the prize which he gave to me a few nights later over dinner in the Trocadero.

Zebby was a saintly man, with whom I developed a warm friendship for the following twenty-two years of his life and which I have continued with my involvement as writer and organiser for the ZeBBie Awards which the Writers’ Guild of Ireland hold every year in his honour.  I know that he would be delighted that we have continued his work in some way because he spent much of his time and money here in Ireland on encouraging, supporting, and financing new writing talent.

When I first met Zebby I didn’t really know much about him except that he was an American actor who had come to live in Dublin in 1963, that he ran a play competition, the O.Z. Whitehead Awards, and that he financed productions of the winning entries at the Dublin Theatre Festival.  Thanks to Zebby my own play was staged successfully at the Dublin Theatre Festival, in London and Los Angeles, published and broadcast.  This gave him great satisfaction and he always referenced it for years later when he presented the awards which I, as Chair of The Society of Irish Playwrights (now the Writers’ Guild of Ireland), organised for him.

This came about because I had met him one day, as I often did, in Leeson Street as he walked from his small ground floor apartment, opposite where a bank used to be in the middle of the road, on his way to the Kildare Street Club for his dinner – he spent his formative years in the privileged salons of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and in some ways, retained the old style of an American gentlemen.  He was a bit gloomy that day and said that he could not handle the administration of the O.Z. Whitehead Awards any longer as the Arts Council had stopped their support and he feared he would reluctantly have to stop doing them.  He was overjoyed to accept my offer of help and I, with the support of the Society of Irish Playwrights, set up a committee to handle the administration, correspondence, and the reading of plays which in some years amounted to almost two hundred texts.  We met frequently in his place in Leeson Street and were always treated to a pot of strange but pleasant tea which he brewed from what looked like twigs.

Zebby would have read all of the plays and chaired our meetings with great attention to detail and an endearing ability to listen intently to the opinions of readers and committee members.  He was no sentimentalist and was forensic in his appreciation for the clear and economic use of words.  He was sharp and polite always but had little truck with nonsense or untruth, written or spoken.  He was not without a sense of fun either as he announced on one occasion: “In the past, and I’ve been doing this for over twenty years, I found it impossible to read some of the plays because they were written in unreadable handwriting, bound with a safety pin sometimes on the back of a collection of paper bags from the shop with the Lyon’s Tea logo in green and red on the other side.  I often wondered was the choice of green and red meant to be symbolic as many of the plays were patriotic and started with the line: ‘Quick, get behind the dresser, the red coats are coming’.  Well for the first time I’m glad to say there are no plays about red coats or green coats this year and our writers have learned to type so let’s start our deliberations without excuses”.

Another time I arrived before anyone else as Zebby was starting to brew the twig tea and he said: “John have you read any good plays this year?”.  Before I could answer, as he poured the hot water over the twigs, he quickly continued, “There’s one play and I don’t know who wrote it as our entries are anonymous.  I hope you don’t like it.  It’s about two dreadful vaudeville gentlemen and I find them unwholesome and not characterised by or conducive to health or moral well-being”.   I knew exactly the play he was talking about.  It was top of my list and was about two old washed up camp screaming queens in a variety show.  I told him that I thought it was rather good.   Zebby looked worried but we were interrupted by the arrival of the other committee members and quickly got down to examine our short list.

Some weeks later when it was time to pick the winner, the judges were equally divided, three for and three against the play about the two old queens, but the final and deciding vote fell to Zebby who had, during our meetings, repeated his reservations about the play.  There was a very long silence, Zebby looked like a hanging judge in a John Ford western, and then he seemed to grow bigger and stronger and said in a quiet but clear voice “ That play about the two vaudeville gentlemen is the best writing this year and we must award it first prize, it is the right thing to do, and we must do it, and disregard my personal feelings”.  The play, Remember Mauritania turned out to have been written by the late Aodhan Madden. It was later staged by the Abbey Theatre.

When Zebby died in 1998 the late writer Carolyn Swift financed the O.Z. Whitehead Awards for a few years but following Carolyn’s passing in 2002 it ceased and I was not very much involved in the business of the Society/Guild for some time.  However, in 2007 the new CEO, David Kavanagh, asked myself and writer Thomas McLaughlin if we could think up a public event for the members of the Guild which would help our profile.  I immediately suggested that we revive the O.Z. Whitehead Awards but as we wanted to include not only awards for stage writing but for film, radio and television as well, we knew that it would have been somewhat different from its predecessor.  We wanted to honour Zebby Whitehead in the title and initially settled on, Zebby Awards, but Thomas suggested that spelling it, ZeBBie Awards would look really good and sound the same.   We settled on that, I booked the Sugar Club, got Senator David Norris as our presenter and the rest is history.

Zebby was a remarkable human being. He was wise and generous, he was a religious person. The publicity about him always talks about him being a successful Broadway and movie actor particularly in the films of John Ford.  He told me he had little regard for that and only began his real search for meaning in life when at the age of 38 he adopted the path revealed to him by the Bahá’í faith.   That was in 1949.  He came to Ireland in 1963, almost as a missionary for that faith.  He continued to accept acting roles on stage and screen here and found many converts in the acting profession, among them Paddy Dawson and the late and wonderful Anita Reeves.  Apart from his extensive religious work and writing he spent much of the second half of his long life generously encouraging people in many ways, but particularly those involved in the art of writing.  He was an altruist, he enriched my life and anyone who got to know him.  His funeral in Mount Jerome Dublin, July 1998, was a joyous occasion, led by the beautiful Persian songs and poetry of his faith.  Zebby’s final wish to the congregation was that we all would enjoy a very good dinner, on him, in the Burlington Hotel.   We did.


John Lynch


Writers’ Guild of Ireland ZeBBie Awards celebrates scriptwriters in this difficult year

18th November 2020 by admin

Sharon Horgan, one of this year’s nominees, pictured at the 2019 ZeBBie Awards at the Sugar Club. Pic: Tristan Hutchinson

Now in their 13th year, the Writers’ Guild of Ireland ZeBBie Awards are always the high point of the year, celebrating the very best in scriptwriting talent across stage, screen and radio. Named in honour of O.Z (Zebby) Whitehead, and presented each year by Senator David Norris, the awards are voted for by members of the Guild. The 2020 ZeBBie Awards recognise  the best scripts that were written and produced in 2019.

Taking the traditional ceremony and moving it online has been a labour of love for the WGI team. The Guild has worked hard to retain the atmosphere and heart of the ceremony as it gets reimagined in an online space. According to WGI Chair Jennifer Davidson, this year more than ever it is important that we celebrate the talent and resilience of Irish writers. “2020 has been an incredibly difficult one for all artists, but we have also been reminded of how important the arts are to our collective wellbeing, and the central role that writing plays in the films, television, theatre and radio that we consume. All too often the writer, the person at the creative heart of a project, gets overlooked or relegated to the ‘earlier this evening’ section of awards ceremonies. With the ZeBBie Awards, we put writers where they belong, firmly front and centre.”

Normally the Awards are exclusively for writers , but this year, everyone will get the chance to tune in and join us in celebrating the best in Irish writing talent. The 2020 ZeBBie Awards will be broadcast as a premiere on the Writers Guild of Ireland YouTube Channel at 8pm on Thursday November 26th.

This year’s nominations include:


The Alternative by Michael Patrick & Oisín Kearney, Removed by Fionnuala Kennedy, A Queer Céilí at the Marty Forsythe by Dominic Montague


Facing The Music by Karl O’Neill, You’d Better Sit Down by Nyree Yergainharsian, Mr Sun by Gillian Grattan

Feature Film

A Bump Along the Way by Tess McGowan, Ordinary Love by Owen McCafferty, Extra Ordinary by Mike Ahern, Enda Loughman, Maeve Higgins, Demian Fox

Short Film

In Orbit by Katie McNeice, Sister This by Tracy Martin, Ciúnas by Tristan Heanue

Television Drama

Derry Girls Series 2 Episode 6 by Lisa McGee, This Way Up Series 1 Episode 6 by Aisling Bea, Catastrophe Series 4 Episode 6 by Sharon Horgan (and Rob Delaney)

Continuing Drama

Fair City Series 30 Ep 195 by Thomas McLaughlin, Ros na Rún Series 24 Ep 35 by Sinéad Ní Neachtain, Red Rock Cycle 55 Ep 190 by Ciarán Hayden

WGI Chair, Jennifer Davidson, Welcomes Burn Bright Partnership

11th November 2020 by admin

I am delighted to announce that we have partnered with Burn Bright to add a fantastic group of Irish mentors to their Time Bank roster this week. Burn Bright was born out of a situation in which two women’s work was erased, in a theatrical landscape which lacks equality, and where plays written by women are rarely seen on big stages. They are a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to change that, aiming to level the playing field wherever possible – creating a network and opportunities to build writers up, lobbying for change, and calling out inequality and bad practice where they see it.

Earlier this year, in our first lockdown, I signed up for some advisory sessions, and was immediately struck by how beneficial and necessary this initiative was. I was keen to see how we could extend the initiative to support Irish female writers.

Time Bank is being updated weekly with new free advisory sessions from industry leaders, available to any writers who identify as a woman, with over 150 sessions offered so far. Time Bank offers writers the chance to connect one-on-one with industry professionals willing to offer mentorship, feedback and advice on a variety of topics affecting playwrights. It is an invaluable opportunity to ask questions and engage with people from all aspects of the industry, with directors, writers, coaches and publicists at your disposal.

Jennifer Davidson, Chair WGI

New Webinar Series

29th October 2020 by admin

WGI is pleased to announce the first in a series of webinars supported by Screen Skills Ireland Stakeholder Funding Scheme, What’s Next? The Future of Film And TV In The Age Of Covid- 19, will take place this Friday, 30th October at 4pm.

As we plough through a second wave of infections, we ask a panel of Guild representatives from Europe and the USA what will be the long-term impact for feature film production if cinema chains cannot stay in business? Traditional public services broadcasters are facing a funding crisis and eroded audiences seduced by the proliferation of high-quality streamed content. Screen Ireland has ploughed unprecedented amounts of money into development in 2020 but can these projects ever get made?

WGI Director Hugh Farley will moderate a discussion with Lowell Peterson, WGA East, David Kavanagh, Federation of Screenwriters in Europe (FSE) and Lesley Gannon, WGGB (to be confirmed) on these topics and more.

You can register for the webinar here.

Other seminars in the series will include a Q&A with US TV market expert Des Doyle (November) and Development Application Tips with Screen Ireland Project managers (December).