Tuesday, October 19, 2021

She's Heeeere! Heather O'Rourke


"I'm really not afraid of spooky things.  When I have to look really frightened, I concentrate on scary things like losing my kittens or something like that."
  -- Heather O'Rourke

Heather Michele O'Rourke was born in San Diego, California on December 27, 1975.  She came from a blue collar family, her father a carpenter and her mother a seamstress. 

O'Rourke had an older sister named Tammy, who by age 10 was already working as a child actor in Hollywood.  She had a small role in the 1981 film Pennies From Heaven.  During production, Tammy's family visited her on set, and while dining in the studio commissary, Heather caught the eye of producer Stephen Spielberg.

"I was looking for a beatific four-year-old child...every mother's dream," Spielberg later told American Premiere Magazine.  He was beginning production on his horror film Poltergeist, and was still looking for a young actress to play the pivotal role of Carol Anne.  Spielberg approached the family about the role, and Heather was signed the very next day.  

Poltergeist (below right) was released on June 4, 1982.  It was an overnight success and was the eighth most profitable film of the year, earning three Academy Award nominations.  O'Rourke, who received upwards of $100,000 for her performance in the film, found instant fame, allowing her family to relocate from their trailer park in Anaheim to a home in Big Bear Lake.  There she attended Big Bear Elementary School, where she served as president of her 5th grade class.

    Following the success of the film, O'Rourke transitioned to television, where work was plentiful.  From 1982 to 1983, she had a recurring role on Happy Days (below) opposite series lead Henry Winkler.  Here's a clip where she first meets the Fonz. 

    She also appeared on such series 
    The New Leave it to BeaverCHiPs and Webster, for which she won her first Young Artist Award.  O'Rourke also found commercial work, appearing in spots for such companies as Hallmark, McDonald's and Long John Silvers.

    As Hollywood likes to do, it quickly cranked out a sequel to Poltergeist in 1986 and then another just two years later.  Regarding the films, O'Rourke stated "the first one I saw 12 times.  The second one I only saw twice because I didn't think it was too great.  I just thought it was too boring.  You could fall asleep.  It didn't excite me, it didn't even scare me.  I don't think it would scare anyone."

    By the time O'Rourke was filming Poltergeist III in 1987, her health was already in decline.  That year, she was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, for which she was receiving cortisone injections.  They resulted in facial swellings that, according to her mother, O'Rouke was becoming self-conscious about.

    Then on January 31, 1988. she began experiencing flu-like symptoms.  The next day, she collapsed in her family home, and was rushed to a hospital in nearby El Cajon.  En route, she suffered cardiac arrest, but paramedics were able to revive her.  She was subsequently flown to Children's Hospital of San Diego, where she was diagnosed with intestinal stenosis. 

    O'Rourke survived the emergency surgery, but again went into cardiac arrest while in recovery.  Although doctors performed CPR for more than thirty minutes, they were ultimately unsuccessful, and she passed away at 2:43 p.m.  She was only 12 years old.

    Heather O'Rourke was entombed at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village in Los Angeles.  Her final resting place is within eyesight of her Poltergeist co-star Dominique Dunne, who was murdered by her boyfriend in 1982.

    Interestingly, the family recognized the two sequels on her marker.

    Rest in peace.


    • O'Rourke appeared on the packaging of Mattel's "My First Barbie" in 1980.

    • O'Rourke beat out Drew Barrymore for the role of Carol Anne.  Spielberg subsequently cast Barrymore in his other blockbuster from 1982, E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial.

    • Upon completion of the first Poltergeist, O'Rourke was allowed to keep her pet goldfish from the film.

    • Poltergeist was released the same day as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982's seventh biggest moneymaker.

    • O'Rourke auditioned for the role of Vicki the Robot on the sit-com Small Wonder.  The role ultimately went to Tiffany Brissette.

    • By age 5, O'Rourke was already an avid reader.  For several years following her death, O'Rourke's former 7th grade English teacher honored this passion in her classroom with an annual "Heather O'Rourke Love of Reading Week."  The school also planted a tree in her honor, but it has since been removed for renovations.

    • O'Rourke's signature line from the film, "they're heeeere," lands at #69 on the American Film Institute's list of "100 Movie Quotes."

    • Poltergeist III, O'Rourke's final role, was released on June 10, 1988, more than four months after she passed away.

    • Tammy O'Rourke gave up acting in the mid-1980s.  Today she serves as a nurse at a correctional facility in California.

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