Kate O’Mara, the British actress known for playing a series of scheming villains—most notably Joan Collins’ sister on 1980s primetime soap opera Dynasty, but also similar roles in U.K. shows including Doctor Who, Absolutely Fabulous, and Howards’ Way—died Sunday at age 74 after a short illness.
O’Mara was born Frances Carroll in Leicester, England, in 1939; her father, John Carroll, was an RAF flight instructor, and her mother was actress Hazel Bainbridge. She followed her mother’s career path onto the stage in her early 20s, and landed guest roles throughout the 1960s in British dramas like The Avengers, The Saint, Adam Adamant Lives!, and Z-Cars. Her first notable film roles were two 1970 Hammer gothic horror movies that emphasized her seductive side. In The Vampire Lovers, she is seduced and turned by Ingrid Pitt’s lesbian bloodsucker, while in The Horror Of Frankenstein she played the housekeeper/mistress and accomplice of Ralph Bates’ Victor Frankenstein.
Her first major starring role was inauspicious: The 1981-1983 BBC series Triangle, a Love Boat-style soap opera set aboard a North Sea ferry, was a mockable, poorly devised flop that has been called one of the worst British shows ever made. Filmed on a real ferry in the cold and windswept North Sea, the production was wracked with technical problems and seasickness caused by stormy, rough seas and freezing conditions. In her first episode, O’Mara had to sunbathe topless on an icy deck.
But she gained much wider attention when she joined the American soap Dynasty in 1986, playing Caress Colby, the younger sister of ice queen Alexis Colby, who arrives in town intent on destroying Alexis for putting her in a Venezuelan jail by publishing a salacious tell-all biography exposing her secrets. The sisters’ vengeful feud became the driving force of the series’ sixth season, and O’Mara and Collins proved to have memorably intense chemistry as a pair of enemies almost evenly matched in both glamourous cattiness and ruthlessness. Dynasty cemented O’Mara’s appeal as a vampy femme fatale, and she continued to play what she once called “butch, power-mad, ballsy career women” in many of her subsequent roles. But O’Mara didn’t like living in California and was happy to move back to Britain after Collins got her fired by telling Dynasty’s producers she thought the show didn’t need a second brunette.
In 1985 and 1987 she also appeared in two Doctor Who serials, opposite sixth and seventh Doctors Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, as the villainous Rani, a renegade Time Lady motivated by a Mengele-like devotion to scientific research at any cost. Neither “Mark Of The Rani” nor “Time Of The Rani” are among Doctor Who’s best, with the latter widely considered one of the series’ all-time lows—but O’Mara’s committed performance as the cruel, cold scientist was a highlight of both shows, which benefited from her willingness to sink her teeth into melodramatic villainy, no matter how ridiculous the material. (Her character had a penchant for turning her enemies into trees, and ended “Mark Of The Rani” about to be eaten by a tyrannosaur.) She reprised the character for the 1993 charity special “Dimensions In Time” and the 2000 audio drama “The Rani Reaps The Whirlwind,” and said last year that she would have liked to come back again.
Though she was proud of her career, O’Mara’s personal life was “a disaster area,” she wrote in her autobiography, Vamp Until Ready: “Rape, desertion, adoption, divorce and numerous relationships with very much younger men.” She was married three times, to actors Richard Willis and Jeremy Young (both nearly two decades her junior) as well as a third man whose identity she kept secret, but who fathered her son Dickon Young. Dickon died in December 2013 of an apparent suicide. She put up another son for adoption after his father left, later telling the Herald Scotland newspaper that “it was the most terrible thing that ever happened to me. I had no job. I was behind with the rent. I just couldn’t think how I would support another child.” A reunion between the two, highly publicized in the British tabloids, failed to reforge a lasting relationship.
Born into a multi-generational family of actors and theatrical impresarios, O’Mara also founded her own touring company, the British Actor’s Theatre Company. She continued to act until nearly the end of her life; her final roles included another British soap, Benidorm, and a 2012 stage play of Agatha Christie’s Death On The Nile. Besides Vamp Until Ready, O’Mara also wrote another autobiographical work, Game Plan: A Woman’s Survival Kit, and two novels, When She Was Bad and Good Time Girl.
O’Mara is survived by her sister, actress Belinda Carroll.