Today, in late 2010 as this is written, Mia Farrow is far removed from that other time; she is now more activist than actress. But for most of her life, while growing up, and for the next 40 years or more, Mia Farrow lived in the celebrity spotlight — Hollywood parents, her own TV and movie fame, marriages to Frank Sinatra and Andre Previn, a relationship with Woody Allen, and most recently, notice as an inter- national activist. A good part of Mia Farrow’s life in recent years has been given to the plight of others less fortunate, beginning with her own assembled family of 14 children, ten of whom are adopted, some with special needs. Meanwhile, today, Farrow the international activist — quite the hard-charging strategist and political activist when see needs to be — is working on behalf of various causes, sometimes on her own and also through the United Nations.
But who is that person with the powerful, mesmerizing eyes looking out at the world from the cover of Life magazine in May 1967? And how has she come to where she is now? A portion of her story is offered here; a life, it appears, full of twists, turns and metamorphoses, moving from comfort and privilege to doing for others in both large and small ways.
Movie Sets & PolioMia Farrow was born into Hollywood in 1945, the daughter of Australian film director John Farrow and Irish actress Maureen O’Sullivan. She was the third of seven children. She grew up in Beverly Hills and often traveled with her parents to filming locations. At the age of 2, she made her film debut a short subject piece with her mother, and in 1951 she also appeared in the ten-minute Cold War era, Civil Defense Agency film, Duck and Cover. Her sisters, Tisa Farrow and Prudence Farrow, are also actresses. But life dealt Mia some hard knocks early on. In 1954 she contracted polio:
“…When I was nine, I got polio. And I was taken from the security of my family into another world, the Los Angeles General Hospital wing for contagious diseases. It was in the middle of the polio epidemic. I was shown sickness, and uncertainty, and pain, even death. Then I was released from that and dropped back into my life, and I never felt quite the same. It gave me a sense that I had to find a life that was meaningful, and that very definitely has shaped the family that I have. I’ve adopted ten children, most of them with special needs, including one son who is paraplegic as a result of polio. So this is my way of addressing that, sort of over and over…”After Mia had expressed interest in acting in 1957, her father — seeking to discourage her — sent her to convent school in London. But two years later, she made her film acting debut in a bit role in John Paul Jones, a film in fact, directed by her father. At home, meanwhile, tragedy had gripped the family as her brother died in a plane crash in 1958. “…I was thirteen and my family just disintegrated,” says Farrow of her brother’s death. “My parents are Irish, and they started drinking, and my father couldn’t work again. We felt his heart just broke. He died at fifty-eight, after a series of heart attacks.” It was 1963.
Mia Farrow then appeared in a 13-minute film short, The Age of Curiosity, a film profile about the modern teenage girl for Seventeen magazine. She also had her stage acting debut as Cecily in an off-Broadway production of The Importance of Being Earnest. In her early acting career during the 1960s, she appeared in supporting roles in several films. Her first major film role came in 1964’s Guns at Batasi. Farrow also screen-tested for the role of Liesl Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
Peyton PlaceBut it was Peyton Place — the prime-time television drama about life and love in a small New England town — that brought Mia Farrow to instant celebrity. Peyton Place the television show had been preceded by a good decade of powerful Peyton Place priming by other media. Peyton Place the novel by Grace Metalious kicked it all off in 1956 — a novel that shocked the nation for its honest portrayal of lives of small town New England. The fictional and picturesque Peyton Place, it turns out, is really a community seething with extramarital affairs, dark secrets, and all manner of difficult human entanglement. The best-selling novel had been quickly followed by Peyton Place the film of 1957, a second novel, and then another film, Return to Peyton Place of 1961. An hour-long pilot for the TV series was first shot in 1962, but disagreements forced it being dropped as a new version was used for the September 15, 1964 debut of the Peyton Place series. For the ABC television network — then the third-ranked of the three national TV channels — Peyton Place was something of gamble. A primary concern of the network was that the TV show would follow the novel’s controversial reputation and become an affront to family values. Another concern was the show’s novel scheduling. In the fall of 1964, Peyton Place was offered twice each week, on Tuesday and Thursday nights, a first for American prime-time television. Neither concern, however, appeared to hold the show back, at least in its early run.
Fears of a family values backlash faded as the show began running, as more “sex and sin” was implied than actually delivered. Although the book had some daring plot lines that involved incest, for example, the TV series went with less controversial themes such as teen pregnancy. The show was criticized for these and other sexual themes, but it still became a top hit. A month after Peyton Place premiered, ABC rose in the Nielsen ratings to No. 1 for the first time. Peyton Place was the first prime-time soap opera and it became something of a model for others that followed. The show developed a very loyal following of fans around the world. In fact, by June 1965, because of its success, it was increased to three showings a week. ABC considered developing a spin-off serial, and both CBS and NBC announced they were developing similar prime-time serials.Among the key characters in the early years of the series were: Dorothy Malone, who played bookshop owner and mother of Allison, Constance Mackenzie. Constance has her own dark secret surrounding the birth of daughter Allison. And Allison’s real father, viewers later learn, is in prison. Allison becomes romantically involved with rich kid Rodney Harrington, played by Ryan O’Neal, who is pursued by another young woman named Betty Anderson, played by Barbara Perkin. Betty becomes pregnant, has a miscarriage, but marries Rodney without telling him about the miscarriage. And there area also a number of other characters who figure into one or more plot twists through the life of the series — Rodney’s brother, Norman Harringon; Rodney’s father, Leslie Harrington, who runs Peyton Mills; Dr. Michael Rossi, a young physician who has set up shop in Peyton Place; a tavern keeper’s daughter, Rita Jacks; Martin Peyton, the town’s patriarch — and more. In fact, in the long run of this series, more than 200 actors appeared in various primary and secondary roles. A total of 514 Peyton Place episodes were broadcast between September 15, 1964 and June 2, 1969 — the early years in black in white, and later years in color. Mia Farrow, as the beloved Allison, only appeared in the first two years of the series. But those were quite enough, as these episodes marked the relationship between she and Ryan O’Neal’s character, and both of their careers were boosted by these roles. Farrow, especially, became firmly established in the eyes of the viewing public and enjoyed great public notice as Allison Mackenzie. “I played Allison Mackenzie well because I knew her,” she would tell a Life magazine reporter in 1966. “I knew every inch of her. I was Allison Mackenzie.” But in August 1966, Allison Mackenzie suddenly “disappeared” in the Peyton Place storyline — occasioned by Mia Farrow’s real world departure for her 1966 marriage to Frank Sinatra. Peyton Place never fully recovered from Farrow’s departure, though news of a distant Allison was worked into the storyline to keep the character alive. In fact, some two years later into the series, a young woman appeared with a baby she claimed was Allison’s. Peyton Place, meanwhile, continued to run for several more years. Ryan O’Neal remained through its entire run. The series also holds the distinction of being one of the few prime time soaps to have never appeared as re-runs.
Mia Farrow, meanwhile, received professional plaudits for her work in the1960s — a 1965 Golden Globe award for Most Promising Female Newcomer and a 1966 Golden Globe nomination. But her life by then had taken a new direction with her marriage to Frank Sinatra.
Frank & MiaFrank Sinatra and Mia Farrow had first met in the fall of 1964 when they were both working on the 20Century Fox film lot in Hollywood — when she was filming for Peyton Place and he was working Ryan’s Express, World War II film. She was 19 at the time and he was 48. Their courtship and marriage became a topic of much public interest and some concern among both their friends, given their age difference. Dean Martin, one of Sinatra’s Rat Pack buddies, is alleged to have quipped that he had a bottle of Scotch older than Farrow. And when she and Sinatra were courting they were hounded by the press wherever the went, as once on a boat ride off Cape Cod that became more of a national event than private getaway. In any case, the two were married on July 19, 1966, when she was 21 and he was 50. Sinatra was enjoying a wave of renewed popularity with his music by then, as the song “Strangers in the Night,” for example, was at the top of the Billboard charts within weeks of their marriage. But Frank Sinatra was a pretty demanding kind of guy, who had urged Farrow to quit Peyton Place earlier. In 1967, meanwhile, Farrow played the title role in the ABC-TV remake of Johnny Belinda, based on the play of the same name. She also appeared in some print ads for Foster Grant Sunglasses. In 1968, Farrow had agreed to work in a film with Sinatra called The Detective. But she also began working on the Roman Polanski film, Rosemary’s Baby. Sinatra asked her to quit that film and come work with him on The Detective. After she refused, Sinatra had her served with divorce papers on the film set of Rosemary’s Baby, in front of cast and crew. Farrow broke down after reading the papers, but nonetheless, continued with her film work that day. In an effort to save her marriage, Farrow asked Paramount Pictures executive Robert Evans to release her from her film contract, but he persuaded her to remain with the project. A divorce between Farrow and Sinatra was finalized later that year. The Sinatra-Farrow pairing had become regular fare for the tabloids and there continued to be questions about the marriage for years. But in a 2006 interview with Esquire, Farrow reflected on her time with Sinatra:
“…When I married Frank Sinatra, my father had recently died, and he [Sinatra] had just turned fifty, and people said, “Oh, you’re looking for a father.” It’s hard for me to, um, deny or confirm. But what I will tell you is that he was the coolest, handsomest, sexiest guy. I don’t think there are many women of any age who could have resisted him. He was utterly charming. Absolutely adorable. So you can talk father all you like — he wasn’t anything like my father….”
“…Frank Sinatra had a very strong moral structure. He was actually quite staid in certain respects, very much the Italian father. There was a part of him that would say, ‘break his legs,’ but there was a part of him that wouldn’t actually do it. And there was a part of him that was an excellent father and an excellent friend, who wouldn’t lie, who would do the right thing for other people and seek no reward….”
In the aftermath her break up with Sinatra, Farrow traveled to India in early 1968, where she spent time at the ashram of the Maharishi in Rishikesh studying transcendental meditation. This gathering gained worldwide media attention at the time due to the presence of the Beatles, Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and Farrow’s younger sister, Prudence, who inspired John Lennon to write the song “Dear Prudence.”
1960s’ Film Roles
Mia Farrow’s first leading film role was in Rosemary’s Baby, the June 1968 Roman Polanski horror classic. The film was a major critical and commercial success at the time and continues to be widely regarded as a classic of the horror genre. Rosemary’s Baby raised Farrow’s star power to new heights. For that role, she won a Golden Globe award for new star of the year; a David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Actress; and a Golden Laurel Award. She was also nominated for Golden Globe best actress in a motion picture drama and a BAFTA best actress nomination.
By February 1969, she was on the cover of Time magazine with actor Dustin Hoffman, the two then cast in a new movie together, John and Mary. They were both fresh from the success of major films: she with Rosemary’s Baby and he, The Graduate. At the time in 1969, Rosemary’s Baby was ranked among the top 50 all-time movie hits and The Graduate was then the third largest money earner in movie history. In 1969, however, Farrow turned down the starring role of feisty teenager Mattie Ross in the western True Grit. In that role she would have played opposite John Wayne. The movie became a classic, with Wayne winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar, and also a BAFTA film award nomination for Kim Darby, who played Mattie. Farrow later admitted that not taking the True Grit role of Mattie was a major mistake.
In 1970, Mia Farrow married German-born composer André Previn, nearly 16 years her senior. During their nine-year marriage, the couple had three biological children and also adopted three orphans. During the 1970s, Farrow also made 11 more films, among them: See No Evil (1971); Follow Me! (1972); The Great Gatsby (1974); Full Circle (1977); A Wedding, Avalanche, and Death on the Nile (all in 1978); and Hurricane (1979).
Through the 1970s, she was very much the Hollywood star in the public eye, landing on the covers of major magazines. In 1974, for example, she appeared on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post and the premier issue of a new magazine called People, in both cases dressed in period garb touting 1974’s The Great Gatsby. By the end of the decade, the marriage of Mia Farrow and Andre Previn had ended.
In 1982, while filming A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Farrow fell in love with director/co-star Woody Allen. She wound up appearing almost exclusively in Allen’s films over the next ten years.
She and Allen made 13 movies together: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), September (1987), Radio Days (1987), Another Woman (1988), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), New York Stories (1989), Alice (1990), Shadows and Fog (1991), and Husbands and Wives (1992). Farrow also played Alura, mother of Kara in Supergirl (1984) and voiced the title role in the animated film The Last Unicorn (1982).
Mia’s ChildrenMia Farrow has been mother to some 15 children, most adopted. In her marriage With Andre Previn she had three biological children — twin sons Matthew Phineas and Sascha Villiers, born in 1970, and Fletcher, born in 1974. With Previn, she also adopted three children — Soon-Yi, Lark Song, and Summer Song (aka Daisy Previn). In her years with Woody Allen, she had one biological child born in 1987: Satchel Ronan O’Sullivan Farrow, known today as Ronan (whose actual paternity, Mia has said in recent years, may be that of Frank Sinatra). Mia Farrow also adopted two children with Allen: Moses Farrow (aka Misha) and Dylan O’Sullivan Farrow (aka Mallone). As a single mother, she also adopted six additional children: Tam Farrow, Isaiah Justus Farrow, Quincy Farrow (aka Kaeli-Shea Farrow), Frankie-Minh Farrow, Thaddeus W. Farrow and Gabriel Wilk Farrow. Tam Farrow died in March of 2000 at age 19 of a heart ailment. Lark Farrow died in December of 2008 at age 35. In a January 2006 interview with Gaby Wood of The Observer in London, Farrow was asked if she ever feared that she wouldn’t be able to manage it all. “I’ve often thought how presump- tuous I was — to assume that I could be good enough to be the person that all of them need,” she said. “I just knew that … it’s a philosophical question: if you walk by a pond and there’s a baby drowning, are you allowed to walk by the pond? Well, people are walking by the pond all the time.” Still, in recent years, as Farrow became involved in human rights activities around the world and away from home, some have suggested she should be focused more on her own family. Wrote Sue Reid in the London Daily Mail in May 2009: “Many of Farrow’s friends must have won- dered why the actress — about to be embroiled in a New York courtroom row which promises to revive salacious details of her family life with former lover Woody Allen, and also recovering from the death of her own troubled daughter — does not devote more of her time to her own children and grandchildren.”
Although Farrow spent many years with Woody Allen through the early 1990s, she did not marry him. They had a biological son together, Ronan, and also adopted two children — Moses and Dylan. Their break-up in 1996 became major news not just because they were both celebrities, but because Allen was carrying on an affair with one of Farrow’s adopted children, Soon-Yi Previn. Farrow also charged Allen with child abuse involving their adopted female child, Dylan, but those charges were eventually dropped.
Farrow worked less frequently in film during the 1990s, tending to her children, and later, the battle with Allen. Nonetheless, she appeared in leading roles in several notable films, included the Irish film Widows’ Peak (1994), and Miami Rhapsody and Reckless, both in 1995. She also appeared in several independent features and made-for-television films throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. Farrow would later write the 1997 book, What Falls Away, her memoir of her Hollywood childhood, her two marriages, her TV and film careers, her children, and her years with Woody Allen. The book became a best seller and its literary quality was generally regarded as a cut above many other Hollywood memoirs.
It is not exactly clear when Mia Farrow’s activism began, but she and others in London, including Vanessa Redgrave, participated in anti-war protest marches in 1970. Farrow’s first adoptions with second husband Andre Previn — two Vietnamese girls — also appear to have been a kind of activism and social statement by Farrow, occurring during the Vietnam War. “It was absolutely a time when we felt that, if you could [ adopt orphaned Vietnamese children], it would be a great thing..,” she explained in a 2006 interview with The Observer in London. Farrow has also stood with human rights leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel. While in South Africa during 1997 and 1998, she traveled with Nelson Mandela to support the work of The Nelson Mandela Foundation Children’s Fund.
UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, ap- pointed her as Special Representative at the first Global Polio Partners Summit in September 2000. Farrow has worked extensively to draw attention to the fight to eradicate polio, a diseases which she survived as a child and also contracted by her son, Thaddeus. In recent years, Farrow has expanded her UNICEF and humanitarian work into other activities, mostly on behalf of children and refugees, especially in embattled regions, predominantly in Africa. She has become a determined and high-profile advocate for children’s rights and refugees.
Farrow & DarfurIn early April 2004, Farrow read an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times that sent her on a new humanitarian venture. The piece, by Samantha Power, was about the tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, but its focus was on needed action in the Sudan — a very powerful piece which Farrow later described as making her knees buckle. “…[I]t was completely beneath the media’s radar,” Farrow would later say of the situation in the Sudan. “I had to scrounge around the Internet to find anything at all. I was astounded that this was ongoing and astounded that it was not being reported.” Farrow also read a longer piece on Darfur that Powers had written for The New Yorker, and with that, she decided she needed to go there and get involved. Since she was already a UNICEF ambassador, UNICEF helped her get to Darfur. “I got to Darfur that first year in 2004 and [it] absolutely transformed my life,” she later explained. She has since traveled to Darfur nearly a dozen more times to advocate for Darfuri refugees, once as part of a documentary film expedition. Her photographs of Darfur appeared in People magazine in July 2006 and are also found at her website. Farrow authored articles herself on the crisis in 2006 and 2007 that appeared in the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. In early August 2007, Farrow offered to “trade her freedom” for the freedom of a Sudanese rebel leader then being treated in a UN hospital but afraid to leave. She offered to be taken captive in exchange for his safe passage out of the country. In 2007, Farrow became involved in a Dream for Darfur campaign aimed at bringing public attention to China as a key enabler of the genocide in Sudan by being the major buyer of Sudanese oil. In 2008, activists and Farrow began a special focus on the 2008 Summer Olympics held in Beijing, some calling them the “Genocide Olympics.” In that campaign, Farrow also targeted Steven Spielberg, who had been named an artistic adviser to the 2008 Olympics broadcast. In a March 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed, written with her son, Ronan, Farrow aimed her commentary at Speilberg and television sponsors of the Games: “Does Mr. Spielberg really want to go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl [ a German filmmaker who produced a 1934 propaganda film for the Nazi Party] of the Beijing Games? Do the various television sponsors around the world want to share in that shame? Because they will. Unless, of course, all of them add their singularly well-positioned voices to the growing calls for Chinese action to end the slaughter in Darfur.” Speilberg stepped down as advisor in February 2008. During the Olympic Games broadcast, Farrow also ran a televised message via the internet from a Sudanese refugee camp to highlight China’s involvement in the region. Mia Farrow has also been active on the public speaking circuit on behalf of humanitarian causes. In October 2007, for example, she joined political strategist Donna Brazile and the late Meet the Press moderator, Tim Russert, as a keynote speakers at the Public Relations Society of America’s International Conference in Philadelphia where she gave a General Session keynote. In 2007, she joined a campaign to urge certain U.S. pension and mutual funds to divest their investment holdings in companies doing business in the Sudan. Farrow’s activism has sometimes gone beyond speaking, writing, and photo ops. As the 2008 Summer Olympic Games opened in Beijing, Farrow began web-casting her own “Darfur Olympics” from a refugee camp on the Sudan-Chad border in an effort to shame China into using its influence with Khartoum to end the Darfur conflict. Farrow has also put her own personal health on the line during her campaigning. In March 2009, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, after which Sudan expelled 13 international aid agencies from Darfur. To raise awareness of this action, Farrow began a water-only fast in late April and early May 2009 before health concerns forced her to stop. In addition to the Sudan, Farrow has also been involved in humanitarian activities in Chad, the Central African Republic, and projects helping survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Her website features a guide on how to become involved with Darfur activism along with her own photographs. Farrow’s activism has been honored with various international and humanitarian awards, including in 2008: the Refugees International McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian Award, for “extraordinary service to refugees and dis- placed people;” the Tiannamen Square Award; and the French Legion of Arts and Letter award. In 2008, she was selected by Time magazine as one of the most influential people in the world. In 2009 she received the Leon Sul- livan International Service award. In August 2010 Farrow was in the news regarding the trial of former Liberian Presi- dent Charles Taylor. Farrow testified that model Naomi Campbell told her she received a diamond from Taylor, contradicting Campbell’s testimony. Farrow’s testimony also contradicted Taylor’s denials of any involvement with the illicit “blood diamonds” trade, gems so called for their funding of African wars. Although Mia Farrow’s activism has taken her all over the world in recent years, she has continued to work in film and on stage. Some of her acting work in the last decade, for example, has included the 2004 TV movie Samantha: An American Girl Holiday; the off-Broadway play Fran’s Bed in 2005; and feature films, such as The Omen of 2006 and Be Kind Rewind, a 2008 comedy with Jack Black, Mos Def, and Danny Glover. Farrow has stated, however, that she regards her acting and film profession as secondary to her humanitarian work. And while her considerable acting career stands out for the range of her characters and performances, the use of her celebrity in causes that few others would bother with certainly mark her with distinction.
For other stories at this website on notable women and their careers see, for example, those about: writer and ecologist Rachel Carson and her book, Silent Spring; Olympics star and pro golfer, Babe Didrikson; singer and TV celebrity Dinah Shore; rock star Tina Turner; and dancer and movie star, Cyd Charisse. The topics page, “Noteworthy Ladies,” offers 36 story choices on women who have made their mark in various fields. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please consider making a donation to support this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 16 November 2010
Last Update: 14 February 2015
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jack Doyle, “Mia’s Metamorphases, 1966-2010,”
PopHistoryDig.com, November 16, 2010.
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