Heather Michele O'Rourke (December 27, 1975 – February 1, 1988) was an American child actress. She was discovered by director Steven Spielberg when she was visiting MGM's studios. Spielberg cast her as Carol Anne Freeling in the horror film Poltergeist (1982), where she is known for saying "They're here!" She reprised the role in the second and third installments.
O'Rourke in the 1982 film Poltergeist
Heather Michele O'Rourke
December 27, 1975
|Died||February 1, 1988 (aged 12)|
San Diego, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Cardiac arrest caused by septic shock due to intestinal stenosis|
|Resting place||Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery|
Westwood, Los Angeles, U.S.
|Other names||Heather Michele O'Rourke|
|Parent(s)||Michael O'Rourke (father)|
Kathleen O'Rourke (mother)
|Relatives||Tammy O'Rourke (older sister)|
James A. "Jim" Peele (stepfather)
Charlie Walker (brother-in-law)
O'Rourke also had a recurring role on Happy Days in 1982 and 1983, and she made several television guest appearances. In February 1988 she died at the age of 12 of cardiac arrest and septic shock caused by a misdiagnosed intestinal stenosis.
Heather O'Rourke was born on December 27, 1975, in San Diego, California, to Kathleen and Michael O'Rourke. Her mother worked as a seamstress and her father was a carpenter. She had an older sister, Tammy O'Rourke, also an actress. Her parents divorced in 1981, and O'Rourke's mother married part-time truck driver Jim Peele in 1984, while they were living in a trailer park in Anaheim, California.
Her success later allowed the family to purchase a home in Big Bear Lake, California. Between acting jobs, O'Rourke attended Big Bear Elementary School where she was president of her 5th grade class. At the time of her death, the family was living in Lakeside, California, a suburb of San Diego.
In a contemporary interview with American Premiere magazine, producer Steven Spielberg explained that he was looking for a "beatific four-year-old child...every mother's dream" for the lead in his horror film Poltergeist (1982). While eating in the MGM commissary, Spielberg saw five-year-old Heather O'Rourke having lunch with her mother while older sister Tammy was shooting Pennies from Heaven. After his lunch, Spielberg approached the family and offered O'Rourke the Poltergeist role; she was signed the next day, beating Drew Barrymore, who was also up for the role.
In the Poltergeist trilogy, O'Rourke played Carol Anne Freeling, a young suburban girl who becomes the conduit and target for supernatural entities. The New York Times noted that she had played the key role in the films and commented, "With her wide eyes, long blonde hair and soft voice, she was so striking that the sequel played off her presence." During the production of the original Poltergeist, Spielberg twice accommodated the child actress when frightened. When scared by performing a particular stunt, Spielberg replaced O'Rourke with a stunt double wearing a blonde wig; and when disturbed by the portrayal of child abuse, Spielberg did not require her to perform the take again. For her work in Poltergeist, O'Rourke earned between $35,000 and $100,000. O'Rourke played the role in all three films.
O'Rourke's delivery of the lines "They're here!" in the first film, and "They're baa-aack!" in the second (that film's tagline), placed her in the collective pop culture consciousness of the United States. "They're here!" is #69 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Movie Quotes.
After her work in Poltergeist (1982), O'Rourke secured several television and TV movie roles. In April 1983, she starred as herself alongside Morey Amsterdam and well-known Walt Disney animated characters in the hour-long television special, Believe You Can...and You Can! She also appeared in CHiPs, Webster, The New Leave It to Beaver, Our House, and had a recurring role on Happy Days as Heather Pfister. She also appeared in the television movies Massarati and the Brain and Surviving: A Family in Crisis.
Illness and death
O'Rourke became ill with giardiasis in early 1987 and was later diagnosed as having Crohn's disease. She was prescribed a steroid to treat the disease during the time she was filming Poltergeist III. On January 31, 1988, she began vomiting. The next morning she collapsed; she suffered cardiac arrest en route to the hospital and died later that day after surgery to repair an acute bowel obstruction caused by congenital stenosis of the intestine complicated by septic shock. She was entombed at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.
|1982||Poltergeist||Carol Anne Freeling|
|1986||Poltergeist II: The Other Side||Carol Anne Freeling|
|1988||Poltergeist III||Carol Anne Freeling||Released in some areas with the subtitle The Final Chapter. Released posthumously. Dedicated to her memory.|
|1981||Fantasy Island||Liza Blake (age 5)||Episode: "Elizabeth's Baby / The Artist and the Lady"|
|1982–83||Happy Days||Heather Pfister||Recurring role, 12 episodes|
|1982||Massarati and the Brain||Skye Henry||Television film|
|1983||CHiPs||Lindsey||Episode: "Fun House"|
|1983||Matt Houston||Sunny Kimball||Episode: "The Woman in White"|
|1984||Finder of Lost Loves||Jillian Marsh||Episode: "Yesterday's Child"|
|1985||Surviving: A Family in Crisis||Sarah Brogan||Television film|
|1986||Around the Bend||The Daughter||Television film|
|1986–87||The New Leave It to Beaver||Heather||Episodes: "Material Girl", "Bad Poetry"|
|1987||Our House||Dana||Episode: "A Point of View"|
|1987||Rocky Road||Russian Girl||Episode: "Moscow on the Boardwalk"|
- "Heather O'Rourke death certificate" (PDF). Autopsyfiles. Retrieved March 28, 2018.
- Heather O'Rourke at the TCM Movie Database
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