October 29, 2015 6:11 AM EDT

Last year, a reporter asked Maureen O’Hara to name her most marked characteristic. “The hell and fire in me,” she replied. “They came as a set.”

Maureen was arguably the strongest and toughest female performer to ever appear onscreen. Her characters embodied power and intelligence, in an era when it wasn’t always fashionable.

In 1990, at age 70, Maureen came out of retirement to play Rose Muldoon in Only the Lonely, a role I had written specifically for her. She hadn’t worked in 17 years. The studio was concerned that Maureen couldn’t keep up with our pace or grueling hours. But she was always at the top of her game. There were many late nights when you’d find Maureen improvising scenes with John Candy past 4 a.m.

Maureen O’Hara still had the hell and fire in her.

Columbus is an Academy Award–nominated filmmaker and best-selling author

This appears in the November 09, 2015 issue of TIME.

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