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Hugh O’Brian, forever known for starring as the quick-draw hero of the American West on the 1950s television series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, has died. He was 91.
O’Brian, who was the last person John Wayne ever shot dead in the movies, died peacefully in his Beverly Hills home on Monday morning, the Hugh O’Brian Youth leadership organization said in a statement.
The actor, who donated so much of his time and money to philanthropic causes, launched HOBY in 1958 to teach 10th graders to become future leaders, and almost 60 years later, the program has more than 470,000 alumni.
The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, a Desilu production that featured a theme song performed by a barbershop quartet, ran for six seasons on ABC, from September 1955 to June 1961. Stuart N. Lake, who knew the real Earp and served as a consultant on the series, recommended the lean, athletic O’Brian for the part.
“When I got the role, I wanted to be as proficient as possible with the pistol,” O’Brian recalled in a 2005 interview with the Archive of American Television. “I practiced and practiced and practiced, about a thousand hours or more, on the quick draw. When we were on the set, they didn’t have to cut away [when Earp drew on a rival] — they could stay with me, and all of a sudden [the gun] was out.”
O’Brian said he also went to the wardrobe department and picked out what would be Earp’s iconic outfit: clean dress shirt, vest, black coat and — something he really had to fight for — black hat (a prop usually associated with the bad guy, not the good guy).
During its run, the half-hour Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp followed the exploits of our hero from Kansas to Tombstone, Ariz., and O’Brian received an Emmy nomination in 1957 for best continuing performance by an actor in a dramatic series.
O’Brian also played the famed lawman in a 1956 episode of ABC’s Make Room for Daddy; in two 1989 installments of the CBS series Guns of Paradise; in the 1991 NBC telefilm The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw; and in the 1994 CBS TV movie Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone (which employed colorized footage from his series).
Near the end of The Shootist (1976), Wayne’s character is wounded but sees the reflection of O’Brian’s character in a mirror and shoots the expert marksman dead. It was, of course, The Duke’s final film.
O’Brian was born Hugh Charles Krampe on April 19, 1925, in Rochester, N.Y., the oldest of two brothers. His father was in the Armstrong linoleum business, and Hugh grew up in the suburbs of Chicago (Earp also was raised in Illinois.) He graduated from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., and, at age 17, became the youngest drill instructor in the history of the Marine Corps.
While in boot camp at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, he was asked to represent the Marines against the other service branches on the radio game show Blind Date, hosted by Arlene Francis. He won a date with actress Virginia Mayo, and she took him to the set of Wonder Man (1945), which she was filming with Danny Kaye.
After completing his four-year hitch in the service, he drove with his parents and brother to Los Angeles, where his father planned to spend his retirement years. On the way, the Krampes stopped in Tombstone.
“Like any other family, we stood there at Boot Hill, Big Nose Kate’s Saloon and the O.K. Corral,” O’Brian said. “You could have bet 15 million to 1 that in about eight, nine years I’d be doing Wyatt Earp on television.”
He intended to stay only until he earned enough money to buy a car so that he could drive back east to attend Yale. To do that, he mowed lawns for such actors as Gene Kelly, Wallace Beery, Rosalind Russell and Loretta Young (years later, she thought he looked familiar when he guest-starred on her NBC show).
He lived in the garage of the boarding house nicknamed the House of Seven Garbos on the Sunset Strip for a few months and dated an actress. When he visited her at a rehearsal, he stepped into a production of Somerset Maugham’s Home and Beauty when the leading man had his appendix removed, and attracted the attention of an agent who was dating actress Sally Forrest.
That led to an audition with pioneering female producer and director Ida Lupino, who cast O’Brian as a patient who inspires a fellow polio victim (Forrest) in Never Fear (1949).
After appearing in such films as Rocketship X-M with Lloyd Bridges and Beyond the Purple Hills with Gene Autry, both released in 1950, he signed a contract with Universal Studios. On Seminole (1953), he shocked producers when he volunteered to shave his head to play a Native American (and thus had to wear a hairpiece for his next few features).
Universal was in production on the Abbott & Costello comedy Fireman Save My Child (1954) when Costello became ill. The studio needed to make the movie to satisfy theater owners, so they replaced Abbott & Costello with the “fattest kid and the thinnest kid” on the lot; that would be Buddy Hackett and O’Brian.
The movie was an unexpected hit and Universal wanted to make Hackett & O’Brian a permanent comedy team, but Hackett was determined to go solo.
Not content to play secondary roles, O’Brian gambled and decided to leave the studio in 1954. The move paid off; he quickly landed roles in three films at Fox, including Broken Lance (1954) as one of Spencer Tracy’s sons and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) as Mitzi Gaynor’s love interest.
After producers decided they were done with Wyatt Earp — a move O’Brian said he was fine with — the actor guest-starred on the first episode of NBC’s The Virginian in 1962, filled in for an ailing Raymond Burr on CBS’ Perry Mason and appeared in such films as Love Has Many Faces (1965), Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1965) and Africa: Texas Style (1967).
In the early 1970s, O’Brian returned to television with NBC’s Search, in which he starred as an “electronic” agent whose moves around the world are monitored by a mission control center.
Later, O’Brian starred in Game of Death (1978) with Bruce Lee and played a sperm donor in the Danny DeVito-Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Twins (1988).
O’Brian was one of the first celebrities to do an entertainment tour of Vietnam and organized/directed a company of Guys & Dolls for a USO tour there. He served as national chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Research Foundation and was active in The Thalians, which raises money to aid mentally disturbed children.
In summer 1958, O’Brian accepted an invitation to visit Albert Schweitzer in French Equatorial Africa at a clinic the Nobel Peace Prize winner had set up along a river to care for patients, including many who had leprosy.
The threat of nuclear war had Schweitzer concerned that the end of civilization was near and that the U.S. “was the only country that had the ability to take a stand to prevent total destruction,” O’Brian recalled in the TV Archive interview.
As O’Brian was leaving, Schweitzer gazed at him before asking, “‘Hugh, what are you going to do with this?’ Such a simple question, and of course I had no answer,” O’Brian said. “I got back to L.A. and said, ‘What the hell am I going to do?”
His answer was to launch HOBY.
“Hugh’s belief in the potential of every human being and his commitment to helping the youth of the world become major contributors to society is his lasting legacy,” the organization said in a statement. “He founded Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership in 1958 based on that belief, and today more than 470,000 HOBY alumni are better people, making a difference in the lives of others, thanks to the vision and passion of Hugh O’Brian.
“While the entertainment industry has lost one of its own and the baby boomers have lost their Wyatt Earp, we will remember Hugh as a person who dedicated his life to inspiring a global community of youth and volunteers committed to leadership, service and innovation. Hugh’s impact on young leaders and on the world cannot be understated. Like the legendary lawman he was so proud of playing, Hugh was a hero. He was our hero and we will miss him very much.”
At age 81, O’Brian got married for the first time, wedding longtime companion Virginia Barber, then 54, at Forest Lawn Memorial Park cemetery in 2006. They spent their honeymoon studying philosophy at Oxford in England.
His wife survives him, as does his brother Don, sisters-in-law Jean and Wendy and seven nieces and nephews.
Contributions may be made in lieu of flowers to the Hugh O’Brian Legacy Fund.
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