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Erin O’Brien, a singer and actress who appeared with Andy Griffith in Onionhead, with Robert Stack in John Paul Jones and with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Edd Byrnes on the pilot for the swanky ABC crime series 77 Sunset Strip, has died. She was 87.
O’Brien died May 20 of natural causes at her home in Seattle, her sister, Sheila O’Brien, told The Hollywood Reporter.
O’Brien had a recording contract and performed often on Steve Allen’s The Tonight Show as well as on other programs hosted by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Liberace, bandleader Ray Anthony and Eddie Fisher. And in 1957, she, Bob Hope and Jayne Mansfield entertained the troops on a USO Tour.
On the 77 Sunset Strip pilot “Girl on the Run,” which briefly played in theaters before airing on Oct. 10, 1958, O’Brien portrayed a lounge singer who witnesses the murder of a union boss and suddenly finds her life in danger. Zimbalist starred as Stuart Bailey, the private eye he would play on the series, while Byrnes portrayed a hitman who compulsively combs his hair.
Producers liked Byrnes so much, they turned him into parking attendant Gerald Lloyd Kookson III — “Kookie” for short — but kept the quirky combing bit. At the start of the next episode, Zimbalist told viewers: “We previewed this show, and because Edd Byrnes was such a hit, we decided that Kookie and his comb had to be in our series. So this week, we’ll just forget that in the pilot he went off to prison to be executed.”
O’Brien was born in Hollywood on Jan. 17, 1934, and raised in Long Beach, California. She performed as a youngster with the Long Beach Philharmonic and for three years on the live, five-days-a-week Al Jarvis Show — which featured Betty White — on KTLA-TV.
On the day after she won first prize on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts CBS program by singing “Only a Rose,” Allen brought her out of the audience to perform on The Tonight Show, and she accepted a one-year contract from the host right on the spot.
With guidance from Liberace’s manager, Seymour Heller, O’Brien signed with Warner Bros. and appeared on such series as Colt .45, Maverick, Cheyenne, Sugarfoot and 77 Sunset Strip for the studio.
She played the college girlfriend of Griffith’s character in Onionhead (1958), and in John Paul Jones (1959), she was a woman who commands the attention of Stack (as Jones) and Macdonald Carey (as Patrick Henry).
O’Brien showed up on other shows including Death Valley Days, Bat Masterson and Perry Mason before ending her onscreen career with an appearance in In Like Flint (1967).
Survivors include her second husband, Kanan, five children and seven siblings.
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