Monday, September 05, 2016

Obituary: Hugh O'Brian

Yet another star from television's golden age has died: Hugh O'Brian, 91, passed away today.

He was in many television shows and movies over the years, but he is best remembered for the 1950s western The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. It was somewhat based on the life of the lawman, but O'Brian was much better-looking and his character had better moral values than the real one. For example, O'Brian's Earp was virtuous, never drinking anything except milk and apparently had no love interest, while the real one was married several times and I believe was involved in prostitution. Of course, you couldn't be too accurate on television shows of that era.

O'Brian in his youth was one of the best-looking actors in a television era full of them. He was perhaps the most physically fit, with the exception of Steve McQueen. I had read somewhere one of O'Brian's hobbies was long distance bicycling. I believe it, for he was built like a professional cyclist. He appeared to have no body fat at all, he was that trim and fit.

Perhaps the thing he was most proud of was creating his youth leadership organization, which still operates today. As I recall, he had met Albert Schweitzer during the 1950s, and the meeting had changed his life. He wanted to do something more meaningful than just act, so he devoted much of his life helping young people.

He also valued education. Sometime in the 1980s, when he was pushing 60, or pulling it, he met a divorced Los Angeles Unified School District English teacher, Virginia Barber. She was born around 1952, some three years older than yours truly and some 27 years younger than O'Brian, but apparently the lifelong bachelor and her hit it off. They eventually lived together and years and years later, in 2006, I believe, married at Forest Lawn, with Debbie Reynolds in attendance. He was a mere 81 years old. Frankly, I couldn't miss the humor of it all.

I also read someplace the two of them--Hugh and Virginia--went to England to take some college courses on their honeymoon.

His life was mostly scandal free; however, he got slapped with a paternity suit in 1969 and was ordered to pay up.


O’Brian was born Hugh Krampe in Rochester, N.Y., on April 19, 1925. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1943 and was assigned as a drill instructor in San Diego.

With hopes of becoming a lawyer, O'Brian was scheduled to begin attending Yale University on the G.I. Bill in the fall of 1947. He spent the spring and summer in Los Angeles, working to earn enough money to buy a car to drive East, but had an unexpected change of plans when the actress he was dating began rehearsals for the Somerset Maugham play “Home and Beauty” at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre.

“If I wanted to see her, I had to go to rehearsals,” he recalled in a 2009 interview with The Times.

When the leading man didn't show up on the second or third night of rehearsals, O'Brian was asked to read the leading man's role.

“After about four days, they realized the guy wasn't going to come back ... so the director asked me if I would do the role.... We did the show and a reporter for the L.A. Times came down to see it and the next day, he wrote a tremendous review ... That's how I got started.”

The show's playbill, however, misspelled his name.

“They left the 'm' out of Krampe,'“ he said in a 2013 Times interview. “I decided right then I didn't want to go through life being known as Huge Krape, so I decided to take my mother's family name, O'Brien. But they misspelled it as 'O'Brian' and I just decided to stay with that.”

He may have been a Republican, but he was a great humanitarian, which only goes to show nobody is perfect at everything.

Here he talks about his military service:

A more recent interview, where he is almost unrecognizable as the handsome-as-hell hunk he was in the 1950s. He was still sharp as a tack:

I decided to include this nice writeup about O'Brien's work on behalf of young people. He was actively involved in HOBY until his health deteriorated.

As Bishop relayed her friend’s story, O’Brian met Norman Cousins at a cocktail party in 1958. Cousins mentioned an upcoming trip to spend time with Albert Schweitzer at his clinic in Africa, which treated many leprosy patients, and O’Brian asked to join.

“I spent some good time there at this clinic,” O’Brian told the Los Angeles Times in 2009. “During the day I helped build baby cribs, pass out food and then in the afternoon we’d go upstream where the leper colony was. I had anywhere from two to 3½ hours with him every night in his little hut. He had such a passion for youth … and thought nothing had been done to try to reach young people and help develop positive attitudes and build leaders for the future.”

After his nine days at the clinic, before O’Brian’s 48-hour flight back, Schweitzer took the actor aside and asked what he was going to do with his experience.

“I don’t know,” O’Brian reportedly said. “But I’ve got 48 hours to think about it.”

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