Hugh O’Brian, the lantern-jawed cowboy star who apprenticed at the hands of several Hollywood mavericks and later rose to stardom as TV’s Wyatt Earp, has died.
Born Hugh Charles Krampe, O’Brian dropped out of college to enlist in the Marines where at age 17, he became the youngest drill instructor in the Corps. He moved to Los Angeles after the war fully intending to pursue a career as a lawyer, until a visit to the rehearsal of a play that his then-girlfriend had a part in opened a new door.
The lead actor was a no-show. Director Ida Lupino asked the handsome onlooker if he’d pitch in and read through the lines. The part became his and after a successful run, O’Brian was signed by a Hollywood agent.
He began acting under his real name, but a glitch on the Playbill credited the part to “Hugh Krape.” Why O’Brian and not the family name O’Brien? Near-sighted proofreaders plagued the early part of his career. Tired of playing the name game, Hugh decided to let the typo stand.
I’ve Got a Secret! Hugh O’Brian,11/3/1959
Lupino signed him for a role in Never Fear (1949). That led to a contract with Universal Studios where he briefly apprenticed with a pair of contract directors who would grow to become two of cinemas most gifted storytellers, Douglas Sirk (Meet Me at the Fair, Taza, Son of Cochise) and Budd Boetticher (The Cimarron Kid, Red Ball Express, The Man From the Alamo). The latter scored a Golden Globe for 1953’s Most Promising Newcomer — Male.
Television audiences in 1955 witnessed a rise in “adult westerns.” O’Brian’s The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp led the charge followed by Jim Arness as Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke and Clint Walker’s Cheyenne. The series lasted six years, with O’Brian earning an Emmy nomination in 1957 for Best Continuing Performance by an Actor.
There were a few more big-screen parts after the series folded (Come Fly with Me, Love Has Many Faces, Ten Little Indians), but from 1966 on the majority of O’Brian’s work was relegated to the small screen.
Don Siegel hired him for what turned out to be his most historically significant footnote to film history. The Shootist was John Wayne’s last film and O’Brian the last notch on the Duke’s gun belt.
Fittingly enough, the TV movie, Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone was his last major part. He retired from acting in 1994. He made a brief return as “Older Miles” in the pilot episode of Animal Planet’s Call of the Wild (2000). IMDB credits him with a major part (third-billing) in the soon-to-be-released Old Soldiers.
In 1958, the actor formed the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership (HOBY) a charitable organization designed to “seek out, recognize, and develop leadership potential in high school students.” The idea came after O’Brian spent nine days in an African clinic watching renowned humanitarian Albert Schweitzer work without electricity or running water to care for patients.
Their website reports O’Brian passed away peacefully yesterday morning at his Beverly Hills home. He is survived by his wife, Virginia O’Brian. Hugh O’Brian was 91.