April 21, 2011Last Saturday I had the honor of attending Hugh O'Brian's 86th birthday party in Hollywood.
His birthday parties are legendary. A friend of Hugh O'Brian's, Jim Turner of film preservation fame, told me he has been to several of O'Brian's B-day parties, including his 77th birthday which included a Cinco De Mayo celebration and his 78th which included a chili cook-Off. His 79th which featured numerous guests hanging around his bar, "The Last Chance Saloon". Jim told me Hugh celebrated his 80th birthday with a 3-day event, including Hugh's VIP Cocktail Reception.
Hugh was a bachelor for a long time. He and his wife Virginia were married when he was 81. Hugh christened that event as " A wedding to die for". Debbie Reynolds serenaded them with a song she reworked, titled 'It Had To Be Hugh.' Here's Virginia and Hugh cutting the cake:
His 84th birthday was styled as, "I'm 84 and there's so much more." Likewise, his 85th begat, "I'm 85 and still alive." Funny. The last time we talked, in February, he was still noodling 86—I offered "And still trying to pick up chicks," but he pretended he didn't hear it.
I flew in to Burbank last Saturday and my daughter Deena picked me up. After meeting up with her boyfriend Mike, and a tasty lunch at the Alcove on Hillcrest in Los Felez ($42 cash, I paid), we drove to Sherman Oaks, then headed up into the Hollywood Hills on legendary Mulholland Drive.
Got to Hugh's spread at about five. Party started at four and we just missed astronaut Buzz Aldrin but Arizona photographer David Spindel got his picture (and everyone else picture here at the party are David's images). To see Dave's entire photo album go to David's site:
Hugh O'Brian Birthday Photos
Hugh told us he bought the property in 1955 for $55,000. It had a two bedroom house on it and he knew about it because he did the owner's yard. He related a funny story about having lunch with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds before Hugh's career took off and Gene kept saying, "You look familiar. I could swear I've seen you around." And Hugh finally said, "I mow your lawn."
I couldn't believe it. I finally said, "You know, the mother of Princess Lea in Star Wars," to which the thirty-somethings said, "I don't remember her in the movie," to which I said, "Not in the movie, that's Carrie Fisher's real mother! The actress who played Princess Lea—HER REAL MOTHER!"
When we first arrived, Hugh had a name tag waiting for me which said, "BBB—I'll tell you about the true west". Two very nice women at the front door gave blank name tags to Deena and Mike and encouraged them to write something under their name. Deena wrote "I'm new to LA" which was a great conversation starter. Mike, who's from Minnesota, wrote "lion tamer." He thought it was zany and would perhaps produce disbelief and a chuckle. To him it was, after all, obvious hyperbole. But not in this crowd. If you've got a former astronaut, Eddie Fisher's ex and Hollywood stunt men walking around, why not a lion tamer? Well, of course. A lion tamer would fit right in. When Hugh spied the name tag (two seconds after the below photo was taken), he yelled at an assistant to go get a photo album out of his office so he could compare notes with this young man in the "lion taming business."
The assistant brought out the album and all eyes were on the mortified "lion tamer":
Here's a shot of the living room in Hugh's house. I am standing just outside Hugh's office (full of photos of him with presidents and rulers from around the world). I am talking to Dr. Richardson a passionate fan of the Old West, and a friend of Hugh's. We are comparing notes on our children. He has two daughters. One a doctor and the other who's in the Obama administration (he's a Republican, so he kind of winced telling me). I told him, that's nothing, my daughter is dating a lion tamer.
I gave Hugh a small scratchboard of the real Wyatt Earp in the basement of the Bird Cage in Tombstone, checking out the soiled doves.
Had a wonderful time and Deena and Mike have a story to tell their children: "So we went to this big Hollywood party and saw Hugh O'Brian." And their kids will say. . .
"Life well spent is long."
—Leonardo da Vinci