Actor, movie star, humanitarian, and world-class cut-up, Hugh O'Brian passed Monday morning at age 91. O'Brian, who had several health issues, died with his wife Virginia nearby at their Beverly Hills home, his publicist Harlan Boll said.
Ironically, the show he was most famous for, "The Life And Legend of Wyatt Earp" premiered sixty years ago today, September 6, 1955.
The show was billed as “TV’s first adult Western." Asked to define "adult western," Hugh quipped, "the cowboy still kisses his horse, but he worries about it."
Hugh Got The Role From Stuart Lake!
"I was one of about twenty people who were up for the lead role," O'Brian remembered in 2014. "Stuart Lake, the man who wrote Wyatt Earp's biography back in 1929, interviewed me for the part. I think he favored me for a couple of different reasons. First, he felt that there were certain physical similarities such as bone structure and height. I also think he took to me because he had been a marine and he felt that my background as a Marine Drill Instructor would add to the character."
He lost a good part of his hearing during the filming of the Wyatt Earp series because, as he put it, "In order to preserve authenticity, I insisted on using full loads on the set so that my gun would fire at the proper volume while filming. All rifles and pistols in movies and television use quarter loads, which release only 25 percent of the volume of full loads. The crew let me shoot my authentic guns, and whenever I fired, they wore earplugs to bear the big explosions. I couldn't wear earplugs or put cotton in my ears because I was in front of the camera, and although I'm glad I used full loads, I am now paying for it because I lost a lot of my hearing during those years filming Wyatt Earp."
Before he became an actor he had a successful landscape business in Hollywood. He mowed Wallace Beery's lawn, and also Rosalind Russell's and Gene Kelly's lawns as well. Later, when he met Gene Kelly on the set of Singin' In The Rain, they went to lunch with co-star Debbie Reynolds. Fifteen minutes into the meal, Kelly said, "Hugh, I know you from somewhere, I've seen you before. How do I know you?
"Well, sir," Hugh said, "I do your lawn."
Hugh was very handsome and an old school, square-jawed specimen of manhood. A lifelong bachelor (he married for the first and only time at age of 81), O'Brian cut quite a dashing figure.
During the run of a play in Chicago, O'Brian spent five months as a guest of Hugh Hefner in the Playboy Mansion, staying in the "red room," which he recalled fondly, "was next to the kitchen." As for his housemates, Hugh remembered, "Of course, the gals who stayed at the mansion were very beautiful, and it was nice to have one or two of them offer to help me straighten my room every day," is how he tactfully put it.
His real name was Hugh Krampe and he was born 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.
In 2006, O'Brian married for the first time to his longtime girlfriend, the former Virginia Barber.
My blog post on the bash
Most people don't know, but Hugh lost millions of dollars from an embezzling accountant and had to essentially start over in his sixties. He survived and thrived because it was hard to keep him down.
Here's another excerpt from my blog about Hugh O'Brian, this one from 2013:
Just got off the phone with Hugh O'Brian who wanted to tell me his old TV show "The Life And Legend of Wyatt Earp" is now playing daily on the Westerns Channel. I asked him what it was like seeing the show on TV again after so many years and he said, "It was nice to see the horses." Ha. Funny guy. He also told me about his two favorite horses, the first, he said, they used for about six or seven weeks until it got loose and ran off about 200 yards and fell in a hole, breaking its leg. They had to shoot it. The second horse, Candy, he remembers quite fondly. She was so gentle, he told me, he would dismount, put the reins over the rail and she would stay put, but would cross her front legs, rest her head on the rail and go to sleep!
Hugh also told me when they first started the show they did one episode a week shooting five days. But then the studio got greedy and started shooting two shows a week and expanding the work to six days. On Monday and Tuesday they would shoot the first episode on the lot, then on Wednesday they would go off the lot to shoot exteriors for both the first and second episodes, then come back and shoot Thursday, Friday and Saturday picking up the second episode and everything else. Hugh said his day started at 4:30 in the morning with a six o'clock pickup and he got home almost every night after nine at night. He also had to memorize 20 pages of script a day. Hard work. However, all that hard work did have some side benefits:
I sent, via email, this photo from the Broadmore Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado (the photo is on the wall and says "Hugh O'Brian and friend" and asked Hugh if he remembered this friend. He didn't but then, I imagine there were many, many "fans" of Hugh O'Brian.
"Go big or go home."
—Friend in photo
Not bad for a former lawn mower.