He personified one of the West’s iconic heroes in one of the most sophisticated westerns of television’s Golden Age.
As might be expected from someone who has reached the robust age of 86, Hugh O’Brian has tales to tell. The difference is that he has more of them, and better ones, than most of us will likely gather should we attain octogenar-ian status. From becoming the youngest drill sergeant in the history of the Marines to listening to Dr. Albert Schweitzer play piano at his clinic in Africa, from shooting craps in the White House to founding a highly successful youth leadership organization, O’Brian has made the most of his talent and his celebrity.
Cowboys & Indians: After you enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 17, your distinguished service earned you a Fleet appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. But perhaps even more impressively, you also managed to finagle a blind date with actress Virginia Mayo. How did that come about?
Hugh O’Brian: When you’re stationed at the Marine Corps base in San Diego, going to Hollywood on liberty is the cool thing to do. One Saturday I was at the USO Hollywood Canteen and a pretty lady came up to me and introduced herself as Arlene Francis. She was doing a radio show called Blind Date. The idea was there would be a beautiful star and four servicemen — representatives from the Marine Corps, Army, Navy, and Coast Guard — competing against each other for a date with her. Arlene’s show taped on a Tuesday night and I explained that Marines rarely got a 72-hour pass, but Arlene said she’d write my commanding officer. Two weeks later the Colonel called me in and gave me a pass. I thanked him and headed for the door. He stopped me and said, “Sergeant, if you don’t win, don’t come back.”
On the night we did the show, the blind date was Virginia Mayo. They gave us cards with answers written on them. The last question was, “Why do you really want a date with me?” I looked at the answer they prepared for me, and it was so corny I just said, “Because, ma’am, if I don’t win, I can’t go back to the base.” She said, “Marine, you’ve got the date.”
C&I: After the date, Miss Mayo invited you to visit her the next day on the film set, where she was filming Wonder Man with Danny Kaye, and she introduced you to the 18 Goldwyn Girls — the famed dancers and showgirls who appeared in many MGM films. Is that when your plans to attend law school at Yale ended and your showbiz aspirations began?
O’Brian: I had a four-year GI Bill coming to me, and I was enrolled in Yale University where I intended to study law. Since it was March, I had six months before the start of school in September. I decided to go to Los Angeles and try to earn enough money to buy a car. I started dating one of the Goldwyn Girls, who was doing a play, and would pick her up after rehearsal. About the fourth rehearsal the leading man didn’t show up and the director asked me to read the role. He later realized the actor had to have his appendix out and couldn’t do the show, so he asked me to do his part. I said I had no experience as an actor and wouldn’t know what to do. The director looked at me and said, “It’s easy. Just learn the lines. Say them loud enough so they can hear you in the back row and don’t bump into the f---ing furniture.” When the show opened, a writer at the L.A. Times gave the gal I was dating a tremendous review and gave me one almost as good.
C&I: That first role led to your appearance in more plays, an agent, and ultimately an offer to make your film debut as a parapalegic in Never Fear (1949), cowritten and directed by Ida Lupino. Was it a challenging role?
O’Brian: Everything I did in the film was in a wheelchair. I put maybe 200 hours into learning how to use that chair so I could turn it around on a dime, do figure eights, and play basketball. That became typical of me in my career, that whatever I had to do physically I would try to master it. I became famous for doing my own stunts, but I always made sure the stuntmen choreographed the stunt so they would get paid.
C&I: Did your stunt work similarly serve you well when you were cast in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp?
O’Brian: I practiced hours and hours in front of a mirror to learn the quick draw. I had that down to where I could draw, cock, and fire in less than a second. I got so fast I could actually beat my reflection in the mirror. Audie Murphy, who was also under contract at Universal, challenged me to a duel to see who was the quickest — the contest never happened because he wanted to use live ammunition. Yes, Audie was an interesting guy.
One of the reasons I got the role was that Stuart Lake, who wrote the book on Wyatt Earp, had been in the Marines. I think the fact that he knew I was a Marine gave me an extra push. And, quite frankly, I put a lot of Marine into the Wyatt character. He was dependable, he was very disciplined — a cool, no-bullshit guy — and he handled himself very well.
C&I: The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was heralded as the first adult television western when it debuted in 1955. Its canny mix of history and fiction, authentic dialogue and costumes, and literate scripts by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan propelled the series into the Top 5 on TV. How much of an influence did you have on the development of Earp as a character?
O’Brian: When I went to Western Costume, the producers had selected a beige hat and a polka-dot shirt for the guy, which was totally off from what people actually wore in those days. I chose the black frock coat, vest, and string tie, which was the kind of outfit the town’s mayor, judge, and businessmen wore. The hat I wanted to make definitive, so I chose that flat-brimmed black hat, which became famous.
C&I: After the series ended you returned to the stage, where you appeared in five Broadway shows, including a successful revival of Guys and Dolls. Is that how your presidential invitation came about?
O’Brian: Yes, we were invited to the White House and did an hour version of the show in the East Room. Afterward I brought out these triple-size dice from the show, and President Johnson and members of his Cabinet all got down on their knees and we shot craps for an hour or so. President Johnson asked if I would do the show for our armed forces in Vietnam, and I said yes, I would be proud to do so. I kept all the girl numbers and we did about 14 shows in Nam, going from outpost to outpost by chopper.
The first show we did on an aircraft carrier, we had them raise the elevator [which brings the planes up] to five feet above the deck below, and that became our stage. In the back we stretched wire and hung sheets over it, behind which the girls changed costumes. About 15 minutes into the show I said to the producer, “This has got to be the worst show we’ve ever done; we’re losing the audience.” He said, “No, we’re not — look up.” Half the crew were watching the girls change clothes backstage.
C&I: In 1958 you were invited to visit the remote African clinic of physician/
philosopher Dr. Albert Schweitzer on the Ogooué River, in what is now Gabon. What was that experience like?
O’Brian: On the porch of Dr. Schweitzer’s cabin was this old piano with half the ivory keys missing. Every evening he would sit at the piano and we’d have a little concerto or a prelude from Bach — it was just amazing. During the day I did whatever I could do to help, spending most of my time with the lepers. When it came time to go, Schweitzer walked me down to the river. He took my hands in his and said, “Hugh, what are you going to do with this?” Meaning, what was I going to do with my time spent with him? At that point, I had no answer.
C&I: On that long plane ride home, you started jotting down notes for what would become the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership program (HOBY), which you founded two weeks later. Now with more than 375,000 alumni, HOBY is respected worldwide for providing leadership opportunities for 10th graders.
O’Brian: HOBY is a great example of how you can turn the energy of a show business career, or any successful career, into a major program for the good of people all over the world. Right from the beginning this youth program was a great success. It’s very rewarding to think that I have touched the future in such a positive way.