The New York-born actor rode tall for six seasons as TV’s Wyatt Earp.
Sad new for TV western fans: It’s time to bang the drum slowly and play the fife slowly for Hugh O’Brian, the charismatic star of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, the 1955–61 prime time drama that continues to attract faithful audiences through cable and streaming reruns, passed away Monday in his Beverly Hills home at age 91.
His death was officially announced by the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation (HOBY), an organization founded in 1958 by O’Brian and dedicated to the training and encouragement of “the young leaders of tomorrow.”
“It’s impossible to put a number on the amount of lives Hugh has touched,” reads the eulogy posted on the HOBY website, “but we can certainly say anyone who participated in HOBY, including all 470,000 of our alumni, tens of thousands of volunteers, and many staff are better people because of him. Hugh literally motivated generations of people around the world. His ripple effect of change, inspiration and leadership will be felt for generations to come. He believed in all of us and we are all the better for it.”
A native of Rochester, New York, O’Brian turned to acting after completing his World War II service with the U.S. Marines. While living in Hollywood, he began dating an actress who was rehearsing for a role in the Somerset Maugham play Home and Beauty at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. Fortuitously, he was in the right place at the right time when the leading man failed to show up for rehearsal one day, and director Ida Lupino asked O’Brian to read his lines.
“That’s how I started,” O’Brian recounted in a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “They opened the show with me in it, and an agent saw me and said he’d like to represent me. That’s how I began in show business.”
During his salad days as a supporting player, O’Brian appeared in several feature films, many of them westerns, before landing the career-defining lead role in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. (For his performance in The Man From the Alamo, a 1953 western starring Glenn Ford, he received a Golden Globe in the Most Promising Newcomer — Male category.) Once cast as the legendary lawman, O’Brian recalled in a 2005 interview with the Archive of American Television, “I wanted to be as proficient as possible with the pistol. I practiced and practiced and practiced, about a thousand hours or more, on the quick draw. When we were on the set, they didn't have to cut away [when Earp drew on a rival] — they could stay with me, and all of a sudden [the gun] was out.”
(Unfortunately, there was a downside to O’Brian’s obsession with authenticity: “The noise from the gunfight scenes ruined my hearing," he told the Los Angeles Times, explaining his eventual reliance on hearing aids.)
As The Hollywood Reporter noted in an obituary posted Monday, O’Brian “also went to the wardrobe department and picked out what would be Earp’s iconic outfit: clean dress shirt, vest, black coat and — something he really had to fight for — black hat (a prop usually associated with the bad guy, not the good guy).”
O’Brian played the “brave, courageous and bold” Wyatt Earp for six seasons on the half-hour ABC series, then reprised the role in in two 1989 episodes of the CBS series Guns of Paradise; the 1991 TV movie The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw; and the 1994 TV movie Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone, which featured colorized footage from the original 1955–61 series. (He also popped up for a fleeting cameo as Earp in the 1959 Bob Hope comedy Alias Jesse James.)
He further insured his position in the pantheon of western legends in 1976, when he played — briefly — the last character ever gunned down on screen by John Wayne in The Duke’s final film, The Shootist.
O’Brian was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. In 1991, he received the prestigious Golden Boot award for his work in westerns; in 1992, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
For all his success and many laurels, however, O’Brian appeared proudest of his work with HOBY, which he founded after a 1958 visit to famed humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa. The obituary posted Monday on the HOBY website recounts:
“Dr. Schweitzer instilled in him a simple belief: ‘the most important thing in education is to teach young people to think for themselves.’ Before O’Brian left Africa, Dr. Schweitzer grabbed his hand and asked him, ‘What are you going to do with all of this?’
“O’Brian returned to the United States resolved to put Dr. Schweitzer’s words into action, and he founded Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership. ... He imagined a non-profit organization rooted with the mission to inspire a global community of youth and volunteers to a life dedicated to leadership, service, and innovation.”
The HOBY post concluded with a grateful tribute: “While the entertainment industry has lost one of its own and the baby boomers have lost their Wyatt Earp, we will remember Hugh as a person who dedicated his life to inspiring a global community of youth and volunteers committed to leadership, service and innovation. Hugh’s impact on young leaders and on the world cannot be understated. Like the legendary lawman he was so proud of playing, Hugh was a hero. He was our hero and we will miss him very much.”