Hugh O'Brian, actor who played Wyatt Earp, dies at 91
The Los Angeles Times
By Dennis McLellan
September 5, 2016
Hugh O'Brian, who helped tame the Wild West as the star of TV's “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” and was the founder of a long-running youth leadership development organization, has died. He was 91.
O'Brian died Monday morning in Beverly Hills, according to a statement on the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation website.
Handsome, square-jawed and athletically fit, the dark-haired O'Brian appeared in a string of movies and TV anthology series in the years before he became a star portraying the real-life Old West peace officer on “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” which ran on ABC from 1955 to 1961.
TV's first adult western, “Wyatt Earp” became a top 10-rated series and made O'Brian a household name.
Portraying what the show's theme song described as the “brave, courageous and bold” frontier lawman, O'Brian wore a black frock coat, a gold brocade vest, a string tie and a flat-brimmed black hat — and he kept the peace with the help of a “Buntline Special”: a .45 revolver with an extra-long barrel.
In portraying Earp, O'Brian became known for his fast quick-draw.
“I didn't want to force them into having to cut away whenever that happened; I wanted it to be realistic,” the actor said in a 2005 “Archive of American Television” interview.
He spent hundreds of hours practicing the quick draw, the result of which, he said, “became a very big promotional tool ... and everybody talked about the quick draw.”
During the series' run, O'Brian received an Emmy nomination and became so identified with his dead-shot TV character that he did his best to keep the name O'Brian separated from Earp.
He did it by doing a lot of outside acting — on anthology series such as “Playhouse 90” and “Desilu Playhouse” — as well guest appearances on TV variety shows and a stint on Broadway starring in the musical comedy “Destry Rides Again.”
Decades later, O'Brian showed up as Earp in two 1989 episodes of the TV western “Paradise.” He also appeared as Earp in the 1991 Kenny Rogers TV miniseries “The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw”. And he starred in “Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone,” a 1994 TV movie that included flashbacks to scenes from his old series.
As O'Brian once said of the TV western that made him a star: “It's been a great horse, and she keeps coming around the corral.”
Among his post-”Wyatt Earp” movie credits were “Come Fly With Me,” “Africa — Texas Style,” “The Shootist” and “Twins.” He also starred in the 1972-73 NBC adventure series “Search,” did more stage work and made guest appearances on series such as “Fantasy Island” and “The Love Boat.”
But O'Brian's most enduring legacy is off-screen.
More than 375,000 high school sophomores selected by their schools have gone through his Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership organization, which was founded “to inspire and develop our global community of youth and volunteers to a life dedicated to leadership, service and innovation.”
The nonprofit organization grew out of an invitation to O'Brian from Dr. Albert Schweitzer to visit the medical missionary, a 1952 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, at his famed hospital in Africa.
O'Brian spent nine days working as a volunteer at the hospital on the banks of the Ogooue River in Gabon during the summer of 1958.
For O'Brian, it was a life-changing experience.
After dinner each evening, he and Schweitzer would spend hours talking.
As O'Brian was getting ready to depart down river, he later recalled, Schweitzer took his hand and asked, “Hugh, what are you going to do with this?”
On his flight back to the United States, O'Brian reflected on Schweitzer's comment that “the most important part of education is teaching young people to think for themselves.”
He was born Hugh Krampe 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.
With hopes of becoming a lawyer, O'Brian was scheduled to begin attending Yale University on the G.I. Bill in the fall of 1947. He spent the spring and summer in Los Angeles, working to earn enough money to buy a car to drive East, but had an unexpected change of plans when the actress he was dating began rehearsals for the Somerset Maugham play “Home and Beauty” at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre.
“If I wanted to see her, I had to go to rehearsals,” he recalled in a 2009 interview with The Times.
When the leading man didn't show up on the second or third night of rehearsals, O'Brian was asked to read the leading man's role.
“After about four days, they realized the guy wasn't going to come back ... so the director asked me if I would do the role.... We did the show and a reporter for the L.A. Times came down to see it and the next day, he wrote a tremendous review ... That's how I got started.”
The show's playbill, however, misspelled his name.
“They left the 'm' out of Krampe,'“ he said in a 2013 Times interview. “I decided right then I didn't want to go through life being known as Huge Krape, so I decided to take my mother's family name, O'Brien. But they misspelled it as 'O'Brian' and I just decided to stay with that.”
A third-billed starring role as a wheelchair-bound paraplegic in the Ida Lupino-directed 1950 movie drama “Never Fear” marked what O'Brian later described as his “real beginning” as an actor. A contract with Universal followed.
O'Brian was a one of the founders of the Thalians, a show-business charitable organization formed in 1955 to raise money for children with mental health problems. In 1964, he established the Hugh O'Brian Acting Awards competition at UCLA.
In 2006, O'Brian married for the first time.
In what was described as “the wedding to die for,” he and his longtime girlfriend, the former Virginia Barber, were married at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale.
O’Brian is survived by his wife, Virginia, brother Don Krampe and seven nieces and nephews.
O’BRIAN, Hugh (Hugh Charles Krampe)
Born: 4/19/1925, Rochester, New York, U.S.A.
Died: 9/5/2016, Beverly Hills, California, U.S.A.
Hugh O’Brian’s westerns – actor:
Beyond the Purple Hills – 1950 (Jack Beaumont)
The Return of Jesse James – 1950 (Lem Younger)
Buckaroo Sheriff of Texas – 1951 (Ted Gately)
Cave of the Outlaws – 1951 (Garth)
Little Big Horn – 1951 (Pvt. Al DeWalt)
Vengeance Valley – 1951 (Dick Fasken)
The Battle at Apache Pass – 1952 (Lt. Robert Harley)
The Cimarron Kid – 1952 (Red Buck)
The Raiders – 1952 (Hank Purvis)
Back to God’s Country – 1953 (Frank Hudson)
The Lawless Breed – 1953 (Ike Hanley)
The Man from the Alamo – 1953 (Lt. Lamar)
Seminole – 1953 (Kajeck)
The Stand at Apache River – 1953 (Tom Kenyon)
Broken Lance – 1954 (Mike Devereaux)
Drums Across the River – 1954 (Morgan)
O’Rourke of the Royal Mounted – 1954
Saskatchewan – 1954 (Carl Smith)
Taza, Son of Cochise – 1954 (settler killed by Indians)
White Feather – 1955 (American Horse)
The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (TV) – 1955-1961 (Wyatt Earp)
Stage 7 “Billy and the Bride” (TV – 1955 (Billy the Kid)
The Twinkle in God’s Eye – 1955 (Marty Callahan)
The Brass Legend – 1956 (Sheriff Wade Addams)
Playhouse 90 “Invitation to a Gunfighter” (TV) – 1957 (Matt Jeffers)
The Fiend Who Walked the West – 1958 (Daniel Slade Hardy)
Alias Jesse James – 1950 (Wyatt Earp)
The Virginian (TV) – 1962 (Paul Taylor)
Africa: Texas Style – 1967 (Jim Sinclair)
Wild Women – (TV) – 1970 (Killian)
The Shootist – 1976 (Pulford)
Guns of Paradise (TV) – 1988-1990 (Wyatt Earp)
Gunsmoke: The Last Apache (TV) - 1990 (Gen. Nelson Miles)
The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw (TV) – 1991 (Marshal Wyatt Earp)
Wyatt Earp: Return to Dodge (TV) – 1994 (Wyatt Earp)
Call of the Wild (TV) – 2000 (Older Miles)
The Shootist: The Legend Lives On - 2001 [himself]
Dobe and a Company of Heroes (TV) – 2002 [himself]