“Hugh O’Brian, who rose to fame on television as the quick-drawing Wyatt Earp in the 1950s—but who later devoted extensive time to a foundation he created that trains young people to be leaders—died on Monday at his home in Beverly Hills, California,” reports The New York Times. O’Brian was 91 years old and, according to the Los Angeles Times, suffered from “several health issues.”
He was born Hugh Charles Krampe in Rochester, New York, on April 19, 1025, “but when he became an actor,” recalls the New York newspaper, “he took the name O’Brian—from his mother’s side of the family, he said—because
he found it less vulnerable than Krampe to unfortunate misspellings.” As Variety recalls, O’Brian “spent a semester at the University of Cincinnati but during World War II he dropped out to enlist in the Marine Corps—where his father had been an officer. … After the war, O’Brian moved to Los Angeles to study at UCLA. He had started doing stage work, and was discovered by Ida Lupino, who signed him
to appear as the second male lead in the polio drama Never Fear , which she had co-scripted and was directing; for O’Brian that film led to a contract with Universal Pictures.”
O’Brian is most widely remembered for his lead role in the 1955-1961 ABC-TV Western, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. But he also starred in the 1972-1973 NBC-TV series Search, playing resourceful Hugh Lockwood, one of three field operatives assigned to solve crimes around the world for a high-tech private investigations enterprise. (Tony Franciosa and Doug McClure portrayed the other two ops.) In addition, O’Brian appeared over the years on such crime dramas as Perry Mason, Charlie’s Angels, Police Story, Matt Houston, L.A. Law, and Murder, She Wrote. In 1994 he reprised the small-screen role that brought him his first big fame, in Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone. His many theatrical film credits include parts in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), Come Fly with Me (1963), a 1965 picture based on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (aka And Then There Were None), and Twins (1988). “One of his more memorable roles (though it was also one of his smallest) was in John Wayne’s final movie, The Shootist (1976),” notes The New York Times. “Mr. O’Brian played a professional gambler who, in the film’s closing moments, became the last character ever killed onscreen by Wayne.”
But, says the L.A. Times, “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 non-profit 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.”
It’s interesting as well to mention that O’Brian, once thought of as one of the most eligible men in Hollywood, spent most of his life as a bachelor. He didn’t marry until he was 81 years old, in 2006, taking as his bride longtime companion Virginia Barber, 54. “This is my first, and most definitely, my last trip down the aisle,” O’Brian was quoted as saying at the time. Barber is among his survivors.
READ MORE: “Hugh O’Brian Passes On,” by Terence Towles Canote (A Shroud of Thoughts).