Sun Sets on Hugh O’Brian, 1950s Wyatt Earp

Hugh O’Brian, the Hollywood actor who died Sept. 5 at the age of 91, was not one of the biggest stars ever in the movie firmament. But he was proof positive that if you work long and hard and accumulate a mountain of credits, and endure, you can become not so much a celebrity as an icon with a single role. And you can become something more than that with a life touched by good deeds.

O’Brian is best known, of course, for his six-year stint on television in “The Life and Times of Wyatt Earp” between 1955 and 1961, an era considered by many the golden age of TV westerns, before the cultural tidal wave that was the 1960s pretty much wiped out the genre.

He was among such stars and actors as the veteran character actor Ward Bond (“Wagon Train”), Gene Barry (“Bat Masterson”), Richard Boone (“Have Gun Will Travel”), Chuck Connors (“The Rifleman”), Steve McQueen (“Wanted Dead or Alive”) and, yes, Clint Eastwood (“Rawhide”). If you were a 1950s Midwestern high schooler, this was part of growing up, along with, maybe, “American Bandstand.”

By the time O’Brian hit upon Wyatt Earp, he had already done a life’s worth of duty in small parts in what passed for adventure and action movies, as well as westerns, beginning with his appearance as an unnamed sailor in a movie version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped” in 1948. He was an ex-Marine who stumbled upon a career by bringing actress-director Ida Lupino to a movie opening.

He had another anonymous role as a jazz fan in “D.O.A” in 1950, but then got characters with names in films that screamed the letter “B.” He played Ted Gately in “Buckaroo Sheriff of Texas,” Lem Younger in “The Return of Jesse James,” Harry Chamberlain in “Rocketship X-M,” Red Buck in “The Cimarron Kid,” Hussein in “Son of Ali Baba” (Tony Curtis was the son), Kajeck in “Seminole” (which starred Rock Hudson) and Lt. Tom Lamar in 1953’s “The Man from the Alamo” (Glenn Ford was the man), for which he won a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer, Male.

He had a rugged look, cleft chin and all, and a wry smile, and he was tall, dark-haired and handsome. He persisted through small parts in big movies like “Broken Lance” and Universal Studios action pictures. O’Brian was killed often — early at Pearl Harbor in “In Harm’s Way” and late in “The Shootist,” which made him the last character killed by John Wayne.

In 1958, he ended up meeting the world-famous and Nobel Prize-winning theologian and physician Albert Schweitzer, who inspired him to found the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit program for high school students. Since its inception, the foundation has sponsored more than 400,000 students, including, it appears, former governor of Arkansas and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

The list of movies in which O’Brian appeared is long, and continued to grow to include a stint in the 2000 miniseries “Y2K—World in Crisis,” which also featured Dick Van Patten and Richard Roundtree.

O’Brian’s Wyatt Earp — there have been others such as Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner — stays in the mind: the charisma, the vest, the quick draws and the disinterest in killing his foes, an anomaly he shared with Barry’s Masterson, who downed villains with a silver-clipped cane. Earp himself was long-lived and migrated to Hollywood as a kind of professional consultant on the Old West.


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