TV and film star Hugh O’Brian died peacefully in his Beverly Hills home Monday, September 5 at the age of 91. With a long acting career to his credit, O’Brian is probably best known for his role as Wyatt Earp on the television series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp which ran on ABC from 1955-61 for 221 episodes. O’Brian was nominated for a Best Actor in a Dramatic Series Emmy in 1957. He was so popular in the role that he appeared in an uncredited cameo in the Bob Hope Western comedy Alias Jesse James, and in the 1960 TV movie The Secret World of Eddie Hodges. For his guest appearance on the Danny Thomas sitcom Make Room for Daddy, the episode was entitled “Wyatt Earp Visits the Williamses.” He also reprised the role in two episodes of Guns of Paradise in 1989, and in the TV movies The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw in 1991 and Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone in 1994.
Prior to being cast on the TV series, O’Brian had made a name for himself in several movie Westerns including Beyonf the Purple Hills, The Return of Jesse James, Vengeance Valley, Little Big Horn, The Cimarron Kid, The Battel at Apache Pass, The Raiders, The Lawless Breed, The Man fro the Alamo, Taza, Son of Cochise, Drums Across the River, Broken Lance and many more.
O’Brian was born Hugh Charles Krampe in Rochester, NY and played a variety of sports in school. He attended the University of Cincinnati but dropped out to enlist in the Marine Corps during World War II. At 17, he became the youngest Marine drill instructor ever. After the war, he moved to Los Angeles to study at UCLA where he did some stage work and was discovered by actress and director Ida Lupino. She cast the exceedingly handsome actor as the second lead in her film Never Fear which led to a contract with Universal.
While O’Brian became known as a rugged Western star, he ventured out of the genre for a variety of movies and TV shows including Rocketship X-M, Son of Ali Baba, Meet Me at the Fair, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Studio 57, The Loretta Young Show, The Millionaire, The Twinkle in God’s Eye, Date with the Angels, Come Fly With Me, and Playhouse 90.
After the Wyatt Earp series ended, O’Brian appeared as a guest star on several TV series including The Virginian, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Perry Mason, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Red Skelton Hour, and the TV movies Dial M for Murder, A Punt, a Pass, and a Prayer, Wild Women, Swing Out, Sweet Land and Harpy. In 1972 he starred as Hugh Lockwood in the TV movie Probe, which was successful enough to spawn the TV series Search, which lasted for only a single season.
Between 1975 and 2000, O’Brian made guest appearances on Good Heavens, Charlie’s Angels, Police Story, Greatest Heroes of the Bible, The Seekers, Fantasy Island (five times between the 1977 pilot and a 1982 episode, each as a different character), The Love Boat (surprisingly only once), Matt Houston, Murder, She Wrote, L.A. Law, and Call of the Wild. His TV movie credits include Murder on Flight 502, Benny and Barney: Las Vegas Undercover, Murder at the World Series, Cruise Into Terror, and Gunsmoke: The Last Apache.
Movie credits include The Diamond Mercenaries, Game of Death, Doin’ Time on Planet Earth, and was in pre-production on a new film, Old Soldiers starring Rance Howard and Clifton James. The film had already suffered from the passing of one of its original stars, James Best, who died in April 2015. That role was recast with Howard. O’Brian also has a memorable role in the Arnold Scwrzenegger/Danny DeVito comedy Twins as one of the several DNA donors that produced the “twins.” O’Brian also had a small role in John Wayne’s last film The Shootist as the last character ever killed on screen by Wayne. O’Brian considered it a great honor.
O’Brian won a Golden Globe in 1954 for Most Promising Newcomer (a category in which he tied with Steve Forrest and Richard Egan), and a Golden Boot Award in 1991 for his significant contributions to the genre of Western television and movies.
In addition to his acting career, O’Brian dedicated a great deal of his life to the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation which he founded in 1958. The Foundation is a non-profit youth leadership development program for high schoolers, and sponsors 10,000 sophomores annually in 50 states and 20 countries. The idea for the program was inspired by a nine day visit with Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa in 1958.
O’Brian is survived by his wife Virginia, whom he married in 2006 at the age of 81.