Wednesday 21 February 2018

Obituary: Hugh O'Brian

Actor who became one of TV's first sex symbols as the star of a western about Wyatt Earp

LAWMAN: Hugh O’Brian in the TV series ‘The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp’. Photo: Disney ABC Television Group
LAWMAN: Hugh O’Brian in the TV series ‘The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp’. Photo: Disney ABC Television Group newdesk

Hugh O'Brian, who has died aged 91, was one of the first American actors to achieve television celebrity in 1950s Britain as the marshal of Dodge City in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.

More than 200 black-and-white episodes of the series were shown on the fledgling ITV network between 1956 and 1962. Handsome and square-jawed, O'Brian landed the starring title role because he resembled the real Wyatt Earp (1848-1929) as a young lawman in late 19th-century Kansas and later in Tombstone, Arizona.

It was the first television western to be aimed specifically at adults. Series appealing to children such as The Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger had been scheduled for late afternoon slots. Inspired by the legendary events of the real-life frontier marshal, Earp played in after-dinner prime time and transformed O'Brian into one of TV's first sex symbols.

His distinctive portrayal of what the show's theme song described as the "brave, courageous and bold" frontier lawman was marked by a black frock coat, a gold brocade waistcoat, string tie and flat-brimmed black hat. Although by modern lights the action is ponderously slow, the series built steadily in the American TV ratings, finally ranking as the nation's fourth most popular programme.

In the course of the series, O'Brian's Earp encountered such historical figures as John Wesley Hardin, the Thompson Brothers and Doc Holliday, as well as Earp's brothers Virgil and Morgan. After six seasons, it concluded with an epic five-episode story in which Earp, with the help of his brothers and Doc Holliday, took on Old Man Clanton and the Ten Percent Gang in a final showdown at the OK Corral.

Of Irish, German and French descent, Hugh O'Brian was born Hugh Charles Krampe on April 19, 1925, at Rochester, New York. The family settled in Chicago, where Hugh attended Hirsch High School.

His degree course at the University of Cincinatti was interrupted by the war, and he served in the US marines, becoming at 18 one of their youngest drill instructors on account of some earlier military training. On demobilisation he had planned to study Law at Yale, but changed his mind after acting with a small theatre group in Los Angeles.He sold menswear and women's lingerie, and worked as a dustman to pay his way through drama school.

He took supporting roles while appearing at a theatre in Santa Barbara, California, but by the time he landed his first film part in 1950 had changed his name to Hugh O'Brian, an accidental mis-spelling of his mother's maiden name O'Brien. His debut as a polio victim in Never Fear (1950) led to a contract with Universal, for whom he appeared in 18 pictures, including Seminole (1953) and Saskatchewan (1954).

When the ABC television network was looking for a star for The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp in 1955, the story consultant Stuart Lake recommended O'Brian because of his resemblance to the real-life character.

During the series, O'Brian became adept with Earp's trademark "Buntline Special" pistols with extended barrels and shoulder stock, which allowed him to fire accurately over long distances. Some experts now think these weapons were a fabrication by the journalist Ned Buntline.

O'Brian played the last character that his old friend John Wayne ever killed on the screen in Wayne's final film The Shootist (1976), considering it a great honour, before recreating his Wyatt Earp role for TV in Guns of Paradise (1990), The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw (1991) and the film Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone (1994).

Away from the cameras, he dedicated much of his time to Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership, a non-profit programme that enrols 10,000 high school students every year.

He married for the first time in 2006, when he was 81. He and his wife, Virginia Barber, his long-standing girlfriend, were serenaded by their close friend, the actress Debbie Reynolds.

© Telegraph

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