In Memoriam: Hugh O'Brian, Forever Wyatt Earp, 1925-2016

by Yoram Kahana September 7, 2016
ACtor Hugh O'Brian, Golden Globe winner

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Hugh O'Brian, veteran actor and Golden Globe winner, has died, age 91. In 1954 he was awarded the Most Promising Actor Golden Globe award (a category that was abandoned after 1983), sharing it with Richard Egan and Steve Forrest. All three went on to a long career in Hollywood, but it was O'Brian who best vindicated the judgment of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association members-voters. The very next year he was cast as the lead in ABC's The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, a western drama about the famous lawman. Considered the first adult TV western series, the drama ran for 226 episodes in seven seasons (1955 to 1961), and was always ranked in the top five TV shows.

Throughout his active and multifaceted career, O'Brian would return to portray Earp, most notably in 1991, in the movie for television The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw, featuring Golden Globe nominee, country singer Kenny Rogers, and  in the 1994 CBS  entry, Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone, which reworked colorized scenes from O'Brian's TV series. It was timed to capitalize on the release that year of the big-budget feature Wyatt Earp,” starring five time nominee and twice Golden Globe winner Kevin Costner.

Born Hugh Charles Krampe on April 19, 1925, in Rochester, N.Y., his family moved often, he attended several schools, lettered in several sports, and enlisted in the Marines. He was stationed in San Diego and served as a drill sergeant. Discharged in 1947, he planned to study law at Yale on the G.I. bill, and took odd jobs in Los Angeles to save for buying a car to drive east. An actress he was dating was rehearsing a play, and “… if I wanted to see her, I had to go to rehearsals,” he told the L.A. Times. When the leading man fell ill, he was asked to read the part, and, he said, " the director asked me if I would do the role ... I did. A reporter for the L.A. Times wrote a tremendous review ... That's how I got started.”

That was also how he changed his name. "The show's playbill left the 'm' out of Krampe,'“ he told an interviewer, “I decided right then I didn't want to go through life being known as Huge Krape," so he took his mother's family name.

The actress Ida Lupino was preparing to direct her first movie. She saw O'Brian in the play and cast him in her Never Fear (1950). A contract with Universal  International films followed, and the virile ex marine was cast in some 20 movies, mostly B westerns. One of them won O'Brian his Golden Globe: director Bud Boetticher's The Man from the Alamo (1953), starring Glenn Ford, (three Golden Globe nominations and one win).

When he took on the role of Wyatt Earp, which identified him for the rest of his career, it changed his life in other ways too. An unlikely fan, Nobel Prize winning doctor and missionary Albert Schweitzer invited O'Brian to the hospital he ran in Lambaréné, West Africa. Inspired by Dr. Schweitzer’s example, O'Brian established the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, (HOBY) a nonprofit preparing high school students to “become positive catalysts for change.” HOBY became an international organization, with more than 300,000 alumni. "I believe every person is created as the steward of his or her own destiny, "O'Brian wrote, "with great power for a specific purpose; to share with others, through service, a reverence for life in a spirit of love.”

Hugh O'Brian, Wyatt Earp, lived his credo.