Actor Hugh O’Brian became an icon of American
television through his long-running series “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp”. O’Brian
also became a popular fixture in feature films as well as stage productions. At
age 90, he’s still going strong. His autobiography “Hugh O’Brian or What’s
Left of Him” has just been published and his Hugh O’Brian Youth leadership
group is continuing to inspire American teenagers to become productive adults. Additionally, O’Brian has been promoting the
SFM Entertainment’s release of “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp: The Complete Series”
We caught up with O’Brian recently for a phone
interview from his home in Los Angeles. O’Brian’s wife Virginia, who co-authored his autobiography, also
contributed some anecdotes. Hugh O’Brian
possesses a marvelous sense of humor and makes self-deprecating jokes at the
drop of hat. However, the main characteristic that comes across is that he is a
true class act.
Cinema Retro: Can you give us some background on how
you became involved in “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp”?
Hugh O’Brian: I really was a fan of Wyatt Earp before I
got the role. I was in the Marine Corps and before my time, he had spent some
time in the San Diego area. Every two or three weeks, he would go over to the
Marine Corps base , which is where I enlisted in 1943 when I was seventeen
CR: You ended up being named the youngest drill
instructor that the Marine Corps ever had…
HO: Yes, they made me a drill instructor at age
seventeen. I don’t know if you’ve ever met any drill instructors, but it would
be very difficult for any of them to believe that. My grandfather was a Marine and my dad was a
Marine. He worked for a company called Armstrong Cork. Cork, at the time, was
the main thing you would use for insulation in homes and so forth. Dad became
the captain in charge of the Marine Corps in the Chicago area and he made a
wonderful recruiting effort there. Every summer from the time that I was four,
I would go with my dad for the two week training period up at Great Lakes,
Wisconsin. I had my own little pup tent and so you could say I was involved
with the Marines since the age of four. Anyway, Wyatt Earp loved the Marine
Corps because of the discipline and what they stood for. There was a guy by the
name of Stuart Lake, who wrote the book on Wyatt (“Wyatt Earp: Frontier
Marshall”- Ed.) I made a point of
meeting him. He became very became very instrumental in my finally getting the
role of Wyatt. He liked the fact that I did all my own stunts, which was a
stupid thing to do! On one film I had
done, I jumped off the roof of a 36
story office building in New York City. These guys with guns were chasing me I broke loose and there was only
one way to go: up. They were following me and I went over to the edge and as
they came towards me, I went over backwards and came through a window
below. There wasn’t any way you could
practice that! I did my own stunts, not because of ego or anything like that,
but because when you look at a film or a TV show, they usually have a stunt man
or a double to do the fight scenes. I insisted from the very beginning that,
while obviously they could lay out action scenes so they could get paid, but I
would do the stunts myself. It helped the filming tremendously because they
didn’t have to cut to a longer shot in which they would have used a double. If
there was something that I thought was much too risky, then, of course, I would
let the stuntman do it. I think appreciated the fact that I tried to do my own
stunts. It was like Wyatt Earp being alive and doing it.
CR: How much of the Wyatt Earp program was based on actual fact?
HO: A great deal of it was starting with where he began through Tombstone and then finally out here in Los Angeles. There is a place called Newall, California, where Gene Autry filmed a lot of his TV series, and we did the Wyatt Earp show there, as well. Anyway, there is a space between there and Las Vegas of open area that was about 80 miles. But we began to have a problem with people coming out to the location. So we hired a lawyer and he came out there and looked around and then he put up a sign that read: “BEWARE! This Property is Patroled by Wyatt Earp!” They stuck in at the edge of Newhall, just as it goes into this huge area and nobody ever came out there again.
As I understand it, Wyatt Earp had a very interesting personality. He always considered himself to be in the same social category as the mayor or the people who owned companies in the big cities. That’s why he wore a little string tie- because that was the wardrobe for business people. He thought it would be wrong for him to dress up like a standard marshal. He thought it would be more striking if he dressed up in business attire. When I went to Western Costume, part of my deal was that I would be able to choose the wardrobe. Well, when I went there, the wardrobe they had picked out for me would have made me look like a glorified Gene Autry. It was kind of a diamond-studded vest with a white hat and things like that. It looked so phony that I told them I would pick out the kind of clothes I thought the man wore. I felt this would make our show different from some of the others. So I picked out the outfit you see me wearing in the series. It was the kind of outfit that the business people and the mayor and judges wore, whether it was Dodge City or Tombstone.
There was a guy by the name of Ned Buntline who was a writer of “Penny Dreadful” stories. They were little 5”x7” storybooks about different people and so forth and they sold for about a dime. Buntline came out because he wanted to do a story about Wyatt. In hopes of getting his cooperation, he gave him a present which was the Buntline Special (pistol). The one that he gave him wasn’t quite as long as the one we had in the show. But I thought that was a great item for Wyatt to wear and carry. The problem was that he couldn’t rely on it to draw fast because it would take an extra second or two to get it out of the holster. But he did wear it on his side hip, opposite the real .45 and he would use it to bump people on the head. So he would use it that way. He was also able to use it as a type of rifle. There was one time when a bunch of guys came after him and he was able to use the Buntline to pick them off from a hundred yards away. It was quite an interesting gun. The people who knew Wyatt honored me with their kind comments about trying to stick to the truth in terms of trying to present the man as he actually was on film.
You know, when they fire guns on TV shows, they don’t usually use a full load because no one could handle the sound of that full .45 going off fifteen or twenty times a day. In my case, I insisted on using the full load. The crew behind the cameras all wore ear plugs. The person I was shooting at wasn’t going to be there the next day, anyway. Believe me, it made a hell of a difference when it came to the reaction of that individual when the actual .45 load was shot off. It was quite loud and they would automatically fall down. It didn’t take the script to make them do it!
CR: I understand the filming of the TV was quite arduous in terms of the work schedule…
HO: We worked six days a week. If you can imagine, they would pick me up around 6:00 AM and we’d go out to wherever we were filming the show for that day or we would go to the studio. I would have about twenty pages of script that I would have to learn for the next day. We would keep filming until about 6:00 in the evening. I’d get home around 7:00 PM, try to grab a quick bite and then memorize the twenty pages for the next day. Let’s put it this way: it was a hard grind, especially when you were doing a six day week. You only had Sunday to shop or do whatever you needed to do in your personal life. Today, you couldn’t imagine doing a show like that six days a week.
CR: Are you surprised that the show’s popularity has endured for so many years?
HO: No, I’m not surprised because at the time we became known as the most authentic Western series that was on the air. That didn’t please some people in other shows but those were the facts. I was very proud of it and we used that to market the show. I did as much travel as I could and did different appearances around the country. I would average maybe four or six a month, on top of doing the Wyatt Earp series. So every weekend I was doing those kinds of things. Did I get tired? Yes, I did, but then I would look at the check I was getting and I knew the dollars would make a difference in terms of what I wanted to do when I got older, which I did. I bought a lot of property and invested in some things that I thought would make a buck when we finished the series.
You know, when I was young, on Saturdays I would go up and down Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard and I would wash windows and clean the decks. My star in Hollywood is right in front of a restaurant called Lucky’s Tavern where I used to clean the windows. So it’s kind of funny when I sit there in a booth and can look down and see my star.
Virginia O’Brian: When Hugh wasn’t filming, he was doing rodeos and circuses and making appearances wearing the Wyatt Earp outfit and having the guns on the holster. To this day, there are men who were little boys who went to some country fair and they have memories of seeing Wyatt Earp. They still remember it, almost to the exact day of the week, the time of year, etc. They just absolutely loved him. I think we have to credit the producers, Lou Edleman and Robert Sisk for really recognizing that Hugh had a star quality about him. The men loved him and the women were attracted to him. That’s why families wanted to watch the show.
HO: We had a director, Frank McDonald, who was one of the finest in his profession and he really appreciated my willingness to try any stunt to see if I could handle it. Morgan Woodward was one of the stuntmen. He’s still living. We had a terrific group of men and women who helped make the show authentic. That’s why the show is still around today on the Encore Western Channel and Cozi TV. They show two half-hours back-to-back, so I’ve had a lot of resurgence in popularity with younger people whose fathers and mothers used to watch the show. It’s not just younger people. We also have the granddads and grandmothers who are also making it very popular again.
In the 1976 Western classic "The Shootist", Hugh O'Brian became the last person "killed" by John Wayne in a movie. O'Brian discusses the making of the film and his friendship with the Duke in a future issue of Cinema Retro.
CR: What can you tell us about your autobiography?
The forewords are by Debbie Reynolds and my old friend from Chicago, Hugh Hefner. He and I kind of grew up together in the Chicago area and did whatever we could to make a buck. Of course, he came out here and started Playboy magazine. I go to his place every Sunday for dinner and a movie. It’s been a great fun friendship.
CR: You’ve said that your proudest achievement is the establishment of the Hugh O’Brian Youth leadership program (HOBY), which has played an important role in in so many young people’s lives for over 50 years. What can you tell us about it?
HO: It all goes back to Norman Cousins. He became a friend and through him I received a letter from Albert Schweitzer. I was inspired by his humanitarian work and decided to try to mimic him. I went down and spent nine days with him at his clinic in Africa. It was quite an interesting time to be there. We spent some time helping the lepers, who provided the peddle power on this huge war canoe-type of boat. We paddled up stream to where Schweitzer had the clinic. He invited me to have dinner with him in his cottage, but in reality, it was more like a shack. I spent about six hours talking with the man and learning where his head was at. He didn’t charge anyone for treatment and relied on having his supplies donated to him. When I was leaving, he took his two hands and placed them on my shoulders. He looked at me and said, “Hugh, what are you going to do with this time that you’ve spent here?” I said, “Sir, I don’t know but I’m going to try to give back in a way that will show you how your efforts have motivated me.” When I returned to Los Angeles, within two weeks, I was meeting with my first group of tenth graders. I was focused on sophomores in high school because that’s when they first become old enough to travel and to begin thinking about higher education and what they want to do with their lives. The program started to grow and I know have about 97.6% of every public and private high school in the United States and ten other countries that make the HOBY program available to sophomores in high school. So many people who have gone through the program are running companies now. We have alumni in every Fortune 500 company. I urge anyone who is reading this to get in touch with the HOBY program in their area and volunteer to help.
CR: In closing, is there one factor you can cite to explain the enduring popularity of the Wyatt Earp TV show?
HO: The main reason the show is still popular is because I strap on the Buntline Special and visit homes and tell people, “You’d better watch “Wyatt Earp”!
(To order Hugh O’Brian’s autobiography, which is personally signed to you by Hugh and Virginia O’Brian, click here.)
To learn more about the HOBY program, click here to visit the official web site. For a full biography of Hugh O’Brian and complete filmography, click here to visit his web site.)
(“The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp: The Complete Series” is available as a boxed set consisting of 30 DVDs and running 99 hours. The discs are “region free”, meaning they can be played on any international DVD system. Click here to order from Critic's Choice to get a set signed personally by Hugh O’Brian.)