Mr. O’Brian left college at age 19 to join the US Marines in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. When finished with his duty there, he landed in Los Angeles where he performed in theatre until securing a contract with Universal Studios where he was kept quite busy.
As part of their publicity machine, he was paired up with their other contracted actors for various pictures, photo-ops, manufactured stories and the like. My favorite is a feature on five Universal actors spending the day at a bathhouse where they steamed, sauna-ed, ate, were rubbed down, showered and played cards, all while dressed in only white towels or less! He may or may not have fully appreciated the benefit of hanging out naked with Rock Hudson, Scott Brady, Tony Curtis and John Bromfield, but I would have!
Very often, O’Brian was relegated to supporting roles, frequently in westerns, and, thanks to his lean, trim physique, he was sometimes put to use in Indian roles with names like Red Buck and Kajeck and subjected to some garish styling (as in this photo!) (He actually shaved his head for this role in Seminole, though, and wore a wig for several films after!) Even later, after he had become a little more famous, he would still be saddled with an awful wig in the Jeffrey Hunter-Robert Wagner western White Feather.
Though he had no numbers of his own, he appeared in the bigger-than-life Irving Berlin musical spectacle There’s No Business Like Show Business in 1954. He would later appear on occasional variety shows and in stage musicals such as Guys and Dolls, which he took to Vietnam and other Asian countries in order to entertain the troops there.
In 1955, however, he took on what would become his signature role. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp ran for seven seasons and made O’Brian a household name. Appearing in more than 150 episodes, he almost always sported a fitted, patterned vest and a distinctive flat-topped black hat. This image would be plastered on everything from comic books to magazine covers to endless publicity shots.
He was chosen for the role based on his vague resemblance to the real life lawman, though the series understandably took quite a bit of liberty with the facts. To a certain generation of viewers, Wyatt Earp is synonymous with Hugh O’Brian. And to a faction of that generation, the sight of Hugh in his trim pants, wielding a rifle or a long-barreled pistol is an indelible one. He would reprise the role much later in a bit of stunt cameo casting on the TV series Guns of Paradise and the telefilm The Gambler Returns: Luck of the Draw.
His signature series ended in 1961 and, though he had worked in films and other TV projects all along, he was free to work in features again without the constraints of a heavy schedule. One of his successes at this time was the “coffee, tea or me” romantic comedy Come Fly With Me, in which he was a pilot romancing stewardess Pamela Tiffin (one of three ladies featured in the movie.)
Mr. O’Brian remained a bachelor throughout the course of his acting career and he also tended to avoid scandal of any kind. One thing he possessed in spades, which is now as rare as The Ark of the Covenant, was manners. His frequent appearances on Password demonstrated his gentlemanly qualities as he stood up and greeted the female players he was paired with. He tended to be scheduled with amusingly wacky fellow celebs such as Eva Gabor or Carol Channing, which often left him bemused.
O’Brian, always a very trim and athletic man, had shown his body off when playing Indians and others, but he most often was dressed up to the neck in beautiful suits and ties. However, in 1965, he filmed what would be a monumental time capsule in preserving his extreme hunk-a-tude, Love Has Many Faces. A splashy, sometimes garish soap opera set in Acapulco, the story concerns Lana Turner’s character, a jaded millionaire, who is married to an ex-gigolo (Cliff Robertson), is pursued by another gigolo (O’Brian) and has just had an inadvertent hand in the death of still another one!
If Hugh O’Brian never did a single other project of any kind in his career, he would be a star in The Underworld based on this film alone. Radiating confidence, sexuality and manliness, he saunters around the film with his shirts wide open or in a towel or, most memorably, in some of the briefest swimming briefs imaginable. He skis, performs beach acrobatics and slithers around daring anyone to find even one hint of fat or flab anywhere on him.
Like most of Poseidon’s favorite male stars, he also possesses a deep, sensuous voice that he uses to try to tempt Lana into betraying her husband (who has his eye on Stefanie Powers anyway!) It’s difficult to see why she keeps resisting!
There are really only three reasons to see this film, but they are good ones. One is to view the stunning Acapulco settings. Another is to enjoy the heralded Million Dollar Wardrobe that Edith Head threw together for Miss Lana. The third and biggest reason is to see Mr. Hugh O’Brian at the zenith of his attractiveness.
Though he wasn’t necessarily making “important” films, O’Brian was starring in mostly watchable and entertaining ones. Another guilty pleasure is the 1965 version of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, a black and white mystery with a cast of solid supporting actors mixed with flavor of the day starlets.
Set in a snow-covered mountain chalet, there is limited time for beefcake (and Hugh looks great in his stylish 60s sweaters), but he still delivers in a brief bathroom scene. He’s viewed shirtless by another suspect through a keyhole, but also is shown heading to the tub to turn it on as a distraction while he does some spying of his own. Here the keen-eyed audience is allowed a fleeting, covered glimpse of “Little Hugh” who is a) not that little and b) pressing against his pants on his right side.
As the 70s dawned, O’Brian starred in many television movies, a memorable one being Harpy, which concerned his wacko ex Elizabeth Ashley and his beloved Harpy Eagle (the title having duel meaning.) He also attempted another series, this time called Search, with science-fiction elements, but it didn’t catch on completely and was cancelled within seven episodes.
Like many actors of his era, especially ones who hadn’t quite managed to maintain a really important film career, he kept busy on episodic TV like Fantasy Island (the pilot film plus four episodes), The Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels where he portrayed a character very similar to Hugh Hefner, the two men being friends in real life. (Somewhere out there floating around is a 1970s photo of O’Brian, taken at The Playboy Mansion, I believe, wearing nothing but a very large tie!)
He appeared in occasional projects (including The Shootist, John Wayne’s final film, becoming the last person Duke ever shot and killed on screen, and a brief role as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “father” in Twins) before calling it quits, for all intents and purposes, in 1994.
The jewel in the crown, however, of this gentleman’s life is his wondrous Hugh O’Brian Youth (HOBY) Leadership Foundation. Inspired during a 1950s visit to Dr. Albert Schweitzer, O’Brian soon set up the program that inspires high school sophomores to develop themselves. It’s been in operation for over fifty years and has affected the lives of, literally, hundreds of thousands of young people. This, and his other many charitable efforts have earned him various awards and the respect of many.
In a startling move, to those unaware of the relationship anyway, Hugh was married for the first time when in his early 80s! Less surprising when you find out that they had been a couple for 18 years prior, it was still an eye-opener to see him tying the knot for the first time while in his 8th decade. An unorthodox ceremony to say the least, it was held in Forest Lawn Cemetery, was presided over by Rev. Robert Schuller and included singing from Miss Debbie Reynolds!
See below a link to the magazine article and photos (be sure to click “continue” at the bottom of the first page) regarding the Universal Studios actors enjoying their day at the Finlandia Baths: