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Hugh O’Brian Dies; Dashing TV Star of ‘Wyatt Earp’ Was 91


Hugh O’Brian, in costume as his television character Wyatt Earp, arriving in New York in an undated photograph.
KEYSTONE / HULTON ARCHIVE, VIA GETTY IMAGES

By JAMES ENDRST
SEPTEMBER 5, 2016

Hugh O’Brian, who rose to fame on television as the quick-drawing lawman Wyatt Earp in the 1950s and who later devoted extensive time to a foundation he created that trains young people to be leaders, died on Monday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 91.

His death was announced by his foundation, HOBY, originally known as Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership.

When he first arrived in Hollywood in 1947, Mr. O’Brian was a strapping 6-foot-plus presence with leading-man looks and a swagger he had picked up in the Marine Corps. He did not have stardom in mind, though: He was planning to return to college and eventually attend law school.

He broke into show business by chance, when he escorted an actress to a rehearsal for a play and ended up with a part for himself, filling in for an actor who had fallen ill.

The actress Ida Lupino, who was just beginning her career as a director, cast him in her 1949 feature film, “Never Fear.” A contract with Universal-International Pictures soon followed.

Early on Mr. O’Brian was relegated mostly to secondary status in run-of-the-mill westerns — with Gene Autry in “Beyond the Purple Hills” (1950), Audie Murphy in “The Cimarron Kid” (1952) and Rock Hudson (to whom Mr. O’Brian was frequently compared) in “Seminole” (1953).

He emerged from this relative obscurity when he landed the title role on “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.” The show, which ran on ABC from 1955 to 1961, became one of the most popular TV westerns at a time when that genre dominated prime time.

Mr. O’Brian would play Marshal Earp in one form or another several times, most notably in the 1991 television movie “The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw,” a vehicle for the singer Kenny Rogers, and in “Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone,” a 1994 CBS production timed to capitalize on the release that year of the big-budget feature “Wyatt Earp,” starring Kevin Costner. (The early 1990s were a good time for Earp enthusiasts: “Tombstone,” with Kurt Russell as Earp, came out in 1993.)

Mr. O’Brian remained active through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, mostly on television. He appeared on series like “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Fantasy Island” and “Murder, She Wrote.” In 1972 he was one of the rotating leads in NBC’s short-lived high-tech private-eye series “Search,” which also starred Tony Franciosa and Doug McClure.

Although most of Mr. O’Brian’s movies were westerns and other action-oriented features, he also acted in comedies, dramas and musicals, including “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1954), “Come Fly With Me” (1963) and “Twins” (1988).

One of his more memorable roles (though it was also one of his smallest) was in John Wayne’s final movie, “The Shootist” (1976). Mr. O’Brian played a professional gambler who, in the film’s closing moments, became the last character ever killed onscreen by Wayne.

He played Broadway too. In 1960 he briefly filled in for Andy Griffith in the musical “Destry Rides Again,” and a year later he portrayed the author Romain Gary in “First Love,” directed by Alfred Lunt and based on Mr. Gary’s memoir, “Promise at Dawn.” He toured with regional theater productions as well.

But Mr. O’Brian’s portrayal of Wyatt Earp, forever remembered for his participation in the 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral, would remain his professional high-water mark. It would also have a transformative effect beyond show business.

As Mr. O’Brian told it, his high profile on television brought him to the attention of the Nobel Prize-winning doctor and missionary Albert Schweitzer, who in 1958 invited Mr. O’Brian to observe and work with him at the hospital he ran in Lambaréné, Gabon (then French Equatorial Africa).

Inspired by the visit and by Dr. Schweitzer’s call to service, Mr. O’Brian returned to Los Angeles and within weeks established Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, a nonprofit organization that through seminars prepares high school students to “become positive catalysts for change,” as the group puts it.

The organization expanded nationally and internationally and now says it has more than 300,000 alumni, including Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who said attending a leadership seminar in 1971 was “a genuine turning point in my life.”

“Hugh O’Brian’s impact,” he said, is “a large part of why I became governor of my state.”

Hugh O’Brian was born Hugh Charles Krampe on April 19, 1925, in Rochester, the son of Hugh and Edith Krampe. His father worked in sales, and the family moved frequently when he was a child. He attended several schools, including New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., and Kemper Military School in Boonville, Mo.

His father, a former Marine (and, as Mr. O’Brian once described him, “one of the toughest men I ever knew”), inspired his interest in the military. But when he became an actor, he took the name O’Brian — from his mother’s side of the family, he said — because he found it less vulnerable than Krampe to unfortunate misspellings.

Like those of the real-life Wyatt Earp, Mr. O’Brian’s accomplishments could be burnished over time, sometimes by himself. He claimed, for instance, to have been, at 17, the youngest drill instructor in Marine Corps history. (The Marine Corps does not track such statistics.)
 

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Article published by The New York Times.