One of the last of the classic TV western heroes, Hugh O’Brian is best remembered as the clean-shaven version of Wyatt Earp, “brave, courageous and bold.”
Born in New York (Hugh Charles Krampe; April 19, 1925 – September 5, 2016) the rugged star enlisted in the Marines in 1943, and after service, enrolled at Yale with the intention of becoming a lawyer. Somehow he ended up dating an actress in Santa Barbara, with a day job as a clothing salesman.
His girlfriend was appearing in a play called “Home and Beauty.” When an actor dropped out, the play’s director, Ida Lupino asked him to give the part a try. He got some good reviews and soon after signed a contract at Universal. Four years later, 1955, he landed the Wyatt Earp assignment.
There were plenty of actors impersonating famous names from the West, including Guy Madison (Wild Bill Hickok), Gene Barry (Bat Masterson), Barry Sullivan (Pat Garrett), Leslie Nielsen (“The Swamp Fox”), and Fess Parker (Davy Crockett). Almost nobody resembled the original, and half the time there was some historian or other to cast doubt on how heroic the original actually was.
There was plenty of competition from actors playing fictional characters, including James Arness (Matt Dillon), John Russell (Dan Troop), Steve McQueen (Josh Randall), Richard Boone (Paladin), James Garner (Maverick), Jack Kelly (another Maverick), Clint Walker (Cheyenne Bodie) as well as Nick Adams, Tom Tryon, Dale Robertson, Clayton Moore, Wlil Hutchins and many more.
Some of the shows hold up, some don’t. Most of the better ones were “adult westerns,” which had some complexity to the lead character, and plots that didn’t always revolve around a gunfight ending. Unfortunately, “The Adventures of Wyatt Earp” was a bit more oriented toward younger viewers, and is distractingly handicapped by a weird soundtrack; instead of music, there’s the Ken Darby singers, offering “ooh and ahhh” a cappella mewlings. Very strange.
And…yeah, when it came time for the almost obligatory “the hero SINGS” album, it was Ken Darby and his annoying singers who were enlisted. Unlike many albums that relied on traditional folk songs (Pernell Roberts comes to mind), O’Brian’s album featured originals hastily penned by Ken Darby, and heavily relying on his chorus to help mask any problems with O’Brian’s vocals. How much of the lead singing is even Hugh O’Brian as opposed to some guy who sounded a bit like him, I have no idea.
Your sample from the 1957 album is “The Bushwacker Country,” a pretty offbeat ballad about Earp and his dealings with The Ben Tompson Gang. It offers some eerie minor key moanings. And hey, the title has both BUSH and CUNT in it.
O’Brian went on to many other assignments in movies and on TV, and trivia fans happily note that when Raymond Burr missed a “Perry Mason” show in 1963, Hugh came in to take his place as one of Perry’s attorney friends. He was often on game shows, and was quite a literate presence on “Password.” O’Brian’s other TV series was the short-run “Search” in 1972. Once in a while he gave a nostalgic reprise to Wyatt Earp, notably “The Gambler Returns” (1991) and “Return to Tombstone” (1994). O'Brian became something of an authority on Earp, who married a Jewish woman (very daring at the time) and is buried in a Jewish cemetery, "on the other side of the hills from the San Francisco airport. That's where Wyatt is buried with Josie."
Fans of Hugh have their own favorite films, including a remake of “Ten Little Indians,” the romantic comedy “Come Fly With Me,’ “Love Has Many Faces,” “In Harm’s Way,” and “Murder On Flight 502,” which had a neat plot twist for his character. He turned up in all sorts of things, playing Arnold Swartzennegars' father in the movie "Twins" and along with Buddy Hackett, became a comedy team when Abbott & Costello were not available for an item scripted for them, “Fireman Save My Child.” I was glad to mention some of my favorites to him (no, not at some memorabilia event with a bunch of grimacing Huelbigs standing on line to pay him) and chose a non-Earp photo for him to sign...a picture of Hugh with his (not-Monty) python in "Africa, Texas Style." He was much more than Wyatt Earp. He married rather late in life, and in his 80’s was quite different in appearance from his TV hero days; a guy with long hair, problems walking, and difficulty hearing.
At 90, he wrote his autobiography and titled it: “Hugh O’Brien, Or What’s Left Of Him.” As most self-published or desperate authors do, he booked himself on Connie Martinson’s pay-to-be-interviewed book review TV series.
O’Brian always knew there were ways of changing the world beyond being an actor. Back in 1958, he was meeting with Albert Schweitzer and looking for ways to use his fame in the most positive ways possible. O’Brian founded the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation. While millions have been entertained by O’Brian’s acting work, there are about a half-million whose lives have been changed thanks to their high school years that were enhanced by the Foundation.
A bit of philosophy from Hugh O’Brian:
“I do NOT believe we are all born equal. Created equal in the eyes of God, yes, but physical and emotional differences, parental guidelines, varying environments, being in the right place at the right time, all play a role in enhancing or limiting an individual's development. But I DO believe every man and woman, if given the opportunity and encouragement to recognize their potential, regardless of background, has the freedom to choose in our world. Will an individual be a taker or a giver in life? Will that person be satisfied merely to exist or seek a meaningful purpose? Will he or she dare to dream the impossible dream? I believe every person is created as the steward of his or her own destiny 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 Bushwacker Country