Wyatt Earp star drawn to youth work

Hugh O'Brian made his acting debut in 1949.
Hugh O'Brian made his acting debut in 1949.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK• • Hugh O'Brian, who rose to fame on television as the quick-drawing Wyatt Earp in the 1950s - but 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, California. He was 91.

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

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. Actress Ida Lupino, then 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 in his career, O'Brian was relegated mostly to secondary status in run-of-the-mill westerns.

He emerged from obscurity when he landed the title role on The Life And Legend Of Wyatt Earp, which ran on ABC from 1955 to 1961 and was one of the most popular TV westerns when that genre dominated the networks' prime-time schedules.

He would play that real-life lawman in one form or another several times during his career, most notably in the 1991 television movie, The Gambler Returns: The Luck Of The Draw, a vehicle for singer Kenny Rogers; and Wyatt Earp: Return To Tombstone, a 1994 CBS production timed to capitalise on the release that year of the big-budget feature Wyatt Earp, starring Kevin Costner.

As O'Brian told it, his high profile as a TV star brought him to the attention of Nobel Prize-winning doctor and missionary Albert Schweitzer, who, in 1958, invited him to observe and work with him at the hospital he ran in Lambarene, Gabon (then French Equatorial Africa).

Inspired by the visit and by Schweitzer's call to service, O'Brian returned to Los Angeles and, within weeks, established Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership, a non-profit organisation that presents seminars that prepare high-school students to "become positive catalysts for change".

The programme, which began locally, eventually grew to national and international proportions and now claims more than 300,000 alumni, including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

A bachelor for most of his life, O'Brian married his long-time companion, Virginia Barber, in 2006.

To symbolise that this would be his first and last wedding, he held the ceremony at a cemetery, Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'Wyatt Earp star drawn to youth work'. Subscribe