The dashing actor who played Wyatt Earp
Hugh O’Brian made it acceptable for adults to watch TV Westerns. Before the square-jawed actor’s 1955 debut as the titular character in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, such shows had been aimed at kids, with cartoonish gunfights and cookie-cutter good guys and bad guys. Wyatt Earp introduced darker, more complex story lines and a compelling hero in O’Brian’s Earp. Snappily dressed in his black frock coat and hat and a gold-trimmed waistcoat, the Old West lawman used his gun only as a last resort. To add to the show’s sense of realism, O’Brian insisted that the blanks fired by his .45 pistol be fully filled with gunpowder, not the half load or less normally used in filming. “It made a hell of a difference when it came to the reaction” of the actor being shot, he explained. “It was quite loud and they would automatically fall down. It didn’t take the script to make them do it.”
Born Hugh Krampe in Rochester, N.Y., O’Brian “excelled in athletics and served in the Marine Corps during World War II,” said The Washington Post. He was planning to study law at Yale when he stumbled into acting: Having escorted his actress girlfriend to a rehearsal for a play in 1947, he ended up filling in for the lead actor, who had fallen ill. He adopted his mother’s maiden name after his surname was misspelled in a playbill. “They left the ‘m’ out of Krampe,” he said. After starring in a string of “runof-the mill Westerns,” he found stardom with Wyatt Earp, said The New York Times. The show went off the air in 1961, and over the next three decades O’Brian starred in dozens more movies and TV shows, including as the last bandit to be killed in John Wayne’s final film, 1976’s The Shootist.
“O’Brian’s most enduring legacy is offscreen,” said the Los Angeles Times. A 1958 visit to a hospital run by the Nobel Prize–winning doctor and missionary Albert Schweitzer in what is now Gabon inspired the actor to set up the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership organization, a nonprofit that has taught leadership skills to more than 400,000 high school students. In 1994, he played Earp again in a CBS TV movie, hoping to bring attention and money to his charity. “The greatest thing I can do for the foundation,” he said, “is reheat my name on the way out.”