Family & Companions
Nobody sweat quite like Edmond O'Brien. Although he was perfectly fine in comedies and even could sing and dance on occasion, he is best remembered for the intense characters he played in heavy dramas and particularly film noir. Whether playing the undercover cop infiltrating James Cagney's gang in White Heat (1949), the man desperately trying to figure out who killed him in D.O.A. (1950) or, in an Oscar®-winning performance, the overheated press agent caught between new star Ava Gardner and evil producer Warren Stevens in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), O'Brien gave his performance all he had, including a good deal of perspiration. He lived just as large off-screen, where he was noted for his generosity, ability to converse intelligently on almost any topic and heavy drinking. One of the best respected actors in Hollywood, he defined the term character actor, bringing emotional depth even to his early leading-man roles.
Eamon Joseph O'Brien started acting early, putting on magic shows for the kids in his Bronx neighborhood with a little coaching from a sympathetic neighbor, Harry Houdini. An aunt who taught high school English and speech took him to the theatre from an early age. Between those two influences, he couldn't grow up to be anything but an actor. After enrolling in Fordham University, he dropped out after six months to join the first class at the Neighborhood Playhouse, studying acting under Sanford Meisner with future musical star Betty Garrett. The two-year program was all-consuming, but that didn't stop him from taking outside classes in Shakespearean acting.
Sources disagree over whether he made his Broadway debut as the Gravedigger in John Gielgud's Hamlet or as Orestes's friend and tutor in Daughters of Atreus, both of which opened in October 1936. Either way, the 21-year-old actor made a good enough impression to keep working. He had a supporting role in Maxwell Anderson's The Star Wagon, starring Lillian Gish and Burgess Meredith. Then his radio work put him in contact with lifelong friend Orson Welles, who cast him to replace George Coulouris late in the run of his ground-breaking modern-dress production of Julius Caesar. From there, he moved into Maurice Evans's production of King Henry IV, Part I as Prince Hal, with Evans as Falstaff. When the opening night reviews singled out his work, Evans gave him star credit on the marquee.
His good notices also brought him to the attention of RKO production chief Pandro S. Berman, who gave him his first film role, as Gringoire, the poet enamored of Esmeralda in the Charles Laughton version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). For fans mostly familiar with O'Brien's later work, his performance as a romantic leading man is something of a revelation. Unlike his more grizzled character roles, Gringoire is actually pretty, though not as pretty as Maureen O'Hara, who was making her U.S. film debut.
O'Brien was still primarily interested in stage work, so he returned to Broadway, where he played Mercutio opposite Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh as Romeo and Juliet. That high-profile production led to another call from RKO, this time with a multi-film contract. He started off there as a romantic young business tycoon vying with sailor George Murphy for the heart of a vivacious Lucille Ball in A Girl, a Guy, and a Gob (1941). He was the other man again in Parachute Battalion (1941), this time vying with fellow flyer Robert Preston for sergeant's daughter Nancy Kelly. Although he was third billed, O'Brien got the girl on-screen and off-. He and Kelly fell in love during filming, though they divorced a year later. As respected as O'Brien was for his acting, he was also acquiring a reputation as a heavy drinker, which kept the two from settling down to a long relationship.
Most of those early RKO assignments were programmers, like Obliging Young Lady (1942), in which he's a former reporter pursuing legal secretary Ruth Warrick while she thinks he's just chasing another story involving her boss's client, heiress Joan Carroll. After traveling to Universal to romance Deanna Durbin in The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943), he joined the Army like many other young men at the start of World War II.
The Army put him back on stage when Moss Hart cast him in his epic tale of men training for battle, Winged Victory. He performed in the fund-raising play on Broadway with Red Buttons, Karl Malden, Kevin McCarthy, Gary Merrill, Barry Nelson and Martin Ritt. The play was filmed in 1944, with O'Brien and most of the original cast joined by Judy Holliday as his bride. And he toured it with the young Mario Lanza, whom he took under his wing, leading to a long friendship.
After the war, O'Brien had a hard time getting back on his feet in Hollywood. Then he impressed producer Mark Hellinger, who cast him in his first film noir, The Killers (1946). Although the film made stars of Burt Lancaster, in his screen debut, and Ava Gardner, O'Brien scored a career boost as well, landing a nice role as Ronald Colman's press agent in the prestigious A Double Life (1947).
O'Brien re-married, to actress Olga San Juan, in 1948. They would have three children, actors Maria and Brendan O'Brien and TV producer Bridget O'Brien. They would also become two of Hollywood's best hosts. When they built a home in Brentwood, he designed it and put a small stage in the living room so party guests like Vic Damone and Mel Torme could entertain. He usually joined in with Shakespearean recitations.
In 1948, O'Brien also signed with Warner Bros., which immediately put his theatrical training to good use in the screen version of Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest. The film gave him the chance to work with one of his idols, Fredric March. They would reunite for An Act of Murder (1948) as a judge and defense attorney, respectively, who clash in the courtroom even as O'Brien is falling for the judge's daughter. Then Warner's gave him one of his best films, the psychological gangster saga White Heat (1949), co-starring James Cagney and Virginia Mayo. Although his role as an undercover cop didn't give him the emotional range Cagney got to play as a mother-fixated hoodlum, he was still on hand for most of the film's biggest scenes, making him a memorable part of one of the great gangster films. At that point, things with Warner Bros. went South, and they burned off his contract with Backfire (1950). Although his character's disappearance motivated the action, he had little screen time as the film focused on buddy Gordon MacRae's search for him with the help of plucky nurse Virginia Mayo.
O'Brien bounced back with one of his best films noirs, D.O.A. (1950), in which he tries to find out who slipped him a fatal, irreversible poison. The grim plot, enhanced by Rudolph Mate's stylish direction, gave him the chance for some strong, tense scenes with Luther Adler, Neville Brand and, in her film debut, Beverly Garland. He followed with another great film noir, 711 Ocean Drive (1950), but then things got spotty. In the early '50s, O'Brien started struggling with his weight, which could change significantly between films. He had no problems if that relegated him to character roles, but for a few years, it was hard to come by anything really first rate.
1953 turned out to be a very good year for O'Brien, who made six films. Cow Country was just amiable fluff, a Western made for poverty row studio Monogram just as it was transitioning into the more prestigious Allied Artists. He stars as a stagecoach operator who helps save his girlfriend's cattle from rustlers. More auspicious were the two films he made under Ida Lupino's direction. The Hitch-Hiker has come to be viewed as a classic film noir, with O'Brien and friend Frank Lovejoy on a fishing vacation disrupted when they unwittingly offer a ride to psychotic William Talman. He and Lupino liked working together so much he eagerly signed on for her next film, The Bigamist, as a man who can't choose between wife Joan Fontaine and mistress Ida Lupino, so he marries the latter as well. The tangled relationships on-screen were matched off-screen, with Lupino's ex-husband, Collier Young producing a film co-starring his present wife, Fontaine.
Perhaps O'Brien's luckiest break in 1953 was landing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's epic production of Julius Caesar at MGM. Although he did not get to re-create his stage performance as Marc Antony -- that part went to Marlon Brando -- his Casca was a standout in the supporting cast. And his strong working relationship with Mankiewicz led the writer-director to create a role for O'Brien in his next film, The Barefoot Contessa (1954). The character of sweaty press agent Oscar Muldoon was allegedly modeled on Johnny Meyer, a Howard Hughes employee, with O'Brien's boss, played by Warren Stevens, sharing some of Hughes's characteristics. The star wattage in the film was provided by Humphrey Bogart, as a Hollywood director, and Ava Gardner as the dancer he discovers and turns into an international star. But the reviews all went to O'Brien, who perfectly captured a man surviving on the good will of a corrupt employer. O'Brien received his first Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but was convinced the award would go to one of the three nominees from On the Waterfront -- his friends Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger. But on Oscar® night, Donna Reed announced the award had gone to him.
It took a while for Oscar® momentum to have any effect on O'Brien's career. He only had one film out in 1955, Jack Webb's Pete Kelly's Blues, in which he played Webb's nemesis, a ruthless gangster. By 1956, however, he had five films in release, including the first film version of George Orwell's 1984 and A Cry in the Night (1956), a return to Warner Bros. as a police captain whose daughter (Natalie Wood) is kidnapped by psychopath Raymond Burr. That year he also took a stab at musical comedy as the gangster trying to make girlfriend Jayne Mansfield into a rock 'n' roll star in The Girl Can't Help It.
By this point, O'Brien had lost the battle of the bulge, which meant he was now pretty much confined to character roles, albeit often very good ones. He was the writer trying to cope with an egotistical Mickey Rooney in Rod Serling's award-winning Playhouse 90 entry The Comedian (1957), James Garner's commanding officer in the World War II actioner Up Periscope (1959) and the ship's engineer fighting to keep a luxury liner afloat in The Last Voyage (1960). Director Andrew Stone bought a decommissioned ship and sunk it throughout the film, sometimes with little regard for his actors' safety. After fighting through one scene as thousands of gallons of water gushed in on him and the camera's lights spit sparks all over the place, O'Brien walked off the set. He finally agreed to return, only to be told after one day of filming that he had been written out of the rest of the picture.
As early as the '50s, O'Brien had been struggling with vision and memory problems. He usually had an assistant read him his lines and stage directions before going out to shoot a scene just so he could keep it all in his head. In 1961, a heart attack cost him the role of a reporter in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). When he collapsed during shooting, he had to be replaced by Arthur Kennedy. Yet he would continue to work as the drunken newspaper editor in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and a reporter in The Birdman of Alcatraz (both 1962). After devoting a year to the lawyer series Sam Benedict, he scored a second Oscar® nomination for Seven Days in May (1964), in which he plays a hard-drinking senator helping to investigate a possible military coup in the U.S. In addition to the Academy®'s honor, the film gave him a chance to work with old friends like Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and Fredric March.
Although his health was beginning to decline, O'Brien worked pretty steadily through the '60s and into the '70s, combining television guest work with strong supporting turns in movies like The Wild Bunch (1969) and They Only Kill Their Masters (1972). By the mid-'70s, though, he could no longer work. His last film was a minor gangster picture, 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974), in which he played an aging hood caught up in a mob war. It soon became clear that his memory problems had been early symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease, though before it was diagnosed, he and San Juan divorced after 28 years, the last filled with arguments. He tried living on his own in his Brentwood house, but eventually had to move to a rest home in Santa Monica. O'Brien passed in 1985.
TCM's Summer Under the Stars pays tribute to Edmond O'Brien with 14 films -- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Parachute Battalion (1941), Obliging Young Lady (1942), An Act of Murder (1948), White Heat (1949), Backfire (1950), D.O.A. (1950), The Bigamist (1953), Cow Country (1953), The Hitch-Hiker (1953), A Cry in the Night (1956), Up Periscope (1959), The Last Voyage (1960) and Seven Days in May (1964).
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Made screen-acting debut as Gringoire in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"
Co-starred in ensemble noir "The Killers"
Starred as dead-man-walking Frank Bigelow in the noir classic "D.O.A."
Played Oscar Muldoon in "The Barefoot Contessa"
Starred as Dutton Peabody in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"
Appeared as Senator Raymond Clark in "Seven Days in May"
Played Freddie Sykes in seminal western "The Wild Bunch"
Appeared in final feature released during his lifetime, "99 and 44/100% Dead"
Starred in Orson Welles' revived drama "The Other Side of the Wind"