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Despite six years of playing Wyatt Earp on television, Hugh O'Brian was more famous as himself, a shameless self-promoter whose business sense made him a lot richer than most actors who enjoyed more success in movies or television. He also enjoyed his long reputation as one of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors, a title he did not relinquish until he was 81 years old. That's right, 81. It was in 2006 that O'Brian married Virginia Barber, a teacher he had dated for 18 years. O'Brian died ten years later, on September 5, 2016.

O'Brian also was well known for a foundation he set up in 1958, the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership (HOBY). In 1964 he helped organize the Hugh O'Brian Acting Awards Competition at UCLA.

O'Brian had become a freelance actor by the time I had a telephone interview with him in 1963. The phone call and the reason for it were slightly out of sync:

Akron Beacon Journal, October 27, 1963
Someone asked me last week if the people we write about in TV Preview really call us, or if we simply make up the stories.

I assured her those people really do call, but then she asked, "Why would they call the Beacon Journal, for heaven's sake?"

Because they like to see their names in print, my dear.

The Beacon Journal is important to television performers. Every newspaper is. Performers frequently use the telephone to pass along stories to newspapers, even though those stories seldom have any apparent connection with their television shows.

That's because the people who arrange these interviews — the networks, the publicity representatives and sometimes the performers themselves — now concede that newspaper readers are intelligent enough to add one and one. It isn't necessary to hit people over the head with publicity, not if the timing is good.

So if Beacon Journal subscribers read a story about actor Nehemiah Persoff and a few days later notice Persoff is scheduled to sing and dance on "The Danny Kaye Show," those readers are likely to remember the story — well, could anyone forget Nehemiah Persoff? — and thus be curious to see the man perform.

This one-and-one-equals-two method is supposed to boost a show's rating. Such interviews are done on television talk shows, too, but with a bit less subtlety. That is, the interview is preceded by a clip from the show or the movie the performer is there to publicize. However, if the talk show host and the guest have an interesting history, the interview that follows often doesn't mention the performer's latest show or movie, but picks up where their most recent conversation left off.

OCCASIONALLY there is a glitch in the timing of the interview. Such was the case when ABC-TV arranged for Hugh O'Brian to call the Beacon Journal. (And since we don't yet have picture phones, I have to assume that the person on the other end of the telephone is the celebrity who was supposed to call. I mention this in hopes of preventing that curious reader from calling again to ask, "Are you sure you interviewed Hugh O'Brian?")

This interview was intended to be a reminder that O'Brian was the October 15 guest star on ABC's "Greatest Show on Earth," but wires got crossed and the phone call came after the program was shown. Which may have been truly unfortunate, from ABC's standpoint. The low-rated "Greatest Show on Earth" could use all the publicity can get.

O'Brian? Well, he may have stood to benefit, just a tidge. That's because his old series, "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp" (better known simply as "Wyatt Earp") is still presented regularly on Cleveland station KYW ever Sunday at noon.

We can also rationalize that O'Brian's guest spot on "Greatest Show on Earth" will be repeated next spring.

So we continued our conversation and ignored the strong possibility the ABC circus program would be canceled before rerun season.

ANYONE wondering if O'Brian is as popular now as he was during his Earp heyday might get an answer from "Greatest Show on Earth." Apparently those in charge of the program consider the actor as big as ever.

That's the only explanation for their willingness to shell out $10,000 for O'Brian's appearance. Usually the program pays a top price of $5,000 for guest stars.

"Sure, they could have gotten someone else for a lot less," he told me, "and there are other guys who can act as well. But I'm supposed to have a loyalty . . . a following that has built up over the years. The show figured I might help them get a better rating. Programs that use guest stars depend on them to bring in new viewers."

AT THIS POINT our conversation was momentarily interrupted when O'Brian received a call from Thomas Moore, president of ABC-TV. O'Brian told him to call back later.

"It's that time of year again," said O'Brian, his tone suggesting a bored "Ho-hum!"

"I get calls from the presidents of ABC, CBS and NBC every fall. They usually ask me to play golf, but that's only camouflage. The real reason is to offer me a TV series."

O'Brian swears he'll never do another series. He was Wyatt Earp for six years and he considers himself lucky to have escaped the show without being typed cast. He doesn't want to press his luck by doing another series.

"Besides, I invested my earnings wisely," he said. "Another series would give me a ridiculous amount of money. I don't need it." (I thought I heard another "Ho-hum!")

O'Brian says he also draws a steady income from five bowling alleys, a construction company, a Palm Springs hotel and a small film company. He also collects residuals on the "Earp" reruns and picks up thousands of dollars more each year from movie, television and summer stock appearances.

"And when I'm not performing, I spend my time in my Beverly Hills office where there are 15 million things I can do to occupy my time."

HARDLY ANYONE who knows him is surprised by O'Brian's success. His tremendous drive and ego have been legend in Hollywood ever since he was a contract player at Universal Studios earning $75 a week.

"God helps those who help themselves" was O'Brian's motto, and he practiced it by planting his own publicity items with newspapers. He also took extra pains to answer as much fan mail as he could.

Those pains paid off. He still has more than 5,000 members in his national fan club and says he receives about 6,000 letters a month from interested non-members.

O'BRIAN has been linked with more than his share of girl friends, but he remains a bachelor. He's 40 years old, give or take a couple of years. A reported once asked him how he was able to escape marriage in a town so full of good-looking girls.

"It boils down to the law of supply and demand," O'Brian answered. "There's a beautiful supply — and I'm in demand."

When our conversation — such as it was — came to an end, he told me he was going to return that call to the ABC-TV president.

"I know I'm going to refuse his offer," said O'Brian, "but I always like to listen to the way he makes it."

 
 

 

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