Interviewing actor Pat O'Brien was a unique pleasure for me because I felt I was meeting a relative. I had always thought there was a strong physical resemblance between O'Brien and my father and my uncle, Billy Major. When I grouped their photos recently (below) that resemblance was not quite as apparent as I remembered, but years ago if someone had introduced O'Brien to me as one of the long-lost Majors, I would have believed him.

O'Brien was among a fairly large group of actors who had enjoyed movie success in the 1930s and '40s, then began to fade in the '50s and turned to television in the '60s. Because the articles that resulted from my interviews were published in a television supplement, my questions concerned their work on the small screen, often giving short shrift to what would be recalled as their most famous roles. I was too young to fully appreciate what many of the older stars had done in their prime, but with O'Brien it didn't matter because whenever I saw him on the big screen or small, I thought of my father or my uncle.

In 1962 O'Brien was performing summer stock and spent a week at a theater in Canal Fulton, Ohio, a few miles south of Akron where I was working at the Beacon-Journal. His co-star was his wife, the former Eloise Taylor, who had been an actress before they were married in 1931. She continued to work from time to time and, as I recall, was quite good.

It also was in 1931 that O'Brien's film career began, and one of his early roles had him playing reporter Hildy Johnson in the first screen version of the zany comedy classic, "The Front Page," with Adolphe Menjou as the editor who schemes to prevent Johnson from leaving the newspaper to get married, at least until the reporter covers a scheduled execution.

There have been remakes and a few variations of the story, the best known being 1940's "His Girl Friday," with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, and 1974's "The Front Page" with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, directed by Billy Wilder. (In 1988 Kathleen Turner played a television reporter and Burt Reynolds her boss in "Switching Channels," but while the premise was borrowed from "The Front Page," the crisp and funny dialogue wasn't.)

O'Brien was good friends with actor James Cagney and some of their best work was done in the nine films they did together. O'Brien may be best remembered for playing the title role in "Knute Rockne, All-American." O'Brien also had a small, but memorable role as a police detective in another comedy classic, 1959's "Some Like It Hot."

Akron Beacon Journal, July 1, 1962


You can’t blame Pat O’Brien when he thinks of the television success he might have had.

“I did a pilot film for a series five years ago which was just like ‘My Three Sons,’ only I was a widower with four children,” he recalled. “But then one of our writers was investigated as a suspected Communist and no sponsor would touch the show. The only program we filmed was the pilot.”

O’Brien has filmed five series pilots, but only one – “Harrigan and Son” – ever got on the air. Some referred to it as the flip side of “The Defenders.”

“Our format was similar,” said O’Brien. “I played a successful lawyer who took his son into the practice, but our show leaned heavily on comedy ... perhaps too heavily.

“Anyway, I learned it’s hard to do a successful comedy in a half hour. It’s really hard to do anything in that short a time.”

The series folded during its first year, but O’Brien claimed there have been attempts to revive it.

“A sponsor became very interested last December in putting it back on the air,” said O’Brien, “but the network said no. The sponsor was so enthusiastic he gave me a $5,000 car for Christmas.”

O’Brien and his wife, Eloise, drove that car from their California home recently to Canal Fulton where they appeared in “Dear Ruth.” It was O’Brien’s second visit to the local summer theater.

He’ll be tied up for the rest of the summer at other theaters, but would like to be back on television this fall.

“I thought ‘Harrigan and Son’ was going to be a fine show when we started,” he said, “but then our writers began to get cute. I studied law at Marquette and I knew there were times during our show where we made too much of a farce of legal situations.

“The trouble is the public has some misconceptions about lawyers, and rather than present the truth, movie and television producers often go along with these misconceptions in an attempt to be entertaining.

“Look at Perry Mason. Does he ever lose a case? A lot of the things that happen in his courtroom could never happen at a real trial.”

However, the former law students enjoys “The Defenders.”

“It’s a real good show,” he said, “and like ‘Naked City’ it benefits from an authentic New York background.

“I was convinced two years ago that our show should move to New York for filming. After all, we were supposed to be New York lawyers. I tried to convince the producers to go there rather than use those phony background sets.”

O’Brien finally won the argument, but it was too late.

“We went to New York the day before one of the worst snowstorms in the city’s history. Everything was closed tight. Mayor [Robert] Wagner declared the city in a state of emergency, and only emergency vehicles were allowed on the streets.

“But we filmed anyway,” he said. “Those particular segments were supposed to take place in the spring, so we had guys shoveling snow just to show the bare sidewalks around some of the buildings.”

The actor figures the ‘Harrigan’ crew made a substantial contribution to Mayor Wagner’s “Dig Out” campaign.

“It was just one of the nutty things about this nutty business,” said O’Brien.

His next television venture has him narrating a series on the lives of sports personalities. One such program was completed last month and shown on several channels around the country on June 16.

“I really enjoy doing shows about sports. I think they’re real Americana. There’s nothing more peculiar to our country than our sports heritage.”

O’Brien, 63, was a natural choice for a sports series. He has been one of the country’s biggest sports fans since his football-playing days in the 1920s at Marquette University, which has since dropped the sport. O'Brien is a frequent spectator at baseball games in Los Angeles and New York.

And his most famous movie role was playing the title role of legendary Notre Dame football coach in “Knute Rockne, All-American” (1940). He also played another Hall of Fame college football coach, Frank Cavanaugh in “The Iron Major” (1943). His first movie role as a football coach was the fictional, fast-talking James Gore, who didn't always follow the rules in “College Coach” (1933).

O’Brien also has played priests many times, most memorably in "Angels With Dirty Faces" in 1937 with his close friend, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End Kids.

He said he has no plans to retire.

"I'd die without acting."


NOTE: O’Brien’s last acting role was on the TV series, “Happy Days,” in January, 1982, when he made his second appearance as Uncle Joe. In January, 1983, he and his wife, Eloise, celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary by performing "On Golden Pond" at a dinner theater in New Orleans. He died nine months later; she died in 1987.