The Prince of Noir
By Pam Munter
Edmond O'Brien was in so many dark-themed movies, one might think of him as the Prince of Noir. Though he occasionally appeared in a comedy and did a wild dance number in one film, he is remembered today primarily as a dramatic actor, often playing characters in psychological distress. People who are knowledgeable about film, television and theater consider him one of the few "actor's actors" in the supporting ranks. Not only was he an Oscar-winning actor, but he was a supportive and generous friend to other actors. He was a complex man, not well known by many, but he had the rare ability to convey the essence of his character with a single look.
BEGINNINGS AS A NOO YAWKAH
He was born Eamon Joseph O'Brien in the Bronx, New York, on September 10, 1915, the seventh and last child of Agnes and James O'Brien. When he was four years old, his father died, perhaps setting the tone for both the development of his work ethic and his desire to help others.
In one of those flukes in life, the family lived across the street from The Great Houdini. O'Brien pestered him to teach him magic tricks and at the age of nine, he began performing them in his basement, charging neighborhood kids a penny to get in. Billing himself as Neirbo The Great (O'Brien backwards), he had his first paying acting gig. When young Eddie asked Houdini for advice on becoming an actor, the formidable magician told him to work hard, warning him, "If you ever give a bad performance, Houdini will make you disappear forever."
O'Brien says that he was also inspired by his aunt, an English and speech teacher at the local high school, who often took him to shows. There were no actors in the family and no time to think about such frivolities, given the family's economic circumstances.
Work dominated his childhood: delivering papers, laundry, and the Social Register which "weighed a ton." He worked in a bookstore, and for Chock Full O' Nuts, always bringing the money home to his family. During high school, he was a runner for Chase National Bank, which reinforced his conviction that a 9 to 5 job was not for him.
Concurrently with these jobs, he was in plays, from grammar school through high school. He told one interviewer that by the time he left elementary school, he knew what he wanted to do.
He had been at Fordham University only six months when he auditioned for the new Neighborhood Playhouse, delivering the soliloquy from Hamlet. He won a spot in the prestigious school and was in the first class taught by legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner. It was a two-year program, meeting five days a week all day. Actress Betty Garrett was in the class behind him. "It was simply the best training in the world for a young actor, singer or dancer. What these teachers encouraged above all was getting your tools ready - your body, your voice, your speech."
But the intense and rarefied environment was not enough for him. When not in class at the Playhouse, he studied with the Columbia Laboratory Players group, which emphasized training in Shakespeare. Both his skills and his contacts helped him land his first role on Broadway in Daughters of Atreus, after playing summer stock in Yonkers. He played the second grave digger role in Hamlet, went on tour with Parnell, returned to Broadway with Star Wagon, then met Orson Welles.
A LIFE-CHANGING FRIENDSHIP
In typical Type A fashion, when he wasn't on stage, he was performing on the radio in programs like Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons, John's Other Wife, Valiant Lady, and innumerable others. He has said, "There were a handful of us who did all the radio in New York - Orson, Arlene Francis, Martin Gabel, Agnes Moorehead, Joe Cotten, Everett Sloane. Three of us could do each other's voices . . . Sometimes you'd be eating in a restaurant, in the basement of the CBS building, and they'd come down and grab you and say, 'Orson hasn't shown up,' and I'd go up, pick up a script cold and play his part on the air."
Welles had bigger things in mind. He founded his Mercury Theater rep company and asked O'Brien to play Marc Antony in a modern version of Julius Caesar. Though modernizing a Shakespearean classic was a risk, the cast had confidence in Welles. On opening night, however, audience reception was sufficiently mute that there was not a single curtain call. Welles made some pacing changes and the show became a hit, establishing the reputations of both Welles and O'Brien.
The next Mercury production was Henry IV, O'Brien playing Prince Hal opposite Maurice Evans' Falstaff. He got such good reviews that Evans graciously agreed to add his name to the marquee. O'Brien remembered it well. "I used to go the theater via the subway. I remember coming up the subway exit at 44th, and seeing the marquee of the St. James Theater, where we were playing and I saw my name - I couldn't believe it and I got so excited that I ran to the corner and phoned home to tell my family - and then went in and gave a very bad performance the second night of the play because I was too excited."
It was his appearance in this successful Broadway production that led RKO producer Pandro Berman to sign him for a role in his upcoming film The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1939, playing Gringoire. The film was also the Hollywood debut of Maureen O'Hara, both of them in support of the dominant presence of Charles Laughton.
Though billed fifth, he's scarcely mentioned in the reviews. Perhaps it was too soon after the Lon Chaney classic, but most critics found the new version inferior. Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times called it a "freak show and little more."
O'Brien was still more beguiled by Broadway than Hollywood. He jumped at the chance to play Mercutio in Laurence Olivier's Romeo and Juliet, then was cast in John Gielgud's Hamlet. By the time he was 25, he had appeared in three major Broadway productions and was widely respected as a Shakespearean actor. Though Hollywood didn't respect classical training then, his popularity with Broadway audiences got the attention of the Left Coast.
GOING WHERE THE MONEY IS
He returned to Hollywood in 1941 to play opposite Lucille Ball and George Murphy in A Guy, A Girl and A Gob, playing the "guy." O'Brien was paid a whopping $11,500 for his role, but Ball earned $1000 more. Titular producer Harold Lloyd was on the set only once, to show O'Brien how to pick up a handkerchief with comic flair.
By this time, the country was teetering on the edge of war and Hollywood was cranking out genre films. Parachute Battalion was a long promo for the Air Corps, starring Robert Preston and Nancy Kelly. Serving in the same company with Preston and newcomer Buddy Ebsen, O'Brien is in the opening shot, enlisting while drunk. He is dark and handsome with intense eyes. Apparently his co-star Nancy Kelly thought so, too. They were soon married, but following an abortive divorce action, the volatile union ended in less than a year. Apparently O'Brien didn't limit his drinking to the screen.
Obliging Young Lady had him competing with Eve Arden for a scoop, but it is probably better known by movie buffs as the film that infected the country with Heinie Manush. O'Brien's character told a young girl the passing train sounded to him like it was saying "Heinie Manush, Heinie Manush." The sound became a hypnotic mantra to the little community, not to mention theater audiences.
He was still slim and handsome in Powder Town, playing a clueless university chemistry professor who gets recruited to work for the government on a secret explosives project in a Los Alamos-type town. Intriguingly, the movie was made in 1942, three years before the Los Alamos project became public. Most didn't even know of the existence of the secretive community.
The war was on and he did only one more film before enlisting in the Army, The Amazing Mrs. Holliday starring Deanna Durbin. Though Durbin sang two songs in Chinese, the public didn't think it so amazing and stayed away in droves. O'Brien seemed to be leaving town with his usual good timing.
He was training to be a radio operator when Moss Hart co-opted him for a comic role in his Winged Victory. The credits read, "Sergeant Edmond O'Brien." Because he was writing and directing wartime propaganda, Hart was given nearly unlimited clout in casting. Joining O'Brien were Jeanne Crain, Lee J. Cobb, Red Buttons, Barry Nelson, Gary Merrill, Karl Malden and Kevin McCarthy. Smaller roles were cast with Moyna MacGill (mother of Angela Lansbury), George Reeves and Judy Holliday. After this film Holliday's contract was dropped by Twentieth Century-Fox because of her "limited potential."
The film had its desired effect, so Hart toured with a live stage version across the country for two years. Because all the stars couldn't make the trek, Hart hired a young and frightened young tenor named Mario Lanza. His friendship with O'Brien became another example of the veteran actor's generosity. According to Lanza's biographers, Raymond Strait and Terry Robinson, "Edmond O'Brien encouraged Lanza and they became close friends. During the run of Winged Victory on Broadway they often visited O'Brien's mother in Scarsdale. While Mama cooked, Lanza sang Irish songs to her."
POST WAR ANOMIE
When he returned from the war, society and the film business had both changed. He told Earl Wilson, "After the war, I came back out here and they had a lot of new guys I didn't know. Nobody knew quite how to use me or gave a damn I wasn't workin'. One day Ann Sheridan said, 'Why don't you drop around and see Mark Hellinger?' I put my feet up on his desk and somehow he got the idea I could play the quiet cop in The Killers. That did it. It was a great picture and I've been workin' since."
Though O'Brien was signed for the lead - the investigator looking into a murder - it turned out to be Burt Lancaster's breakthrough performance. By the time the film was in the can, Lancaster had top billing. Perhaps more importantly, it became a noir classic.
The Killers was the first pairing of O'Brien with Ava Gardner. Gardner has said, "One thing I especially liked about filming The Killers was that Burt and Eddie and the rest of us were in the early stages of our careers, fresh kids enjoying life." O'Brien told one writer, "The work was hard but it was exciting. (Director Robert) Siodmak and Hellinger gave us a feeling of being part of something important and a sense of what we could do with a scene that gave us extraordinary confidence." O'Brien and Lancaster did a tour of 20 cities in one week to promote the film to an already receptive public.
Based on a story by Ernest Hemingway, the film is seldom seen now outside film buff circles. The characters are well drawn, the cinematography ably capturing the noir mode - moody and dark both of setting and character. It received Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Film Editing, Score and Screenplay.
The next year he could be heard often on the radio and seen in two films, The Web, and a brief role in the Ronald Colman vehicle, A Double Life. The latter earned Colman an Oscar and introduced a young Shelley Winters. O'Brien briefly appeared as Colman's press agent, but it was always good to be in a widely acclaimed film.
By 1948, O'Brien was part of the Hollywood scene, often partying in one of the fabled Sunset Strip boites with other luminaries. He continued to work hard, a trait that had been ingrained from childhood. He told a studio press agent, "I think I function better as a human being when I'm busy professionally. I really like to work, enjoy working hard - but I also enjoy playing hard when I have the time."
More than six years had passed since he had been divorced by Nancy Kelly and he was ready to try again. In September, 1948, he married another performer, singer-actress Olga San Juan. One writer said he courted San Juan by quoting Shakespeare on long, romantic drives to Malibu. The marriage took place in Santa Barbara and might have been on impulse. The judge told the papers, "They just popped in on me. I didn't know who they were at first. They seemed excited and very happy."
It's likely no coincidence that his screen career escalated that year as well. Signed to a Warner Bros contract, he demonstrated his range: The dark, Southern tale of family greed, Another Part of the Forest, was written by Lillian Hellman, putting O'Brien in the post Civil War period. It would be the first of two films that year with one of his acting heroes, Fredric March. O'Brien claimed it was one of his favorite roles because "I had whole scenes to play . . . Too many pictures today just have lines without any thought of building up scenes that an actor can play."
The other, An Act of Murder, had many of same cast and crew members. He tried again with Deanna Durbin in For the Love of Mary, which proved as unremarkable as their previous collaboration. The fourth film that year was Fighter Squadron, with O'Brien in a starring role with a young Robert Stack. O'Brien ably plays an arrogant Air Force officer, but today the most interesting thing in the film is a small, unbilled part by Rock Hudson, then still Roy Fitzgerald.
Perhaps it was a combination of age and alcohol consumption. O'Brien was looking heavier these days. He had accepted the fact that he was more likely to be a supporting or character actor than the leading man type. He didn't mind. "The funny thing about Hollywood is that they are interested in having you do one thing and do it well and do it ever after. That's the sad thing about being a leading man - while the rewards may be great in fame and finances, it becomes monotonous for an actor. I think that's why some of the people who are continually playing themselves are not happy."
He did Task Force with Gary Cooper in 1949, but it was his movie that year with James Cagney that had the biggest impact on his work. Directed by Raoul Walsh, White Heat was a typical Cagney film, one of his notable gangster melodramas. O'Brien would confer with Cagney during rehearsal. "He said he had only one rule," O'Brien noted. "He would tap his heart and he would say, "Play it from here, kid." He always did and I believe it's the best rule for any performer. He could play a scene 90 ways and never repeat himself. He did this to keep himself fresh. I try to do this whenever possible."
O'Brien's weight continued to fluctuate, mostly in an upward direction. Parties and screenings were the main avenues for recreation. Broadway writer Arthur Laurents attended more than a few of them. "At large black-tie parties, the stars become more real because their endemic need for attention led them to get up and perform." He recalled one party for Moss Hart where O'Brien delivered the Shakespearean, "Oh, that this too, too solid flesh might melt!" Laurents cracked, "Not a wise selection for man fifty pounds overweight in a jacket he couldn't button."
His career was just beginning to take off, in spite of the ill-conceived Backfire. Director Vincent Sherman hadn't wanted to do it because the script was "confused and pointless." But Jack Warner called him into his office and said, "I know it's not a great story but I've got six actors sitting around doing nothing but picking up their checks." One was O'Brien.
He had much better luck with his next two films, which cemented his reputation in noir. Though he was subsequently nominated twice for the Oscar, it is for his role as the doomed protagonist in DOA for which he may be best remembered. In perhaps one of the most memorable opening scenes in film history, he walks into a police station to report a murder. "Who was murdered?" asks the sergeant. "I was," replies O'Brien. For the duration of the picture, he tracks down the murderer in flashback form; it is an unusual film in which the victim solves his own murder. Filmed on location in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the writers sought authenticity in every detail. The term "film noir" hadn't been coined yet, but here it is - the harsh contrasts and menacing shadows, augmented by Dimitri Tiomkin's haunting score. Beverly Garland makes her film debut here and an adolescent-looking Jerry Paris has a walk-on as a bellboy.
In a review in American Cinematographer magazine, George Turner wrote, "There is good acting throughout and one virtuoso performance where it counts most - that of Edmond O'Brien, who is on screen continuously . . . It's difficult to imagine another actor seeing it through so perfectly."
Back-to-back noir came with 711 Ocean Drive, with Joanne Dru, Otto Kruger and Don Porter. This time he plays an ambitious criminal who works his way up the organized crime ladder. Senator Kefauver's crime hearings were filling the newspapers in real life, so this movie seemed relevant and contemporary. The film ends in high noir style, with a dramatic location death - this one at Hoover Dam.
O'Brien had a change of pace in The Admiral Was a Lady with Wanda Hendrix and Rudy Vallee. In this thin comedy, O'Brien plays a benign con man who falls for Hendrix. Gordon Douglas directed him in his return to noir, Between Midnight and Dawn with Gale Storm. O'Brien likely did not find much satisfaction in these last two films, which offered little challenge for his substantial acting chops.
The year 1951 may be recalled more for his television and radio work and his personal headlines than for his film career. In 1950 and 1951, he appeared in more than a dozen major live television shows, among them Pulitzer Prize Playhouse, Lux Video Theatre and Schlitz Playhouse of Stars.
He had also accepted an offer by CBS to play the title role in the radio drama, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. O'Brien was the second of a long series of actors to play the role (Bob Bailey was arguably the most entertaining) and it was easy for him - just a quick look at the script each Sunday before taping and he was ready to go. He didn't care in which medium he performed; it was all acting to him. And it helped pay the bills for the new house he and Olga San Juan were building in Brentwood. By now, there were two daughters. The house became the prime location for Saturday night parties.
Daughter Maria fondly recalled those evenings. "Hollywood was really racing then. There was a tremendous social scene and my parents were part of it." She and her sister put on productions around the pool which were attended by Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster and Alan Ladd. "My father designed our house in Brentwood so that the living room was a stage. I have early memories of Vic Damone singing and Hoagy Carmichael playing the piano." Mel Torme was a regular. "Eddie was an inveterate party giver. Those were Eddie's two-fisted drinking days. Late in the party, Eddie, in his cups, would get up and deliver Shakespeare brilliantly. He was already having trouble with his eyes, and one could sense the problem worsening with time."
During one of the boozy parties, O'Brien told Torme he would talk to a producer for him because there was a role he should consider in a new Playhouse 90 production, The Comedian. Torme had not acted in years, but it was his friendship for O'Brien that caused him to reconsider. The gesture was still another example of O'Brien's generosity to another actor.
Olga San Juan was not ready to give up her career, either. She won a role on Broadway for Cheryl Crawford in Paint Your Wagon and spent much of the year away from home. Their relationship continued to be a mercurial one. Gossip columnist Dorothy Manners observed, "He's by turn madly jealous or madly adoring and isn't worth a plugged nickel away from her."
In September of that year, the Los Angeles Times reported an altercation between O'Brien and Serge Rubinstein at the Villa Nova Cafe. "Three or four blows were struck, with blood appearing on the actor's face." A few days later, the trades announced that he would direct A Few Flowers for Shiner, but it never happened.
The film career was second rate that year, with bombs like Warpath, Silver City, Two of a Kind and The Redhead and the Cowboy.
There were only three minor films in 1952, one an uncredited cameo in Cecil B. De Mille's The Greatest Show On Earth. The Hollywood Citizen-News announced that he was making his debut as a director in The Murder, but nothing came of it. He bowed out of the Johnny Dollar radio show, recorded an album of dramatic poetry and returned briefly to Broadway in I've Got Sixpence. He was approaching 40 and by most accounts, it was not his finest year.
Because of the dearth of personal information available, we may never know what was going on in his life. From this point until the end of his life, his success seemed to come in intermittent waves, instead of the nearly linear pattern beforehand. To what can this be attributed? The entertainment economic cycle? The upheaval caused by the arrival of television? Bad management? Or was it more personal, such as his own apparent struggle with alcohol?
The year 1953 is almost a microcosm. Of the six films he made, two were so inconsequential that it's difficult to find any information about them at all; one was a 3-D gimmick; one became a Shakespearean triumph. But the other two were classic noir and brought together O'Brien with Ida Lupino.
THE VERY EXTENDED FAMILY
At first glance, it would seem they would be on opposite sides of the universe. She was streetwise, with a show biz lineage going back generations. He was educated, classically so with Shakespeare. But they hit it off, both personally and professionally. Lupino, like O'Brien, made few enemies - even among her ex-husbands. In fact, those two films (The Bigamist and The Hitch-Hiker) would be produced by her ex, Collier Young. For The Bigamist, Young hired his current wife, Joan Fontaine. Both would be directed by Lupino, who became the first woman to direct herself in a film. Young defended the unorthodox arrangement. "We want to be grown up about it all. I don't know how people in Kansas feel about this . . . but after our divorce, Ida and I decided to stay in business because our company was a good thing. Since the divorce, the quality of our movies has actually improved."
Young pioneered the practice of product placement, in an effort to defray some of the costs of the independent productions. The two films were said to be Lupino's favorites. O'Brien joked that she was "the nicest smelling director I've ever worked with."
It was important to Lupino that she get along with her actors because at that time women directors were rare and she wanted everything to go smoothly. Though she was in an untraditional arena, she manipulated her actors in traditional ways. "My way of asking a man to do something on a set is not to boss him around. That isn't in me to do that. I say, 'I've got an idea and why don't you see if it feels comfortable because I think it would be effective."
The Hitch-Hiker was co-written by Young and Lupino and featured William Talman as the menacing title character. It was a masterfully suspenseful drama, with Talman toying with his two victims (Frank Lovejoy played O'Brien's friend). Lupino said that though she loved the film, she was disappointed because she had to shoot it on cheap film stock. Perhaps that helps account for the poor box office results.
The fulcrum for The Bigamist is O'Brien's indecisiveness between two women, his wife (Fontaine) and his lover, a waitress in a Chinese restaurant (Lupino). Edmund Gwenn and Jane Darwell fill out the excellent cast. In a moralistic era, this dilemma is treated non-judgmentally by director Lupino and writer Young. The sense of alienation among all the characters is palpable and way ahead of its time.
Variety called it "soap opera on celluloid," but conceded "O'Brien delivers strongly, shading his performance expertly and making the part entirely believable." The New York Times read, "Mr. O'Brien again displays one of the most authentically inconspicuous acting talents in Hollywood." Cue came to its own conclusion. "The film's moral seems to be "Don't order egg foo yung in strange chop suey joints."
A strange contrast is provided by Julius Caesar, with Marlon Brando in O'Brien's former role of Marc Antony. This time, O'Brien plays Casca in an all-star cast: James Mason, Louis Calhern and Greer Garson. The reviews were unanimous in their praise for this work, but it was so far out of the country's zeitgeist that box office receipts were not what they could have been in another time. Nonetheless, the film garnered five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It won only for Art Direction, even though many of the sets were left over from the earlier Quo Vadis. Spencer Tracy told O'Brien that his Casca was "the best thing in the picture."
O'Brien also returned to television in 1953, appearing in several prestigious dramas for which he received good notices. The year's success would be only a preface to a career peak a year later.
EARNING THAT OSCAR
All About Eve had been one of O'Brien's favorite movies. Directed and conceived by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film was an insider's view of backstage betrayal. Soon, Mank was writing another story, this one about an international dancer who would be brought to Hollywood and made into a star. As with "Eve," he would tell her story in flashback, from various points of view. He called it The Barefoot Contessa, with the title character played by Ava Gardner. Humphrey Bogart played opposite, with support by Warren Stevens, Rossano Brazzi and O'Brien.
Life on the set was tense. Mank wasn't personally fond of Bogart. Gardner had just left Frank Sinatra prior to filming and Bogart was Sinatra's closest friend. Gardner felt Mank didn't understand her emotional needs. Mank thought the critical failure of "Contessa" was because he had been unable to bring her out; others thought she was distracted by her affair with a local bullfighter. Her character was allegedly based on the real-life discovery of dancer Margarita Cansino, later renamed Rita Hayworth.
Bogart and O'Brien got along well; they had been long-time drinking buddies and had gotten each other out of numerous alcohol-fueled scrapes. There were frequent delays due to retakes, some because of Gardner's late hours; some caused by the terminally ill Bogart's coughing.
O'Brien played Oscar Muldoon, a sycophantic press agent, in a part written for him by Mankiewicz. Gardner thought the role had been patterned after Johnny Meyer, Howard Hughes' right hand man. Muldoon's job was to clean up after his boss, no matter the cost. His Muldoon, constantly mopping his sweaty brow, is alternately unctuous and apoplectic, but he looks better than he had in some of his earlier films. It was a part unlike any he had played and he seemed to enjoy it. He wasn't the only one. Praise proliferated for him, if not for the film itself.
Variety's critic wrote, "O'Brien clicks just right in the more flamboyant role of public relations man and service aide to producer Stevens." The Hollywood Citizen-news headlined, "Edmond O'Brien's Acting Highlights New Picture," calling it a "magnificent portrayal." The Hollywood Reporter echoed, "(O'Brien), as the press agent, is an image of nervous charm and thin loyalty to anyone buying his services. His excellent portrayal will commit itself to the viewer's memory."
Though the plot devices are similar to the earlier successful "Eve," "Contessa" lacks both wit and the charm. It simply dies of its own weight in words. The scenes are lengthy and sound like they should be read, not heard. The relationships, though, are sophisticated and well-drawn and Gardner never looked better on film. Bosley Crowther called it "brilliantly horrible . . . a group of characters so bitter and disagreeable that they put the teeth on edge."
Academy voters were able to separate out the best of the film and O'Brien was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Bogart was nominated that year, too, but for The Caine Mutiny. O'Brien faced a tough lineup, including two of his acting buddies, Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden, both for On The Waterfront. Rod Steiger was also nominated for that film, with Tom Tully bringing up the rear for The Caine Mutiny. So sure was he that he would not win that he didn't attend the ceremony. He was wrong. He had indeed been rewarded by his peers for his acting excellence, and perhaps for what was already a venerable body of work. At Ciro's, where he was spending the evening with fellow nominee Lee J. Cobb, the Irishman quipped, "It can't be March 30, it must be March 17."
All of a sudden, he was hot copy. Articles appeared with his byline (likely written by his press agent). Interviews were given inside his palatial Brentwood home, with the wife and kids sitting in the living room.
In spite of the filmic accolade, O'Brien kept returning to television. He seemed to find more possibilities there as an actor. Then there was the myth of the Oscar curse, especially for those lucky enough to win Best Supporting. O'Brien didn't want to fall under that spell, so he continued to spread his professional wings in whatever medium would have him.
As it was, his next film role was small and in a widely panned film, Pete Kelly's Blues. He had returned to his familiar gangster role, as a violent nightclub owner who demands a piece of Jack Webb's band receipts. He is in only five or six scenes, but Producer-Director-Star Webb seems to be in all of them. Webb had a passion for authenticity and for the music, but when the film rolled, it was still Joe Friday with a horn. Two small roles of interest were by Ella Fitzgerald in her prime (the only character to whom Webb granted close-ups) and a bit as a cigarette girl by a redheaded Jayne Mansfield.
O'Brien was asked by a studio flack if he missed the theater. "I miss the idea of playing a role continuously, right through and the privilege of rehearsing it thoroughly, but I am much more fascinated by the variety of roles I've been asked to do by the motion picture industry . . . It's like, well, it wouldn't be as interesting lunching with the same person every day for six months or a year."
For the next few years, he divided his time between television and films. Among his better films were Orwell's 1984 and The Girl Can't Help It. The latter demonstrates not only his versatility but his ability to surprise his audience. Though he played another gangster, he broke out in a funny and raucous rock and roll dance, which he claims to have choreographed himself. Between 1957 and 1960, he did two films a year. There was no longer any pretense of leading roles; many of the parts were small.
In The Last Voyage, he played the ship's engineer, trying to keep the boat afloat after the engine room has blown up. As with so many of his parts, he is frazzled throughout. The movie starred Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, both of whom were excellent in demanding roles. The shoot was another matter.
The producers had rented the soon-to-be-scrapped Ile de France and they were filming in Japan. The Japanese salvage company didn't want the American company to sink the ship for their own economic reasons. Director Andrew Stone tried to simulate the sinking by flooding the ship with fire hoses from an adjacent ship. It created such a rapid influx of water that the cast nearly drowned. Stack wrote in his autobiography, "Eddie O'Brien, according to scripted instructions, fought his way through the waves and stumbled over the sandbags to the main dining room. He had to battle his way through thousands of gallons of water and arc lights spitting sparks like Dr. Frankenstein's infernal machine." O'Brien, enraged, stormed off the set. Stack agreed with O'Brien. "It is understandable that he found the experience unusually terrifying. So much water had come into the superstructure that the ship began to list. Eddie couldn't see that well, and the ship really appeared to be going down."
His agent called Stone and told him conditions had to improve or his client wouldn't be back. When O'Brien returned to the set the next day, he agreed to proceed. At the end of the day, though, Stone handed him an airline ticket and told him he had been written out of the picture.
A TV REGULAR
He also had a disappointment with his first television series, Johnny Midnight. The producers refused to cast him unless he shed at least 50 pounds, so he went on a crash vegetarian diet and quit drinking. "I was a substantial Irish drinker," he told TV Guide. He said he could no longer watch himself on film but when he saw how much weight he was lugging around "I was shocked." The show, which didn't make it through the 1960 season, was a standard crime show, with O'Brien playing a New York private eye and an ex-actor. Apparently he had invested some of his own money in the project and seemed exhausted by its failure.
Plagued by illnesses through his life, he had his first heart attack in 1961, on location in the Arabian desert for Lawrence of Arabia and was replaced by Arthur Kennedy. He was able to appear in The Great Impostor, the Tony Curtis film about Fred Demara and in a few television dramas.
He also fulfilled a longstanding dream - to direct. In Man Trap, he got to produce, direct and star but the film didn't do well and quickly disappeared. One Hollywood writer, who observed him on the set, wrote, "He acts out all the parts . . . He yells, screams, laughs, rages, moans and exults, his face screwed into a thousand expressions."
As with so many of his valleys, there was a rapid upswing the following year. He collaborated with his older brother (screenwriter Liam) on several projects. His only son, Brendan, was born that year, and like his sister Maria, would subsequently become a part of the biz. Their father appeared in three of the biggest films of the year, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Birdman of Alcatraz and The Longest Day but he found his new television series, Sam Benedict far more satisfying. Filmed at MGM, it was based on the life of San Francisco lawyer Jake Ehrlich, who served as technical consultant. O'Brien, who had played roles on both sides of the law, had said in an earlier interview, "I seldom get very far away from crime. I've found it pays . . . I tried non-crime films like Another Part of the Forest . . . good picture, good cast, but no good at the box office . . . But you just put a gun in your hands and run through the streets during cops and robbers and you're all set."
The series ran a full year, but was killed off by low ratings. O'Brien was philosophical. "I've never made any kind of personality success as such . . . I don't think I know what my own personality is . . . I think an actor's career should go wherever fate sends it . . . People never say, 'That's an Eddie O'Brien part.' They say, 'That's a part Eddie O'Brien can play.'"
These abortive attempts to find a home in TV paradoxically only seemed to confirm his already strong reputation as one of the finest actors of his time. So when it came time to cast the controversial Seven Days in May, producer Kirk Douglas immediately thought of his old friend. "(O'Brien), always one of my favorites, played a southern senator with a taste for booze. Although under-rated, Edmond O'Brien was one of the best Shakespearean actors . . . A tremendously talented actor."
He was a central part of the action, seeking to uncover a plot to overthrow the government. Douglas said he sought the approval of John F. Kennedy before filming. The President, who had read the novel, was looking forward to seeing the result. The Rod Serling screenplay is taut and intelligent without being stilted. O'Brien worked once again with Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and Fredric March, who plays the President. March and O'Brien's scenes provide lessons for actors who don't often get to see two such dexterous thespians working together.
With all the heavyweight stars in the cast, O'Brien was scarcely mentioned in reviews. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther's review is typical: "(O'Brien) as a doughy senator . . . are among the several excellent performances in secondary roles."
Both March and O'Brien were nominated for a Golden Globe, along with director John Frankenheimer but only O'Brien won. He was nominated for another Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor category, too, and even went to the ceremony this time. Daily Variety reported he was nominated "on the nostalgia ticket," having blitzed the trade media with announcements about his celebrating his 25th year in films. The winner was Peter Ustinov for Topkapi.
He did another period picture, Rio Conchos with Richard Boone, Stuart Whitman and Tony Franciosa - a collection of television actors. O'Brien, himself, showed up often on the little screen, as guest star in various shows. He thought TV was harder work than movies. "On the series work varied between 40 and 60 setups a day. Here we do six or seven."
But he hadn't given up conquering TV. He was offered the part of Boss Varner, a big southern daddy in The Long, Hot Summer, which had been a hit film with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. His old pal Orson Welles had played Boss in the film.
The one-hour series debuted to tepid reviews in September, 1965 but O'Brien was gone the next month, due to "an artistic difference of opinion over the concept of the character." Apparently those conflicts arose right after the making of the pilot. His agent tried to smooth it over, but O'Brien refused to continue, after working in only 12 episodes. He was replaced by Dan O'Herlihy. The show was canceled after its first season.
Falling back on films, he made two low-budget pot boilers, the best of which was Synanon. It was a gritty, realistic portrayal of the controversial drug treatment center and was filmed at its headquarters on the beach in Santa Monica. He played its founder, Chuck Dederich, and subsequently became a supporter. After doing the film, he agreed to narrate a documentary and donate his fee back to Synanon.
His film career was winding down. Fantastic Voyage was his only movie in 1966, with two foreign flicks in 1967. In 1968, he guested on TV's It Takes A Thief with Robert Wagner and appeared in two films. The Wild Bunch may be best known as the film that temporarily restored William Holden to the throne, but it's an ensemble piece. O'Brien plays one of the gang, along with Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan and Warren Oates. "Bunch" is full of Sam Peckinpah violence, a realistic version of the old west that has been called "the Western to end all Westerns." A major contrast to all that bloodiness was The Love God? with Don Knotts. It's a comedy, of course, directed and written by TV sitcom writer Nat Hiken.
He had been signed to appear with Doris Day in The Glass Bottom Boat but dropped out because he had another heart attack. It was characterized by the press as "a slight pulmonary condition."
O'Brien seemed to have aged dramatically, looking much older than his 50-something years. He was still guest starring on episodic television, but made only one small, indie film over the next two years.
In 1972, he had a small role in They Only Kill Their Masters with James Garner. Orson Welles had cast him in a similarly minor role in his The Other Side of the Wind, which remained unfinished for decades. A few years ago, Peter Bogdanovich (who was an actor in the film) was trying to complete and release the film but the rights were split up between three competing parties. He did complete and edit the film but distribution is now being held up by the Iranian government, which owns the rights.
In 1974, the trade papers reported O'Brien had to pull out of a guest role in a Movie of the Week, The Court-Martial of Lt. William Calley due to "a recurrence of an old leg injury."
For the first time in his long career, he was having trouble finding work and working. He was not in good health and was struggling to remember his lines. The physical difficulties were likely exacerbated by his emotional stress. The O'Briens were not getting along.
He made one more film, 99 and 44/100% Dead, a low-budget gobbler. Now on DVD, most critics originally hated the film but today there are a few fans. One of the latter calls it "mind-bending psychedelic neo-noir" and "pop art gangster satire." TV Guide describes it as "a perplexing mix of styles (that) clash and sputter." Variety is more vehement. "(It) starts like a house on fire, with directorial style to burn, but self-incinerates within the first half hour . . . a sophomoric and repulsive screenplay." O'Brien's role is described as "an elderly mobster" who hires hitman Richard Harris to eliminate his rival. Characterizing O'Brien as elderly at 59 inadvertently revealed the ravages of his illnesses.
Early in 1976, the O'Briens ended their 28-year marriage, much to the surprise of their friends. O'Brien refused to leave his beloved Brentwood house so San Juan moved in with her sister. It was ultimately sold, in a sad ending to what passed in Hollywood for a solid marriage.
By this time, the Alzheimer's disease which ultimately claimed him was becoming much more apparent. Little is known about his life during these years. Then, the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills did not accept patients with any kind of mental disease, so O'Brien lived out his final years in a rest home in Santa Monica. He died on May 9, 1985 at 69 and is buried in Culver City, CA. His gravestone reads, "Edmond Joseph O'Brien, US Army, 1915-1985."
He hated to talk about himself and often joked that he lacked sufficient ego to be an actor. And yet his friends saw him differently. Marty Rackin, who headed up production at Paramount, called him "A flamboyant human being. A talker-upper. A professional cheerleader . . . a man of great extremes, of great highs . . . He's larger than life. If he needs a hotel room, he takes a suite. If he wants champagne, he orders three cases . . . He's a human claw machine, always grabbing the check."
Jake Ehrlich, who worked with him on Sam Benedict, said, "This man is just great, that's all. He is a cultured, educated man . . . You can talk with him on any subject - the philosophy of Spinoza, the Common Market . . . he is a well-read, cultured, well-informed gentleman but he will talk baseball too, and take a drink with you. He is not the easiest man in the world to know. Most men worth knowing aren't."
Years earlier, O'Brien was asked by a studio publicist what he thought about character actors. He replied, "Frankly, I still don't think they are the actors who sell the pictures." He may not have been a headliner, but audiences knew they would inevitably get a spellbinding and textured performance from the Prince of Noir. Nobody ever did it better.
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Author's Note: Thanks to the altruistic staff at the Margaret Herrick Library at the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences for providing these invaluable resources; and to Claire at Eddie Brandt's Saturday matinee, who sent photos almost before I needed them.