Steadfast. When I spoke to Hugh O’Brian that was the most descriptive word which leapt to mind to describe this fine gentleman. There is little doubt that part of his granite constitution has been borrowed (or chipped) from the memory of legendary marines like Lt-Gen Lewis “Chesty” Puller. After all, Hugh Krampe (aka Hugh O’Brian) came from proud military stock, his father serving, and surviving, as a Captain in the horse Marines in France during WWI. Is it any surprise then that Hugh would become the youngest drill instructor in Marine history? Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful) is a term this young Marine kept close to his heart; even now, these 60 plus years later.
When you recall that Hugh starred in one of the most successful TV series of all time playing the legendary Wyatt Earp, you will understand from Hugh’s military background and upbringing that this was the role he was born to play. He possessed not only the physicality, but more importantly he represented the kind of life that fit the public’s image of what the famous lawman would have been like. Hugh was not only a man’s man, but he could just as easily make any teenage girl swoon. Thus Hugh was a Studio Executive’s dream come true.
Chatting to Hugh now, I can feel that he is very much seventy-eight-years young, his sturdy resolve exudes through his voice giving him a remarkable presence; even on the other end of a phone, 10 000 miles away. However, beneath the teak exterior lurks a dry humour coupled with an acute awareness of what goes on in this too modern world. Knowing that I was speaking from Australia, Hugh rapidly recited dates and adventures he had enjoyed on his trips downunda which stretched back to 1960. Even as late as the mid-90s, he had been deep-sea diving off Cairns in the Great Barrier Reef.
One of the earliest stories about Hugh goes back to his marine days and his first boxing match in Boot Camp. John Wayne was visiting Hugh’s Unit and John was asked to referee a fight. Hugh was chosen and when he got into the ring he was promptly told by “the Duke” that there would be no rules, and that the two young me should box on until they dropped. The young Marine representing another squad was about 6’8” and weighed 300 pounds. The fight lasted about 13 minutes without any rounds. Finally the big marine collapsed from exhaustion and Hugh still has the little presentation copper bracelet to prove it.
Also during his stint in the Marines, Hugh appeared on Arlene Francis’ radio show which was like a “dating game” where fellows from the Marines, Army and Navy vied for a date with Virginia Mayo. Hugh's commander wasn't going to let him go, however he finally relented by telling him, "he'd better %^$# win".... and when the question was posed to him by Virginia Mayo as to why she should choose him, he responded that his commander had told him he'd BETTER win, or not come back! Fortunately, she did choose him which saved him from his commander’s wrath.
After his four-year stint in the Marines, Hugh had planned on attending Yale to undertake a law degree. However, some stage work came his way when he was working in LA to pay for his tuition and a career in law evaporated. He worked in a few plays in the late 40s but his big break came during a difficult time. It was a typical Californian Sunday, and Hugh had tossed his last few coins in the Church collection. After Church, Hugh went up to Mulholland Drive where Ida Lupino lived. Hugh’s agent, Milo Frank, who was married to Sally Forest at the time, had made arrangements for Hugh to audtion for a new film she was directing called Young Lovers (aka Never Fear). Ida made Hugh some lunch (which he told me stopped him from almost fainting with hunger) and invited him for a reading. Ida put him in another room to study the scene in the script for the audition. Hugh didn’t want to show off by telling her that he had already memorised the whole script. Ida came back 20 minutes and read the scene with Hugh. After the reading she put the script down and said “that was the best “cold” reading she had ever heard.” Hugh won the part of Len Randall and thus his first important movie role.
Hugh then made thirty films before he was cast in the starring role in the now famous TV series, Wyatt Earp. However, if this was his most important role as an actor then this period in Hugh’s life was also going to bring about the greatest turning point in his personal life. During a break in filming during 1958, Hugh spent nine days in Africa with the legendary Albert Schweitzer. Flying home on an old Gooney Bird, Hugh contemplated his life and career. Over forty-six year later and more than 350,000 Americans have experienced the HOBY (Hugh O’Brian Youth Foundation) which Hugh set up after that fateful trip. The idea was simple; take a group of bright young sophomores and expose them to some of the leading minds and talents that America had at its disposal and teach these young people “to think for themselves” and to help lead others.
While the goal appears simple, the execution takes considerable sacrifice and a huge effort to achieve. The logistics are similar to running a small army, except it doesn’t have the Federal Reserve pouring money in to cover the costs. Testimony to the hard work is that fact that Hugh still puts in 70 hour weeks and answers at least 27,000 letters per year from graduates of the programme. Is it successful? Given that the Foundation is still going strong after forty-six years, that its graduates work in the highest government offices of DC and boasts many top businesss executives worldwide; given that all 350,000 inductees graduated high school, and given that HOBY has now expanded to include every school in Israel plus Canada, Mexico and Hong Kong; then the word “success” may seem like an understatement. Even as we chatted Hugh made it clear that he would love to see the programme picked up in more countries so that they could benefit from HOBY Alumni. The honours that Hugh O’Brian has won from governments, schools, colleges and other national groups takes far too long to record here, but Hugh does possess at least six honorary doctorates as well as the coveted Freedom Through Knowledge Award sponsored by the National Space Club in association with NASA and a Lions Award.
And yet Hugh still managed to squeeze more than 85 various films and TV series under his belt, not to mention a three dozen guest roles on Television and thirty stage productions. However fine his acting career has been, Hugh would much rather chat about his beloved HOBY (and proudly so) than his film career, but I did manage to pin him down on a few questions. You can find a lot more valuable information and some great autographed photos of Hugh at his websites:
David: Do you recall when you signed your first autograph?
Hugh: I believe it was in 1948 when I was performing in my first play. I have always enjoyed signing for fans and have always believed that “the pen is one hell of a lot lighter than a shovel.”
David: Your lovely secretary, Rhonda told me that you thought your wildest request for an autograph was to sign a young woman’s bra. Howver, neither of us believe that you only ever signed one bra or that this was your craziest request!
Hugh: Well, I will certainly talk to Rhonda later, but as to your question I am happy to stay with the single bra.
David: Did you realise that autograph collecting was such a popular pastime?
Hugh: I have probably signed a million autographs over the years, but was quite astounded when I learned how many hundreds of thousands of autographs are sold on the internet every year or how popular it is right around the world. I was also deeply disappointed when Rhonda showed me the forged examples of my signature that you emailed us from the eBay site. I find it hard to believe that selling such obvious forgeries can be so profitable especially when many actors now have their own websites where you are sure to get the real thing.
David: Do you collect autographs yourself?
Hugh: I actually have a small, but good collection that I have thoroughly enjoyed collecting over the years. I have every presidential signature since Franklin Roosevelt and every one since John F. Kennedy has been in person. My collection also includes the one Albert Schweitzer signed for me when I was in Africa visiting him in 1958 and a few by Napoleon along with Lord Alfred Tennyson, Mozart and Schubert. Fans can go to my website where you will find some examples from my collection including shots of me with the late Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart as well as Charlton Heston among others.
You also asked me about which person from history, I would most like to have sign their photo for me. The answer is Jesus, but I am darned if I know what I would have him say in his dedication.
David: I talked about the two great aspects of your life in HOBY and your acting career, but what do you consider to have been the most important aspects of your life from a more personal standpoint?
Hugh: Without a doubt the most important element in my life was my parents, with whom I found the constant support and grounding necessary to set about achieving the goals I have set myself as I have gone along in life. My father always provided me with the strength and direction to move forward without fear and to always weigh my decisions and to always take responsibility for my actions. He taught me the value of working hard and making one’s own way in the world. One of the great things I did learn from him is that “luck is a thing that happens when preparation meets opportunity.” I owe any success I’ve had to that simple philosophy along with my own “giving is living.” The greatest gift you will ever receive is the gift of time and caring that you give to “others.” I am also thankful to have grown up in a strong democratic nation where opportunity is always available for those who put in the effort. During my life I’ve met Kings and Queens, Counts and my share of no-accounts. I have learned that it’s very important to lead an active life and to contribute where one can. HOBY has been in part a homage to both the people, and the beliefs, I hold dear and true.
David: Well thank you for sharing your valuable time with me Mr O’Brian, and may you enjoy many more years at the helm of HOBY. And, if any groups from outside the USA would like to learn more about this great project then Hugh will happily take your emails at his site and do whatever he can to assist you in spreading the word and actions HOBY offers to the young leaders of tomorrow.
© David Priol 2004