The Vanishing Edmond O’Brien

Two things have happened recently to thrust Edmond O’Brien (1915-1985) to the front of our consciousness. First, he is referred to frequently in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Di Caprio’s character repeatedly mentions how “Eddie” O’Brien had advised him to purchase, rather than rent, a home in Hollywood. And secondly, he has a role in Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, just released a few months ago.

O’Brien was both a character actor and an occasional lead, and so solid in his work in such a high volume of fine films, with such a diversity of roles, that it is very well to take stock and celebrate it. For as an unconventional lead he is both unsung and ahead of his time, paving the way for later actors like Karl Malden or Gene Hackman, who likewise disappeared into their roles.

An NYC native, the son of Irish immigrants, part of O’Brien’s legend is that he started out performing magic in his neighborhood as “Neirbo the Great” with encouragement and tutelage from Harry Houdini, who lived nearby. He studied Shakespeare with the Columbia Laboratory Players, and also trained at the Neighborhood Playhouse under teachers like Sanford Meisner. This accounts for O’Brien’s peculiar transitional utility, at home at once in classics or in radical naturalism. He acted briefly with stock companies, and was only 21 when he was cast in Daughters of Atreus on Broadway with Cornel Wilde and Maria Ouspenskaya. Then came small supporting roles in Hamlet with John Gielgud, Judith Anderson, and Lillian Gish (1936), followed by Maxwell Anderson’s The Star Wagon with Gish and Burgess Meredith, then Orson Welles’ famous version of Julius Caesar (1937 — he replaced George Coulouris as Marc Antony), and then the role of Prince Henry in Henry IV, Part One, with Maurice Evans as Falstaff.

Considered handsome, sort of, for a minute. O’Brien in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

This is a pretty charmed early Broadway career, and it then got him cast in what proved to be an unusual role for him: Gringoire, the romantic lead in the 1939 film version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara (also her first Hollywood film), Thomas MItchell, Cedric Hardwicke, and Walter Hampden. O’Brien was not yet ready to leave the stage however. He returned to Broadway for Leave Her to Heaven (1940) with Ruth Chatterton, and Romeo and Juliet (1940) with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh (O’Brien was Mercutio).

Then, from the sublime to the ridiculous: he returned to Hollywood to appear in the Harold Lloyd-produced comedy A Guy, A Girl and a Gob, with George Murphy and Lucille Ball. Well over 100 additional screen credits would follow. He was in both the stage and screen versions of Moss Hart’s Winged Victory (1943 and 1944). He’s in Burt Lancaster’s first movie The Killers (1946), with William Conrad, Ava Gardner, and Sam Levene. 1949 was an incredible year: he was in James Cagney’s last gangster picture White Heat, then narrated Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn, then starred in the tour de force noir classic D.O.A. In 1953 he was in Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-hiker and The Bigamist, and John Houseman’s Julius Caesar. The following year, The Barefoot Contessa with Gardner and Humphrey Bogart. In 1955, he’s in the Jack Webb jazz joint Pete Kelly’s Blues. In 1956, Frank Tashlin’s rock and roll flick The Girl Can’t Help It with Jayne Mansfield, and a British-made adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. Later stuff included The Last Voyage (1960), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Longest Day (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), Fantastic Voyage (1966), The Wild Bunch (1969), Don Knotts’ The Love God (1969), and 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974).

Heart attacks forced O’Brien to drop out of two other classic films: Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Glass Bottom Boat (1966). He announced plans to direct, but only helmed one picture on his own, The Man-Trap (1961) with Jeffrey Hunter, David Janssen, and Stella Stevens.

In addition to his movie work O’Brien also worked a lot in radio, including his own series Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (1950-52). He also had his own tv series Johnny Midnight in 1960, and was a regular on The Long Hot Summer (1965), in addition to guest shots on dozens of shows ranging from Schlitz Playhouse and Playhouse 90 in the ’50s, to The Streets of San Francisco, McMillan and Wife, and Police Story in the ’70s.

O’Brien in “The Wild Bunch”

O’Brien’s first marriage, to actress Nancy Kelly lasted only a year (1941-42). In 1948 he married Olga San Juan (billed in Hollywood as the Puerto Rican Pepperpot) and that one lasted almost three decades. O’Brien’s early retirement in 1974 and divorce in 1976 may have been related to his encroaching Alzheimer’s disease, which entirely ravaged his personality by the end of the decade. His last years were spent in a sanitarium. He reportedly had suffered memory problems as early as the 1950s, although whether those were due to early onset Alzheimer’s symptoms or rumored alcohol abuse is anybody’s guess. It is interesting if sad to look at some of his last roles, as crazy old eccentrics, in this light. O’Brien specialized in such parts for decades — but at this stage, how much of it was acting? Was it compensating? And where does acting stop, and compensating begin?