Pat O’Brien: Fighting Irish

Back in the day, Pat O’Brien (1899-1983) was considered an equal and a peer of Spencer Tracy and James Cagney; indeed he had been pals with both men since the early days of their careers. But by the 1950’s his career lagged behind theirs. People my age, seeing him in his later performances in movies like Some Like it Hot (1950), Burt Reynolds’ The End (1979) and Ragtime (1981), had no idea he’d ever been a star of the first rank, whereas older people would have recognized the nostalgic aims of his casting.

O’Brien was from Milwaukee, and was a childhood friend of Tracy’s. The pair had gone to school together, were in the Navy together, moved to New York together, were room-mates, and both attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Hollywood legend has it that it was O’Brien who, while serving in the Navy during World War One, encouraged bombing fellow sailor Jack Benny to put down his violin and start telling jokes. Like Tracy and Cagney, O’Brien came up by way of Broadway, appearing in a half dozen now-forgotten plays between 1926 and 1930. The Vitaphone short My Mistake (1930) was his first movie. O’Brien rapidly leapt to star status. His best known films included the original screen version of The Front Page (1931, as Hildy Johnson), Flying High (1931) with Bert Lahr, Frank Capra’s American Madness (1932), Bombshell (1933) with Jean Harlow, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) with the Dead End Kids, the title role in Knute Rockne, All American (1940) opposite Ronald Reagan (who became a lifelong friend) and The Boy with Green Hair (1948).

O’Brien, Tracy, Cagney and others like Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins often palled around trogether and were informally known as “the Irish Mafia”. Even more than the others, O’Brien was known for Irish roles, often cast as priests and the like, playing characters named Riley, Brogan, Kelly, McCarty, Brannigan, etc. Some of his best known parts were in movies like The Irish In Us (1935), the title character in The Great O’Malley (1937), Father Duffy in The Fighting 69th (1940), and the title character in Fighting Father Dunne (1948). The Irish political drama The Last Hurrah (1958), directed by John Ford, was one of the last of these (How much better would The Quiet Man have been with O’Brien in the role? I’ll tell ya — MUCH better!)

It may have been this close identification with Irish themes that harmed O’Brien’s career by the time the 1950s rolled around. It was still a major show business strain in show business during the first half of the 20th century, with close associations to vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, etc. But by the ’50s, the Irish community had ascended the mainstream and were assimilating, the ultimate manifestation of which was the election of John F. Kennedy as President in 1960. O’Brien worked constantly in shows business until the end, he was just no longer a movie star. During the ’50s he worked mostly on live TV dramas like Playhouse 90 and Studio 57. During the 1960-61 season, he starred in the sitcom Harrigan and Son.

And speaking of vaudeville, O’Brien also began working as an entertainer. He was a garrulous Irish storyteller and joketeller, a tradition as old as time immemorial. Such-like had been a major specialty on the vaudeville stage. O’Brien had done it for years in social settings. In the ’50s and ’60s he began getting booked to do it in nightclubs, and on TV variety and talk shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show under both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, The Joey Bishop Show, The David Frost Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, etc. In 1964 he published his autobiography The Wind at My Back.

Pat O’Brien continued to work until the end of his life. His last acting gigs were on TV sitcoms, on Happy Days and WKRP in Cincinatti in the early 1980s.

To learn more about vaudeville, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.