Edmond O'Brien

Edmond O'Brien

in D.O.A. (1950)
Born Eamon Joseph O'Brien
(1915-09-10)September 10, 1915
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died May 9, 1985(1985-05-09) (aged 69)
Inglewood, California, U.S.
Cause of death Alzheimer's disease
Resting place Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California
Nationality American
Occupation Actor
Years active 1936–74
Spouse(s) Nancy Kelly (1941–42) (divorced)
Olga San Juan (1948–76) (divorced) three children
Children Bridget O'Brien
Maria O'Brien
Brendan O'Brien

Edmond O'Brien (September 10, 1915 – May 9, 1985) was an American actor who appeared in more than 100 films from the 1940s to the 1970s, often playing character parts. He received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and the corresponding Golden Globe for his supporting role in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), as well as a second Golden Globe and another Academy Award nomination for Seven Days in May (1964). His other notable films include The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), The Killers (1946), White Heat (1949), D.O.A. (1950), Julius Caesar (1953), 1984 (1956), The Girl Can't Help It (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961) and The Wild Bunch (1969).

Early years

O'Brien was born Eamon Joseph O'Brien[1] in Brooklyn, New York,[2] of English and Irish stock, the seventh and last child of Agnes and James O'Brien. When he was four years old, O'Brien's father died.

He put on magic shows for children in his neighbourhood with coaching from a neighbour, Harry Houdini. He performed under the title, "Neirbo the Great" ("neirbo" being "O'Brien" spelled backwards). An aunt who taught high school English and speech took him to the theatre from an early age and he developed an interest in acting.[2][3] O'Brien began acting in plays at school.

After attending Fordham University[4] for six months, he went to Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre on a scholarship.[2] He studied for two years under such teachers as Sanford Meisner; his classmates included Betty Garrett.

"It was simply the best training in the world for a young actor, singer or dancer," said O'Brien. "What these teachers encouraged above all was getting your tools ready – your body, your voice, your speech."[5]

In addition the studying at the Playhouse, O'Brien took classes with the Columbia Laboratory Players group, which emphasized training in Shakespeare.[5]

Theatre Debut

O'Brien began working in summer stock in Yonkers. He made his first Broadway appearance at age 21 in Daughters of Atreus.[6]

He played a grave digger in Hamlet, went on tour with Parnell, then appeared in Maxwell Anderson's The Star Wagon, starring Lillian Gish and Burgess Meredith.

He began working regularly in radio which put him in contact with Orson Welles. O'Brien recalled:

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.[5]

Welles cast O'Brien to replace George Coulouris late in the run of production of Julius Caesar.

He was in Maurice Evans's production of King Henry IV, Part I as Prince Hal, with Evans as Falstaff. The response was so enthusiastic that Evans added O'Brien's name to the marquee. O'Brien:

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.[5]

Film Actor

O'Brien's theatre work attracted the attention of Pandro Berman at RKO, who offered him a role as the romantic lead in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

He returned to Broadway to play Mercutio opposite Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in Romeo and Juliet.

RKO offered O'Brien a long term contract. His roles included A Girl, a Guy, and a Gob (1941) and Parachute Battalion (1941). The latter starred Nancy Kelly who O'Brien would later marry, although the union lasted less than a year.

O'Brien made Obliging Young Lady with Eve Arden, and Powder Town. He was loaned to Universal to appear opposite Deanna Durbin in The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943), after which he joined the armed services.

World War Two

During World War II, O'Brien served in the U.S. Army Air Forces and appeared in the Air Forces' Broadway play Winged Victory by Moss Hart. He appeared alongside Red Buttons, Karl Malden, Kevin McCarthy, Gary Merrill, Barry Nelson and Martin Ritt. When the play was filmed in 1944, O'Brien reprised his stage performance, co-starring with Judy Holliday. He toured in the production for two years, appearing alongside a young Mario Lanza.[3][5]

Post-War Stardom

O'Brien returned to Hollywood following his military service. He later recalled:

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.[5]

The Killers was a hit and made stars of Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. He then appeared in The Web and played Ronald Colman's press agent in A Double Life (1947).

"I think I function better as a human being when I'm busy professionally," said O'Brien. "I really like to work, enjoy working hard – but I also enjoy playing hard when I have the time."[5]

Warner Bros

In 1948, O'Brien signed a long term contract with Warner Bros, who cast him in the screen version of Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest. This starred Fredric March who also appeared with O'Brien in An Act of Murder (1948).

He was then cast as the undercover cop in White Heat (1949) opposite James Cagney.

"He [Cagney] 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."[5]

In 1949, 3,147 members of the Young Women's League of America, a national charitable organisation of spinsters, voted that O'Brien had more "male magnetism" than any other man in America today. "All women adore ruggedness," said organisation president Shirley Connolly. "Edmund O'Brien's magnetic appearance and personality most fully stir women's imaginative impulses. We're all agreed that he has more male magnetism than any of the 60,000,000 men in the United States today. (Runners up were Ezio Pinza, William O'Dwyer and Doak Walker.)[7]

Following an appearance in Backfire (1950) his contract with Warner Bros terminated.

Freelance Star

O'Brien then made one of his most famous movies, D.O.A._(1950_film), where he plays a man investigating his own murder. He followed this with 711 Ocean Drive (1950). However his career then hit a slump. According to TCM, "In the early '50s, O'Brien started struggling with his weight, which could change significantly between films. He had no problems if that relegated him to character roles, but for a few years, it was hard to come by anything really first rate."[3]

"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," said O'Brien. "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."[5]

He did make some notable movies including two for Ida Lupino, The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist. He also played Casca in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's film of Julius Caesar (1953).

O'Brien worked heavily in television on such shows as Pulitzer Prize Playhouse, Lux Video Theatre and Schlitz Playhouse of Stars. He announced plans to direct his own films.[8]

In 1951 he was in a well publicised brawl with Serge Rubinstein at a cafe.[9]

From 1950 to 1952, O'Brien starred in the radio drama Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, playing a private detective.[10] His other work in radio included Philip Morris Playhouse on Broadway.[11]

Oscar Winner

Mankiewicz cast O'Brien in as press agent Oscar Muldoon in The Barefoot Contessa, allegedly modeled on Johnny Meyer.[3] O'Brien was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and won, beating three nominees from On the Waterfront, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger.[12]

O'Brien followed this with a number of important roles, including Pete Kelly's Blues, 1984, A Cry in the Night (1956), and The Girl Can't Help It. In the words of TCM, "By this point, O'Brien had lost the battle of the bulge, which meant he was now pretty much confined to character roles, albeit often very good ones."[3]

He also suffered vision and memory problems since the early 1950s. "He usually had an assistant read him his lines and stage directions before going out to shoot a scene just so he could keep it all in his head," according to TCM.[3]

TV Star

O'Brien appeared extensively in television, including the 1957 live 90-minute broadcast on Playhouse 90 of The Comedian, a drama written by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer in which Mickey Rooney portrayed a television comedian while O'Brien played a writer driven to the brink of insanity.

In 1958 he directed and starred in a TV drama written by his brother, "The Town That Slept With the Lights On", about two Lancaster murders that so frightened the community that residents began sleeping with their lights on.

From 1959–60 O'Brien portrayed the title role in the syndicated crime drama Johnny Midnight, the story of a New York City actor-turned-private detective. The producers refused to cast him unless he shed at least 50 pounds, so he went on a crash vegetarian diet and quit drinking.[5]

"I seldom get very far away from crime," he recalled. 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."[5]

O'Brien also had his own production company, O'Brien-Frazen.[13]

O'Brien had roles on many television series, including an appearance on Target: The Corruptors!, The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point and Mission: Impossible.

O'Brien walked off the set of The Last Voyage in protest at safety issues during the shoot. He later came back and found out he had been written out of the film. He was cast as a reporter in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) but had a heart attack during filming and was replaced by Arthur Kennedy.

O'Brien recovered to direct his first feature Man Trap (1961).

He continued to receive good roles: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).

In the mid-'60s O'Brien co-starred with Roger Mobley and Harvey Korman in the "Gallegher" episodes of NBC's Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. From 1963–65 he co-starred in the NBC legal drama Sam Benedict.

O'Brien had a choice role in Seven Days in May (1964) which saw him receive a second Oscar nomination.

"I've never made any kind of personality success," he admitted in a 1963 interview. "People never say 'that's an Eddie O'Brien part.' They say, 'That's a part Eddie O'Brien can play.' "[14]

""I'd like to be able to say something important," he added. "To say something to people about their relationship with each other. If it touches just one guy, helps illustrate some points of view about living, then you've accomplished something."[14]

He had a role in another TV series, The Long Hot Summer but left after 12 episodes due to creative differences. He was replaced by Dan O'Herlihy.[5]

Later career

O'Brien worked steadily throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. However his memory problems were beginning to take their toll. A heart attack meant he had to drop out of The Glass Bottom Boat.

"It would be awfully hard to do a series again," he said in a 1971 interview. "I wouldn't go for an hour show again. They don't have much of a chance against the movies."[15]

In 1971 he was hospitalised with a "slight pulmonary condition."[16]

His last film would be 99 and 44/100% Dead.


In 1957 O'Brien recorded a spoken-word album of The Red Badge of Courage (Caedmon TC 1040). Billboard said, "Edmond O'Brien brings intensity in the narrative portions and successfully impersonates the varied characters in dialog."[17]

Personal life

O'Brien was divorced from actresses Nancy Kelly 1941–1942[18] and Olga San Juan. San Juan was the mother of his three children, including television producer Bridget O'Brien and actors Maria O'Brien and Brendan O'Brien.

He and his wife Olga were noted partygivers in Hollywood in the 1950s. Their daughter Maria recalled:

Hollywood was really racing then. There was a tremendous social scene and my parents were part of it... 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... 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.[5]

His marriage to Olga ended in 1976.

Final Years and Death

O'Brien fell ill with Alzheimer's Disease. In a 1983 interview, his daughter Maria remembers seeing her father in a straightjacket at a Veteran's Hospital.

"He was screaming. He was violent. I remember noticing how thin he'd gotten. We didn't know, because for years he'd been sleeping with all his clothes on. We saw him a little later and he was walking around like all the other lost souls there."[14]

He died May 9, 1985, at St. Erne's Sanitorium[2] in Inglewood, California, of Alzheimer's disease.[19] He was survived by his wife and three children.[2][14]


According to his profile at Turner Classic Movies:

Nobody sweat quite like Edmond O'Brien. Although he was perfectly fine in comedies and even could sing and dance on occasion, he is best remembered for the intense characters he played in heavy dramas and particularly film noir... He lived just as large off-screen, where he was noted for his generosity, ability to converse intelligently on almost any topic and heavy drinking. One of the best respected actors in Hollywood, he defined the term character actor, bringing emotional depth even to his early leading-man roles.[3]

Pam Munter at Classic Images wrote:

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.[5]

Martin Rackin described O'Brien as:

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.[5]

Walk of Fame

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Edmond O'Brien has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1725 Vine Street, and a second star at 6523 Hollywood Blvd. for his contribution to the television industry. Both were dedicated on February 8, 1960.[20]


Year Project Role Notes
1939 The Hunchback of Notre Dame Gringoire
1941 A Girl, a Guy, and a Gob Stephen Herrick
Parachute Battalion William 'Bill' Mayberry Burke
1942 Obliging Young Lady 'Red' Reddy, aka Professor Stanley
Powder Town J. Quincy 'Penji' Pennant
1943 The Amazing Mrs. Holliday Tom Holliday
1944 Winged Victory Irving Miller credited as Sgt. Edmond O'Brien
1946 The Killers Jim Riordan
1947 The Web Bob Regan
A Double Life Bill Friend
1948 Another Part of the Forest Benjamin 'Ben' Hubbard
For the Love of Mary Lt. Tom Farrington
An Act of Murder David Douglas
Fighter Squadron Major Ed Hardin
1949 Task Force Radio Announcing Pearl Harbor Attack (voice, uncredited)
White Heat Hank Fallon
Vic Pardo
1950 Backfire Steve Connelly
D.O.A. Frank Bigelow
711 Ocean Drive Mal Granger
The Admiral Was a Lady Jimmy Stevens
Between Midnight and Dawn Officer Dan Purvis
1951 The Redhead and the Cowboy Maj. Dunn Jeffers
Pulitzer Prize Playhouse Ben Jordan episode: Icebound
Two of a Kind Michael 'Lefty' Farrell
Warpath John Vickers
Silver City Larkin Moffatt
1952 The Greatest Show on Earth Midway Barker at End (uncredited)
Denver and Rio Grande Jim Vesser
The Turning Point John Conroy
1953 The Hitch-Hiker Roy Collins
Man in the Dark Steve Rawley
Cow Country Ben Anthony
Julius Caesar Casca
China Venture Capt. Matt Reardon
The Bigamist Harry Graham
Harrison Graham
1954 The Shanghai Story Dr. Dan Maynard
Shield for Murder Detective Lt. Barney Nolan
The Barefoot Contessa Oscar Muldoon Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor (3rd place, tied with Humphrey Bogart for The Caine Mutiny)
The Ford Television Theatre Captain Joyce episode: Charlie C Company
1955 Stage 7 Clinton Sturgess episode: Debt in Honor
The Red Skelton Show Grizzled Old Prospector episode: Episode #4.23
Damon Runyon Theater Duke Martin episode: Old Em's Kentucky Home
Pete Kelly's Blues Fran McCarg
Playwrights '56 Sidney episode: The Heart's a Forgotten Hotel
The Star and the Story Ray Ericson episode: Dark Stranger
1956 1984 Winston Smith of the Outer Party
Screen Directors Playhouse Thaddeus Kubaczik episode: A Ticket for Thaddeus
D-Day the Sixth of June Lt. Col. Alexander Timmer
A Cry in the Night Capt. Dan Taggart
The Rack Lt. Col. Frank Wasnick
The Girl Can't Help It Marty 'Fats' Murdock
1954–1956 Climax! Leo Waldek
Joel Flint
episode: Figures in Clay
episode: An Error in Chemistry
1957 The Big Land Joe Jagger
Stopover Tokyo George Underwood
1958 The World Was His Jury David Carson
Sing, Boy, Sing Joseph Sharkey
Suspicion (TV series) Sgt. Miles Odeen episode: Death Watch
Lux Playhouse Big Jim Webber episode: Coney Island Winter
1953–1958 Schlitz Playhouse of the Stars Jim Reardon
Rick Saunders
Captain Simpson
episode: The Town That Slept with the Lights On
episode: The Net Draws Tight
episode: The Long Shot
1957–1959 Playhouse 90 Roy Brenner
Joe Ferguson
Al Preston
episode: The Blue Men
episode: The Male Animal
episode: The Comedian
Zane Grey Theatre Marshal Ben Clark
Russ Andrews
episode: Lonesome Road
episode: A Gun Is for Killing
1959 Up Periscope Commander Paul Stevenson
The Restless and the Damned Mike Buchanan (L'Ambitieuse)
Laramie (TV series) Captain Sam Prado episode: The Iron Captain
1960 Johnny Midnight (TV series) Johnny Midnight (39 episodes)
The Last Voyage Second Engineer Walsh
The 3rd Voice The Voice (uncredited)
1961 The Great Impostor Capt. Glover – HMCS Cayuga
Man-Trap Voice of Photographer (uncredited)
The Dick Powell Show Sid Williams episode: Killer in the House
Target: The Corruptors! Ollie Crown episode: The Invisible Government
1962 Moon Pilot McClosky ('Mac')
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Dutton Peabody Western Heritage Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture
Birdman of Alcatraz Tom Gaddis
The Longest Day Gen. Raymond D. Barton
1962–1963 Sam Benedict Sam Benedict (28 episodes)
1964 Seven Days in May Sen. Raymond Clark Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture
Nominated-Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
The Greatest Show on Earth (TV series) Mike O'Kelley episode: Clancy
Breaking Point Roger Conning episode: The Tides of Darkness
The Eleventh Hour (U.S. TV series) Buck Denholt episode: The Color of Sunset
Rio Conchos Col. Theron Pardee
The Hanged Man Arnie Seeger
1965 Sylvia Oscar Stewart
Synanon Chuck Dederich
Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color Jefferson Crowley (6 episodes)
The Long, Hot Summer (TV series) Will 'Boss' Varner (13 episodes)
1966 Fantastic Voyage General Carter
The Doomsday Flight The Man (TV movie)
1967 The Viscount Ricco Barone
To Commit a Murder Sphax (publisher)
The Virginian Thomas Manstead episode: Ah Sing vs. Wyoming
The Outsider Marvin Bishop (TV movie)
1968 Flesh and Blood Harry (TV movie)
Mission: Impossible Raymond Halder episode: The Counterfeiter
1969 It Takes a Thief Rocky McCauley episode: Rock-Bye, Bye, Baby
The Wild Bunch Freddie Sykes
The Love God? Osborn Tremaine
The Bold Ones: The Protectors Warden Millbank episode: If I Should Wake Before I Die
1970 Insight Houseworthy – Tycoon episode: The 7 Minute Life of James Houseworthy
The Intruders Col. William Bodeen (TV movie)
The Young Lawyers MacGillicuddy episode: MacGillicuddy Always Was a Pain in the Neck
Dream No Evil Timothy MacDonald
1971 The Name of the Game Bergman episode: LA 2017
The High Chaparral Morgan MacQuarie episode: The Hostage
River of Mystery R.J. Twitchell
What's a Nice Girl Like You...? Morton Stillman
1972 Cade's County Clint Pritchard episode: The Brothers
Jigsaw Det. Ed Burtelson (TV movie)
The Streets of San Francisco Officer Gustav 'Gus' Charnovski, SFPD episode: The Thirty-Year Pin
McMillan & Wife Mr. Fontaine episode: Cop of the Year
They Only Kill Their Masters George
The Other Side of the Wind Pat
1973 The New Temperatures Rising Show Dr. Banning episode: Super Doc
Isn't It Shocking? Justin Oates (TV movie)
Lucky Luciano Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger (credited as Edmund O'Brien)
1974 Police Story Chief Frank Modeer episode: Chain of Command
99 and 44/100% Dead Uncle Frank Kelly



  1. Fisher, Scott M. (June 2016). "Edmond O'Brien: "I Should Have Liked to Create Lastingly"". Classic Images (492): 68–77.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 "Edmond O'Brien, Actor, Dies at 69". The New York Times. May 10, 1985. Retrieved 5 July 2015.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Overview for Edmond O'Brien at TCMDB
  4. "Oscar-winning actor Edmond O'Brien dies". Santa Cruz Sentinel. May 10, 1985. p. 10. Retrieved July 4, 2015 via Newspapers.com.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Pam Munter, "Edmund O'Brien: The Prince of Noir", Classic Images
  6. Edmond O'Brien Profile, New York Times. By staff. Retrieved February 5, 2013.
  7. Spinsters Call Edmond O'Brien Most Magnetic Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 27 Dec 1949: A3
  8. Edmond O'Brien the Actor, Has Directing Plans, Chicago Daily Tribune (1923–1963) [Chicago, Ill] 19 July 1953: e8
  9. Edmond O'Brien Tangles with Serge Rubinstein Chicago Daily Tribune (1923–1963) [Chicago, Ill] 08 Sep 1951: 2.
  10. Edmond O'Brien Profits by Making Mistakes; 'Rate Your Mate' Is Tabbed for Future Ames, Walter. Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 04 July 1950: 14.
  11. "Philip Morris Playhouse on Broadway". The Digital Deli Too. Retrieved 5 July 2015.
  12. "Edmond O'Brien". oscars.org. Retrieved 5 July 2015.
  13. Edmond O'Brien Has Private Eye for Kitchen, Too Zylstra, Freida. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923–1963) [Chicago, Ill] 03 Feb 1961: b8.
  14. 1 2 3 4 Obituary at Los Angeles Times
  15. Edmond O'Brien: TV's Perennial Pro Chicago Tribune (1963–Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 27 Feb 1971: c3.
  16. Edmond O'Brien Due to Leave Hospital Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 11 Sep 1971: a10.
  17. "Review and Ratings of New Popular Albums" (PDF). Billboard. July 29, 1957. p. 34. Retrieved 5 July 2015.
  18. Vosburgh, Dick (January 20, 1995). "Obituary: Nancy Kelly". The Independent. Retrieved 4 July 2015.
  19. Famed character actor dies
  20. "Edmond O'Brien". Hollywood Walk of Fame. Retrieved 5 July 2015.
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