Struggles with his weight might have cost him a leading man’s conventional career arc, but this native New Yorker’s indisputable presence and gifts granted Edmond O’Brien some four decades as one of Hollywood’s most compelling character players.
Born in the Bronx, Redmond O’Brien was ten when he discovered his penchant for performing, entertaining neighborhood kids with tricks shown to him by neighbor Harry Houdini. He became involved with community theatre during his high school years in Westport, Connecticut, and he’d go on to pursue a drama major at Fordham and Columbia.
He was 21 when he made his Broadway debut in “Daughter of Atrus,” and he’d spend the late ’30s building a remarkable stage resume marked by appearances in John Gielgud’s “Hamlet,” Laurence Olivier’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Orson Welles’ “Julius Caesar.”
The film industry was beckoning by then, and after an extra role in Prison Break, he made a strong billed debut in 1939 as the callow young poet in the RKO classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara. His handful of follow-ups before reporting for WWII military duty were less memorable, though he’d acquit himself well in the all-serviceman-starring project Winged Victory. He returned from the war a little heftier, and he found his skills particularly in demand for the now-burgeoning film noir cycle and other crime-drama projects over the rest of the decade, as evidenced by The Killers in 1946, The Web (1947), An Act of Murder in ’48, and in one of his best films of the decade, White Heat in 1949, as an undercover cop trying the get the goods on James Cagney, who uttered one of the most famous lines in movie history — “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” During the period, he broke away from his noir theme in 1948 to do two movies which were very popular, For The Love Of Mary at Universal with that studio’s biggest star, Deanna Durbin, and a WWII combat film for Warner Brothers, Fighter Squadron.
He’d open the ’50s with what’s now regarded as his signature performance, the poisoning victim spending his last hours on a quest to finger his own murderer in the imaginative noir staple D.O.A. After sqeezing a light comedy into his busy schedule, The Admiral Was A Lady for United Artists, the next few years would be primarily marked by more memorable noirs (Between Midnight and Dawn, Backfire, Man in the Dark, Two Of A Kind) but his turns in 711 Ocean Drive in 1950 and The Hitch-Hiker in ’53 cemented his place in the film noir pantheon.
Proving to film audiences that he could do Shakespeare as well as crime thrillers, he appeared as Casca in Joseph Mankiewicz’ Julius Caesar, before landing his one career Academy Award for his efforts as the morally bankrupt press agent in Mankiewicz’ The Barefoot Contessa in 1954. By the end of the decade, he’d be doing copious TV work for drama anthology series, while keeping a full slate of screen projects like Shield for Murder (his directing debut), Pete Kelly’s Blues, 1984, D-Day: The Sixth of June, A Cry in the Night, Stopover Tokyo, the classic WWII action drama Up Periscope and who could ever forget his ‘Fats’ Murdock in The Girl Can’t Help It as he tries to make a star of Jayne Mansfield.
O’Brien remained busy over the course of the ’60s, headlining various TV series (“Johnny Midnight,” “Sam Benedict,” “The Long, Hot Summer”) and remaining in demand on the big screen, as evidenced by The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962, Birdman of Alcatraz also in ’62, Seven Days in May in 1964 (bringing his second career Oscar nomination), Synanon, a no-holds barred look at drug addiction in ’65 and opposite Raquel Welch in the sci-fi favorite Fantastic Voyage (1966).
His last truly memorable screen gig came with The Wild Bunch, though he appeared steadily in films and episodic TV through the mid-’70s. By then, sadly, his ability to work was compromised by the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, which would ultimately claim the actor’s life a decade later.
He summed up his experience in Hollywood when he said, “Versatility is a dangerous thing. It’s very satisfying to portray many types of roles, but often your own identity gets lost. Seldom does a producer say, ‘This is an Eddie O’Brien part.’ On the other hand, while the rewards may be great in fame and financially for stars, the work becomes monotonous. No actor who plays himself is a happy person.”
Now, check out out a very young Edmond O’Brien in the theatrical trailer for Fighter Squadron: