Oscar Actors: O’Brien, Edmond

Born: September 10, 1915

Died: May 9, 1985

Age at first nomination: 39

Career span and output:

he appeared in more than 100 films from the 1940s to the 1970s, often playing character parts.

He received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Barefoot Contessa (1954).

He earned a second Oscar nomination for Seven Days in May (1964).

O’Brien was born Eamon Joseph O’Brien in Brooklyn, New York, the seventh and youngest child of Agnes (née Baldwin) and James O’Brien. His parents were natives of Tallow, County Waterford, Ireland. When he was four, O’Brien’s father died.

He put on magic shows for children in his neighborhood with coaching from a neighbor, 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. O’Brien began acting in plays at school.

After attending Fordham University for six months, he went to Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre on a scholarship. He studied for two years under Sanford Meisner.  “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.”[6]

He also took classes with the Columbia Laboratory Players group, which emphasized training in Shakespeare.

O’Brien began working in summer stock in Yonkers, making his first Broadway appearance at age 21 in Daughters of Atreus.

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.

Spotting:
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. In May 1942 Univeral bought out his contract with RKO so he could appear opposite Deanna Durbin in The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943).

After this he joined the armed services. During WWII, 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,  alongside the young Mario Lanza.

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, starring with Fredric March, who also appeared with O’Brien in An Act of Murder (1948).

Mentor: Jimmy Cagney

He was then cast as the undercover police officer in White Heat (1949) opposite James Cagney. “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.”

In 1949, 3,147 members of the Young Women’s League of America, a national charitable organization of spinsters, voted that O’Brien had more “male magnetism” than any other man in America today. “All women adore ruggedness,” said organization 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.

After Backfire (shot in 1948 but not released until 1950), his contract with Warner ended.

O’Brien then made his most famous movies, D.O.A., as a man investigating his own murder. He followed this with 711 Ocean Drive (1950). However his career then hit a slump.  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.”

“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.”

He made two notable movies for Ida Lupino, The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist, and played Casca in Mankiewicz’s film of Julius Caesar (1953).

O’Brien worked in television, on such shows as Pulitzer Prize Playhouse, Lux Video Theatre and Schlitz Playhouse of Stars.
In 1951 he was in a well-publicized brawl with Serge Rubinstein at a cafe.

From 1950 to 1952, O’Brien starred in the radio drama Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, playing the title role. His other work in radio included Philip Morris Playhouse on Broadway.

Mankiewicz cast O’Brien in as press agent Oscar Muldoon in The Barefoot Contessa, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Some important roles followed, including Pete Kelly’s Blues, 1984, A Cry in the Night (1956), and The Girl Can’t Help It, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961), Fantastic Voyage (1966), The Wild Bunch (1969) and The Other Side of the Wind (2018).

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