updated 06/13/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 06/13/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT
So tread lightly, Clanlons; TV's fabled Wyatt Earp is primed for yet another gunfight at the O.K. Corral. True, at 69, more than 30 years after he cleaned up Tombstone weekly on ABC's The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961), O'Brian rides a bit heavier in the saddle and sometimes requires visual cues on the set. (His hearing was damaged by gunfire in the days prior the the dubbing in of sound effects.) But he still looks as tough as saddlebag leather in CBS's July 2 TV movie, Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone, which features an aging Wyatt riding the town's streets, circa 1914, in a horseless carriage.
Why the comeback? "It paid well and gave me more security for the future" is O'Brian's laconic reply. Still, even though his career all but bit the dust after Earp left the air, O'Brian says he invested well and boasts, "I don't have to touch my principal or principles." But he does see his return—especially if the show gets the nod as a series—as a ready opportunity to promote the Hugh O'Brian Youth Foundation (HOBY), which he founded in 1958 after a nine-day visit in Africa with Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who told him, "The most important part of education is teaching young people to think for themselves."
The foundation, which runs leadership workshops for about 14,000 high school sophomores annually, has been the focal point of O'Brian's life over the past 36 years. Backed by celebrity supporters such as Jimmy Stewart, Walter Cronkite and Liza Minnelli, as well as corporate sponsors around the country, HOBY has a $5 million annual budget and 90 locations in the U.S. O'Brian stepped down as CEO last year (he never accepted a salary, just travel expenses) and now devotes his time to fund-raising. "My job is to show the corporations the value of putting their arms around this age group," he says, "when these kids still have two years left to motivate themselves and the people around them."
He has pursued that job at some career cost, he admits. "I should have done one show right after another when I was hot and made the big money," says O'Brian (who was earning $3,000 per week—good money for the times—when his series ended). On the other hand he had never started out to be an actor in the first place. Born in Rochester, N.Y., as Hugh Krampe Jr. (he changed his name after it was misspelled on a playbill as "Hugh Krape"), he was set to attend Yale on the G.I. Bill in 1947 following a four-year hitch in the Marines. While in L.A. that summer working odd jobs for college money, he was watching a girlfriend rehearse Somerset Maugham's Home and Beauty, when the leading man fell ill. Drafted as an emergency replacement, O'Brian played the part, got a good review and was on his way.
He eventually landed a movie contract with Universal Studios, then left after three years and appeared with Marilyn Monroe in 1954's There's No Business like Show Business. Soon he was offered the chance to star in Earp, which became the first of the so-called adult westerns—Gunsmoke, Have Gun, Will Travel, et al.—that became TV's hardiest staples in the '50s and '60s. "By the lime it ended," he says, "there were a good dozen westerns on the air."
They've been gone for years—and so has O'Brian, whose career was largely reduced to occasional TV walk-ons and touring with road companies doing Broadway hits. But now he and Wyatt are back to try to recapture the old magic. Not, of course, that he's the only actor returning to memorialize the graves on Boot Hill these days. Tombstone, with Kurt Russell as Earp, did surprisingly well at the box office last year, and Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp is due out late this month. "I was told I was being considered for one of the roles in Costner's film," he says without a flinch, "but Gene Hackman got the job." However, O'Brian got the TV role just the same. The new show will be "featurized" (meaning new footage mixed with clips from the earlier show to recapture its flavor), and O'Brian and the producers are aiming for 26 hour-long episodes—just in case the TV movie spins into a series.
While awaiting his return to prime lime, O'Brian is bunking in a small L.A. rental home. His own capacious modern house on 2½ acres in Beverly Hills—bought in 1957 for $45,000—is now undergoing an $850,000 renovation ("something I will really enjoy on the way out," says the actor). Never married, O'Brian has been paired with numerous women over the years (and once had a romance with Princess Soraya of Iran after her divorce from the Shah). "I always wanted a relationship like my mom and dad had," he says. "But I've seen too much unhappiness. My friends are now on their second and third divorces." His current love: Virginia Barber, 40, a garment industry executive and lecturer in Los Angeles.
O'Brian expresses no regrets about the choices he has made. "There have been three stages in my life," he says. "First, there was youth; second, there was middle age; now, it's 'Hugh, you look great!' I think it's fun when people say, 'Jesus, Hugh O'Brian is still living, wow!"
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles