News Column

Hugh O'Brian reflects on journey from Hollywood window washer to star

July 9, 2013

YellowBrix

July 09--When he was a 17-year-old Marine on weekend leave, Hugh O'Brian made easy money washing the storefront windows on Hollywood Boulevard.

It was 1943 and O'Brian would go up and down the 6600 block of the boulevard, earning extra cash for his labors -- money he said he generally used to help pay for dates.

But it was his fame as an actor that permanently cemented his relationship with this famous street. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was dedicated in 1960 -- 6613 Hollywood Blvd., smack in the middle of the neighborhood where he once washed windows.

Sitting on a recent afternoon at a sidewalk table with his wife, Virginia, outside the Lucky Devils gastro pub in the middle of the block, the 88-year-old actor said he has been drawn again and again to this stretch of the boulevard.

"I don't remember what kind of store this was back then," he said, "but I used to get $2 to do windows like these. It was good money back in 1943."

The son of a Marine captain who served in World War I, O'Brian said his father took him to reserve training when he was a child. "So I knew the Marine Corps hymn before I knew the national anthem."

When O'Brian enlisted in 1943, he was known by his given name, Hugh Krampe, and was assigned to be a drill instructor in San Diego. "I was the youngest one in the Marine Corps," he said. He relished his visits to Hollywood when he was able to leave the base.

Sometimes he would head over to the Hollywood Canteen, the Cahuenga Boulevard club created for World War II servicemen by Hollywood celebrities.

"They had great food and the most beautiful gals. The starlets used to come there and help."

One day, while waiting in the food line, he met actress Arlene Francis, who had a radio show called "Blind Date" in which a notable actress would choose a blind date from four service members behind a curtain -- one from the Marines, Army, Navy and Coast Guard.

Francis got O'Brian on the show. The servicemen were given scripted answers to the questions, but O'Brian ad libbed when actress Virginia Mayo asked why he wanted a date with her. "Because, ma'am, if I don't win I can't go back to the base." He won the date, and Mayo accompanied him to a club where Tommy Dorsey's orchestra was playing.

After military service in Washington, D.C., O'Brian decided to enroll at Yale University in hopes of becoming a lawyer, but before school even started he ventured back to Hollywood and ended up meeting a group of Goldwyn Girls, dancers who performed in producer Samuel Goldwyn's musicals. He soon moved into a boarding house where several of them lived and began helping with chores in exchange for his room and board.

O'Brian said he began dating one of the women who was rehearsing for a role in Somerset Maugham's play "Home and Beauty" at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. After several rehearsals, the leading man failed to show up one day, and director Ida Lupino asked O'Brian to read the lines.

"That's how I started. They opened the show with me in it, and an agent saw me and said he'd like to represent me. That's how I began in show business," he said.

After being signed by Universal Studios, O'Brian performed in numerous movies and TV series starting in 1948. But it was the popular western series "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp" that propelled him to fame. That show's 226 episodes aired between 1955 and 1961 and today are shown daily on the Starz Encore western channel.

O'Brian was lean, dark-haired and square-jawed for "Wyatt Earp." These days he's heavier, grayer and slightly hard of hearing. "The noise from the gunfight scenes ruined my hearing," he explained.

A longtime resident of Benedict Canyon, O'Brian remains busy with a leadership program for 10th-graders that he started in 1958.

Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership is a nonprofit that cultivates critical thinking and goal-setting through leadership skills. About 9,000 teens participate annually, helped by around 4,000 adult volunteers. O'Brian said the program now has about 375,000 alumni.

These days O'Brian and his wife make a habit of stopping for lunch at Lucky Devils when they are asked to show friends his Walk of Fame star. The restaurant is owned by actor Lucky Vanous, known for his role as the hunky construction worker being ogled by female office workers in a 1994 Diet Coke commercial.

As he stepped away from his table to sweep jacaranda blossoms off his star, O'Brian mused over Hollywood Boulevard's effect on actors.

"What goes around comes around," he said.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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