Pat O'Brien in 1931
William Joseph Patrick O'Brien
November 11, 1899
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
|Died||October 15, 1983 (aged 83)|
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
Eloise Taylor (m. 1931)
William Joseph Patrick O'Brien (November 11, 1899 - October 15, 1983) was an American film actor with more than 100 screen credits. Of Irish descent, he often played Irish and Irish-American characters and was referred to as "Hollywood's Irishman in Residence" in the press. One of the best-known screen actors of the 1930s and 1940s, he played priests, cops, military figures, pilots, and reporters. He is especially well-remembered for his roles in Knute Rockne, All American (1940), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and Some Like It Hot (1959). He was frequently paired onscreen with Hollywood legend James Cagney. O'Brien also appeared on stage and television.
O'Brien was born in 1899 to an Irish-American Roman Catholic family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. All four of his grandparents had come from Ireland. The O'Briens were originally from County Cork. His grandfather, Patrick O'Brien, for whom he was named, was an architect who was killed while trying to break up a saloon fight in New York City. His mother's parents, the McGoverns, immigrated from County Galway in the west of Ireland in the mid- to late-19th century.
As a child, O'Brien served as an altar boy at Gesu Church, while growing up near 13th and Clybourn streets in Milwaukee. He attended Marquette Academy with fellow actor Spencer Tracy, who became a lifelong friend. During World War I, O'Brien and Tracy joined the United States Navy. They both attended boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, but they never went to sea, as the war ended before their training had finished.
Jack Benny was also at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center at the same time as O'Brien and Tracy. According to his autobiography, Benny performed a number on the violin at a show one evening, when the sailors started booing and heckling him. O'Brien walked on stage and whispered in his ear, "For heaven's sake, Ben, put down the damn fiddle and talk to 'em." Benny stopped playing his violin and made a series of comments that got laughs from the audience. In this way, O'Brien indirectly helped to start Benny's career in comedy.
After the war, O'Brien finished his secondary schooling at Marquette Academy and later attended Marquette University. While still at college, he decided to seek work as an actor. He and Spencer Tracy moved to New York, where they both attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. The two struggling young actors shared a small apartment, and began their careers on the stage.
O'Brien spent a decade in plays on Broadway and in the New York City area.
O'Brien made his film debut in the Vitaphone Varieties short film, The Nightingale, produced in New York and released in August 1930.:57 His first starring role was as ace reporter Hildy Johnson in the original 1931 version of The Front Page with Adolphe Menjou. In 2010, this film was selected by the National Film Preservation Board for preservation in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
He was the lead in Paramount's Personal Maid (1931), and appeared in a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical Flying High (1931), supporting Bert Lahr. He was Irene Dunne's love interest in RKO's Consolation Marriage (1932), then co-starred opposite a young Bette Davis in Hell's House (1932). O'Brien stayed in leads, going from studio to studio: Scandal for Sale (1932), at Universal; The Strange Case of Clara Deane (1932), at Paramount; Hollywood Speaks (1932), American Madness (1932) and Virtue (1932).
O'Brien played a heroic pilot in Universal's Air Mail (1932), directed by John Ford. While at that studio he was in Laughter in Hell (1932) and Destination Unknown (1933). At the small Majestic Pictures he starred in The World Gone Mad (1933).
O'Brien's first Warner Bros. movie was Bureau of Missing Persons (1933), starring Bette Davis. He went to RKO for Flaming Gold (1933) and MGM for Bombshell (1933), then Warners signed O'Brien to a long-term contract. He would remain with the studio until 1940, when he left after a dispute over the terms of his contract renewal.
O'Brien supported Dick Powell in College Coach (1933) and Joan Blondell in I've Got Your Number (1934). He was third lead to Barbra Stanwyck and Joel McCrea in Gambling Lady (1934), then was with Powell again in Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934).
Here Comes the Navy (1934) was O'Brien's first film with James Cagney, also under contract to Warners. The two originally met in 1926 and remained friends for almost six decades. After O'Brien's death, Cagney referred to him as his "dearest friend." O'Brien played the lead, a boxer, in The Personality Kid (1934), supported Powell in Flirtation Walk (1934) and was an auctioneer in I Sell Anything (1935).
Cagney and O'Brien were reteamed in Devil Dogs of the Air (1935). He was a critic in love with Dolores Del Rio in In Caliente (1935) and had the lead in the bio-pic Oil for the Lamps of China (1935), which he called "one of my favorite pictures." "That was a sweetheart," he said.
He and Cagney were in The Irish in Us (1935) then it was back to supporting Powell in Page Miss Glory (1935). He headlined a musical Stars Over Broadway (1935) then was back with Cagney for Howard Hawks' Ceiling Zero (1935). Cagney later sued Warners for billing O'Brien's name above his.
"Jimmy's grand to work with," said O'Brien in 1935. "You couldn't ask for a better partner but there's a limit to all that. I think one picture a year with Jimmy would be fine. But as it is I've been with him in every uniform - the army, the navy, the police, the marines, the air corps - and it's always a case of me falling for his girl or him falling for mine. It gets tiresome... I don't just want to be a fast-talking Charlie all my life."
Warners gave him some starring parts: I Married a Doctor (1936), Public Enemy's Wife (1936), China Clipper (1936), The Great O'Malley (1937), and Slim (1937) with Henry Fonda. He was a prison guard in San Quentin (1937) opposite Humphrey Bogart, romanced Blondell in Back in Circulation (1937) and was an old sailor in Submarine D-1 (1938).
O'Brien was pulled out of Swing Your Lady to support Kay Francis in Women Are Like That (1938) and was back with Powell for Cowboy from Brooklyn (1938). He and Cagney reteamed for Boy Meets Girl (1938), and he was meant to be back with Powell in Garden of the Moon (1938), but Powell refused to do it - he was replaced by John Payne.
O'Brien has one of his best ever roles as the former street kid turned priest in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) with Cagney. He was with Blondell in Off the Record (1939) and The Kid from Kokomo (1939), and supported Ann Sheridan in Indianapolis Speedway (1939).
Back at Warner Bros he was reunited with Cagney for The Fighting 69th (1940) then made Castle on the Hudson (1940) with Sheridan and John Garfield. He was a cop in 'Til We Meet Again (1940), supported Cagney and Sheridan in Torrid Zone (1940). He supported Garfield and Frances Farmer in Flowing Gold (1940).
O'Brien was then given his best known role, as the famous University of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne in Knute Rockne, All American (1940). In the film, he gave the speech to "win just one for the Gipper," referring to recently deceased football player, George Gipp, portrayed in the film by a young Ronald Reagan. Reagan later used this saying as a slogan for his campaign for president in 1980.
He signed with Columbia Pictures to make two films a year. He was in Escape to Glory (1940), then was idle for a year before making Two Yanks in Trinidad (1942) with Brian Donlevy and Flight Lieutenant (1942) with Glenn Ford. At Universal he was in Broadway (1942) with George Raft.
Soon he signed a contract with RKO and appeared in several movies for that studio. He mostly played authority/military roles such as The Navy Comes Through (1942), and Bombardier (1943). The Iron Major (1943) was an attempt to repeat the success of Knute Rockne with O'Brien as Frank Cavanaugh.
With his agent Phil Ryan O'Brien set up his own production company, Teneen Productions. They signed a deal with Columbia to make a film with O'Brien, Secret Command (1944). (In 1955 the IRS would sue him for earnings on this film.) At RKO he did Having Wonderful Crime (1946) and Man Alive (1945). For Columbia he made Perilous Holiday (1946).
In 1946 he starred in the successful film-noir suspense film, Crack-Up. He was in a thriller, Riffraff (1947) and another biopic Fighting Father Dunne (1948). He followed it with The Boy with Green Hair (1948), and A Dangerous Profession (1949) with Raft.
While working as a Hollywood contract player, O'Brien made occasional appearances on the radio in the 1930s and 1940s. In the summer of 1947, he starred with Lynn Bari in Summer Theater, a program "dramatizing episodes in the life of a small town druggist."
O'Brien's movie career slowed considerably by the early 1950s, although he still managed to get work in television. In his autobiography, The Wind At My Back, he professed to being completely flummoxed about the decline of his career. His close friend, Spencer Tracy, fought with his studio, MGM, to get roles for O'Brien in his films, The People Against O'Hara (1951) and The Last Hurrah (1958).
He still had leads in films like Okinawa (1952), Inside Detroit (1956) and Kill Me Tomorrow (1957). In 1959 O'Brien appeared in one of his best-known movies as a police detective opposite George Raft in Some Like It Hot, starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis.
In his later years, O'Brien often worked in television. He was cast in 1956 and 1957 in four episodes of the religion anthology series, Crossroads. In three of the four programs, he played priests. He also performed in two episodes of The Virginian in the mid-1960s. In the 1960-1961 television season, O'Brien joined Roger Perry in the 34-episode ABC sitcom, Harrigan and Son, about a father-and-son team of lawyers. He played the lead role of James Harrigan, Sr.
O'Brien made numerous appearances on television as himself, including several on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1957, he guest starred in the first season of the NBC variety program, The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford. Other shows in which he appeared as himself include the interview programs: The David Frost Show, The Tonight Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and The Joey Bishop Show. In 1957, Ralph Edwards profiled O'Brien's life and career for an episode of This Is Your Life. He was also the mystery guest on the game show What's My Line? in 1953 and 1957. In the "Jennifer and the Will" episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, he has a memorably comic turn as Jennifer Marlowe's elderly boyfriend. Shortly thereafter, O'Brien's final filmed performance came in a 1982 episode of Happy Days.
O'Brien spoke the Star Spangled Banner to the accompaniment of Doc Severinsen on trumpet for the National Anthem opening of Super Bowl IV in 1970. He was invited to do his because of his role as Knute Rockne.
From the 1960s through the early 1980s, O'Brien often traveled around the United States as a one-man act and in road shows. He also performed frequently in nightclubs.
In the late 1930s, O'Brien and a small group of his actor friends began to meet to converse and exchange opinions and stories. Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky dubbed them the "Irish Mafia," but they preferred to call their social group the "Boys Club." In addition to O'Brien, the original members of the club were James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Allen Jenkins and Frank McHugh, all of whom were Irish-Americans. Later Lynne Overman joined their group and then George Brent, Louis Calhern, William Gargan, Paul Kelly, Regis Toomey, Ralph Bellamy, Lloyd Nolan and Frank Morgan. James Gleason and Bert Lahr were also frequent guests. The actors gathered to socialize, but they also occasionally used the group to discuss ideas about their latest movies. By the mid-1940s the group began to break up, as members either moved or died. Some of the surviving members kept in contact by telephone and occasional meetings.
O'Brien and his wife, Eloise, had four children: Mavourneen, Sean, Terry, and Brigid. Three of his children were adopted. The youngest, Brigid O'Brien (born 1946), was his biological child. Eloise O'Brien occasionally appeared on stage with her husband.
Among those who knew him personally, O'Brien was known for his love of storytelling, jokes, and late-night parties.Bob Hope specifically remembered him as a raconteur. Another friend recalled that he was always "the life, and I mean the lively life, of the party." He traveled to Vietnam as part of a US tour in February 1969.
O'Brien died on October 15, 1983 from a heart attack at age 83, following minor prostate surgery. President Ronald Reagan, released a White House statement noting his sadness over his old friend's death. The president had called the actor at the hospital just days before his death.
|1930||Compliments of the Season||Short:57|
|1931||Pat O'Brien in "Crimes Square"||Short:62|
|1931||Honor Among Lovers||Conroy|
|1931||The Front Page||Hildy Johnson|||
|1931||Personal Maid||Peter Shea|||
|1931||Consolation Marriage||Steve Porter|||
|1931||Flying High||Sport Wardell|||
|1932||Hell's House||Matt Kelly|||
|1932||The Final Edition||Sam Bradshaw|||
|1932||Scandal for Sale||Waddell|||
|1932||The Strange Case of Clara Deane||Frank Deane|||
|1932||Hollywood Speaks||Jimmy Reed|||
|1932||American Madness||Matt Brown|||
|1932||Flaming Gold||Ben Lear|||
|1932||Air Mail||Duke Talbot|||
|1933||Laughter in Hell||Barney Slaney|||
|1933||Destination Unknown||Matt Brennan|||
|1933||The World Gone Mad||Andy Terrell|||
|1933||Bureau of Missing Persons||Butch Saunders|||
|1933||College Coach||Coach Gore|||
|1934||I've Got Your Number||Terry Riley|||
|1934||Gambling Lady||Charlie Lang|||
|1934||Twenty Million Sweethearts||Rush Blake|||
|1934||The Personality Kid||Ritzy McCarty|||
|1934||Here Comes the Navy||Biff Martin|||
|1934||I Sell Anything||Spot Cash Cutler|||
|1934||Flirtation Walk||Scrapper Thornhill|||
|1935||Devil Dogs of the Air||Lieutenant Bill Brannigan|||
|1935||In Caliente||Larry MacArthur|||
|1935||Oil for the Lamps of China||Stephen Chase|||
|1935||The Irish in Us||Pat O'Hara|||
|1935||Page Miss Glory||Click Wiley|||
|1935||Stars Over Broadway||Al McGillevray|||
|1936||Ceiling Zero||Jake Lee|||
|1936||I Married a Doctor||Dr. William P. Kennicott|||
|1936||Public Enemy's Wife||Lee Laird|||
|1936||China Clipper||Dave Logan|||
|1937||The Great O'Malley||James Aloysius O'Malley|||
|1937||San Quentin||Capt. Stephen Jameson|||
|1937||Back in Circulation||Bill Morgan|||
|1937||Submarine D-1||Butch Rogers|||
|1938||Women Are Like That||Bill Landin|||
|1938||Cowboy from Brooklyn||Ray Chadwick|||
|1938||Boy Meets Girl||J. C. Benson|||
|1938||Garden of the Moon||John Quinn|||
|1938||Angels with Dirty Faces||Jerry Connolly|||
|1939||Off the Record||Thomas Elliott|||
|1939||The Kid from Kokomo||Billy Murphy|||
|1939||Indianapolis Speedway||Joe Greer|||
|1939||The Night of Nights||Dan O'Farrell|||
|1939||Slightly Honorable||John Webb|||
|1940||The Fighting 69th||Father Francis Duffy|||
|1940||Castle on the Hudson||Warden Long|||
|1940||'Til We Meet Again||Steve Burke|||
|1940||Torrid Zone||Steve Case|||
|1940||Escape to Glory||Mike Farrough|||
|1940||Flowing Gold||Hap O'Connor|||
|1940||Knute Rockne, All American||Knute Rockne|||
|1942||Two Yanks in Trinidad||Tim Reardon|||
|1942||Flight Lieutenant||Sam Doyle|||
|1942||The Navy Comes Through||Michael Mallory|||
|1943||Bombardier||Major Chick Davis|||
|1943||The Iron Major||Frank Cavanaugh|||
|1943||His Butler's Sister||Martin Murphy|||
|1944||Marine Raiders||Major Steve Lockhard|||
|1944||Secret Command||Sam Gallagher|||
|1945||Having Wonderful Crime||Michael J. Malone|||
|1945||Man Alive||Michael O'Flaherty "Speed" McBride|||
|1946||Perilous Holiday||Patrick Nevil|||
|1948||Fighting Father Dunne||Father Peter J. Dunne|||
|1948||The Boy with Green Hair||Gramp Frye|||
|1949||A Dangerous Profession||Joe Farley|||
|1950||Johnny One-Eye||Martin Martin|||
|1950||The Fireball||Father O'Hara|||
|1951||The Hills of Ireland||Narrator|||
|1951||Criminal Lawyer||James Edward Reagan|||
|1951||The People Against O'Hara||Vince Ricks|||
|1952||Okinawa||Lt. Commander Hale|||
|1954||Jubilee Trail||Ernest 'Texas' Conway|||
|1954||Ring of Fear||Frank Wallace|||
|1956||Inside Detroit||Gus Linden|||
|1957||Kill Me Tomorrow||Bart Crosbie|||
|1958||The Last Hurrah||John Gorman|||
|1959||Some Like It Hot||Detective Mulligan|||
|1962||The Road to Hong Kong||Chinese Restaurateur||Uncredited|
|1965||Town Tamer||Judge Murcott|||
|1969||The Over-the-Hill Gang||Captain Oren Hayes||TV movie|
|1970||The Phynx||Pat O'Brien|||
|1975||Sky's the Limit||Abner Therman|||
|1977||Billy Jack Goes to Washington||Vice President|
|1978||The End||Ben Lawson|||