Motion picture and television star Hugh O’Brian mastered his craft across the entire spectrum of show business. But with all his success, he never lost sight of his civic and philanthropic responsibilities that his chosen field offers to those who choose to use their popularity to motivate others for a worthy cause. He reinvested his good fortune in many ways to help others, working tirelessly to develop projects to benefit young people.
Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, organized in 1958 originally to seek out, recognize, and develop leadership potential in high school sophomores. In 1964, he set up the Hugh O’Brian Acting Awards at UCLA, designed to bring recognition to the outstanding young actors and actresses at the University, which was held annually for 25 years.
Early Life and Marine Service
Born Hugh Charles Krampe on April 19, 1925 in Rochester, New York to Hugh John Krampe, a career United States Marine Corps officer, and his wife Edith Krampe, O’Brian’s introduction to diversification came early. He attended school at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, and Kemper Military School in Booneville, Missouri. In high school, his sports activities were diversified among football, basketball, wrestling, and track and he won letters in all four sports. After a semester at the University of Cincinnati with studies charted toward a law career, O’Brian, at 17, enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War II. During his four-year service, he won a coveted Fleet appointment to the Naval Academy. After passing the entrance exams, he declined the appointment, intending to enroll at Yale to study law.
After serving four years and receiving his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps, O’Brian went to Los Angeles, where he planned to earn money for his Yale tuition. He met Ruth Roman and Linda Christian, very successful actresses at the time, who introduced him to a little theater group. When a leading man became ill, O’Brian agreed to substitute. Originally, he felt the experience might be helpful in his legal career; however, he got such good reviews in Somerset Maugham’s play “Home and Beauty” that he decided to enroll at UCLA and continue his little theater appearances as an avocation while continuing his quest for a college education. About a year later, Ida Lupino saw one of his performances and signed him to portray his first starring role in the film “Young Lovers,” which Lupino directed. This brought him a contract with Universal Studios. During his first year under contract, he enrolled at Los Angeles City College and managed to amass 17 college credits in addition to making 5 pictures at Universal.
O’Brian left Universal after three years to guest star in numerous television shows and in such films as “Broken Lance” and “No Business Like Show Business.” The “big break” in his career came when he was chosen to portray the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp on TV. Shortly after the series debuted in 1955 as the “first adult western,” it became the top-rated show on TV, and O’Brian became a much-discussed talent. During its seven-year run, “Wyatt Earp” always placed in the top ten TV shows in the nation. In 1972-73 he starred in the TV series “Search.” O’Brian starred on Broadway in “Destry Rides Again,” “First Love,” and a revival of “Guys and Dolls.” He also starred in the national company of “Cactus Flower,” “The Odd Couple,” “The Tender Trap,” “A Thousand Clowns,” and “Plaza Suite.” He was a guest on numerous television and radio shows including the Today Show, the Larry King and Jim Bohanan Shows, Charlie Rose’s Nightwatch, and The Pat Sajak Show. His movie credits include “The Shootist,” “Killer Force,” “Game of Death,” and “Twins,” among many others. He had numerous guest appearances on television shows such as “Fantasy Island,” “Love Boat,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Paradise,” “Gunsmoke II”, “Murder, She Wrote,” and “L.A. Law,” and a Kenny Rogers Gambler IV movie “The Luck of the Draw: The Gambler Returns.” “Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone” in 1994 was O’Brian’s last major film project.
Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership: His Lasting Legacy
In 1958, Mr. O’Brian was privileged to spend nine inspirational days with the great humanitarian and 1952 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his clinic in Africa. Dr. Schweitzer’s strong belief that “the most important thing in education is to teach young people to think for themselves” impressed O’Brian. Upon his return to the United States, he put Schweitzer’s words into action by forming Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership (HOBY), a non-profit organization. Its format for motivation was simple: bring a select group of high school sophomores with demonstrated leadership abilities together with a group of distinguished leaders in business, education, government, and the professions, and let the two interact. Using a question-and-answer format, the young people selected to attend a HOBY Leadership Seminar held each spring in their state get a realistic look at what it takes to be a true leader, thus better enabling them “to think for themselves.”
Today HOBY offers multiple leadership development programs for high school students based on the Social Change Model of Leadership and incorporating community service. Community Leadership Workshops (CLeWs) are held each year locally for freshmen. HOBY State Leadership Seminars for sophomores are held throughout the United States every spring. The World Leadership Congress (WLC) for rising juniors is held each summer in July at a major university in the U.S. and invites students from around the world to participate. HOBY style programs are also conducted in Canada, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Iraq, Mexico, the Philippines, Taiwan, Turkey and the United Kingdom. The cultural differences that exist between countries of the world are explored in friendship by the American students and their international counterparts when they come together at the WLC. The HOBY experience is truly an inspirational event of a lifetime for student leaders. The Advanced Leadership Academy for juniors and seniors launched in 2013, HOBY’s 55th anniversary year. HOBY boasts more than 400,000 alumni worldwide. Its alumni programs include international tour and service trips for high school and college students.
All HOBY programs are coordinated by volunteers, numbering more than 4,000 in the U.S. alone. Service organizations such as the Lions, Jaycees, Kiwanis, General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Management Association, and Optimists have contributed greatly to this volunteer effort over the decades.
Awards and Accolades
In 1972, O’Brian was awarded one of the nation’s highest honors, the Freedom through Knowledge Award, sponsored by the National Space Club in association with NASA. In 1973, he was honored by the American Academy of Achievement. In 1974, he was awarded the George Washington Honor Medal, the highest award of the Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge, as well as the Globe and Anchor Award from the Marine Corps. In 1976, the Veterans of Foreign Wars honored him with an award. He was the recipient of the AMVETS Silver Helmet Award. In 1983, the National Society of Fund Raising Executives honored him with their premier award for overall philanthropic excellence as a volunteer, fundraiser, and philanthropist — the only time one individual has received the award in all three categories. Notre Dame University honored him with the first “Pat O’Brian Memorial Award” in 1984. That same year, the Family Counseling Service honored O’Brian with its first National Family of Man Award.
In 1989, he received the 60th Annual American Education Award presented by the American Association of School Administrators — the oldest and most prestigious award that the education profession bestows. O’Brian joined Norman Rockwell, Lyndon Johnson, Helen Keller, Walt Disney, and Bob Hope as a recipient of this most significant award. On June 2, 1990, the Los Angeles Business Council awarded O’Brian its 6th Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of outstanding achievement, working within the framework of the American Free Enterprise System. In 1992, O’Brian was inducted into the Great Western Performers Hall of Fame, and in 1993, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Franklin Mint. O’Brian was also awarded the Freedoms Foundation’s Private Enterprise Exemplar medal in 1994, the American Celtic Globe Humanitarian Award from the Ireland Chamber of Commerce and the Epsilon Sigma Alpha (ESA, Int.) Vision Award in 1995, and the KNX News Radio Man of the Year Award and the Central City Association of Los Angeles’ Treasures of Los Angeles Award in 1997. In 1998, O’Brian was given the highest civilian honor from the United States Department of the Navy, the Meritorious Public Service Citation. He was also one of the recipients of the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO) Foundation Ellis Island Medal of Honor in the year 2000. In March 2002, he received the Distinguished Service Award, the highest award given from the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP); and in July 2002 he received the Humanitarian Award from Lions Clubs International, the highest honor granted by the organization. With the Lions Clubs award came a prize of $200,000, which Hugh generously donated back to HOBY. In 2006 he was awarded the Excellence in Education Award by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). In 2008, he was given the Paul Harris Award by Rotary International.
O’Brian was awarded honorary degrees by several prestigious institutions of higher learning. He received honorary Doctorates of Humane Letters from Saint Mary of the Plains College in Dodge, City, Kansas; Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania; Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania; and Green Mountain College, in Poultney, Vermont. He has also received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Saint John’s University in New York. In the summer of 1987, O’Brian was presented with an honorary Doctor of Public Services degree from the University of Denver. In 2003, he received the honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Troy State University in Alabama. Each university honored O’Brian for the outstanding work he has undertaken on behalf of youth throughout America and the world.
O’Brian married for the first time at age 81. On June 25, 2006 he wed long-time girlfriend Virginia Barber at Forest Lawn Memorial Park with the Rev. Robert Schuller, pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, officiating. The couple was serenaded by close friend, Debbie Reynolds. O’Brian was very active well into his later years and enjoyed traveling, sailing, scuba diving and swimming. He lived with his beautiful wife in his hilltop home overlooking Beverly Hills until his death on September 5, 2016.
Excerpt From The Freedom To Choose by Hugh O’Brian
“I do NOT believe we are all born equal — CREATED equal in the eyes of God, YES — but physical and emotional differences, parental guidance, varying environments, being in the right place at the right time, all play a role in enhancing or limiting an individual’s development. But I DO believe every man and woman, if given the opportunity and encouragement to recognize his or her own potential, regardless of background, has the Freedom To Choose in our world. Will an individual be a taker or a giver in life? Will that person be satisfied merely to exist, or seek a meaningful purpose? Will he or she dare to dream the impossible dream?
I believe every person is created as the steward of his or her own destiny with great power for a specific purpose: to share with others, through service, a reverence for life in a spirit of love.”
Want to learn more about Hugh O’Brian?
Read about his sixty-plus-year journey from film star to founder of HOBY!
In this lively memoir of one of TV and filmdom’s most memorable actors, readers are taken on a sixty-plus-year journey that continues to this day. Hugh O’Brian’s style of self-discipline, enterprise, and tenacity, learned from his Marine Corps dad, carried him from being the youngest Marine Corps drill instructor in history to a legendary career as TV’s Wyatt Earp, versatile movie roles, Broadway and stage shows, as well as numerous guest appearances. But it was a life-changing trip to Africa to meet the famed humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer that set O’Brian on a new path – the founding of the Hugh O’Brian Youth (HOBY) organization to develop young leaders, which now boasts over 425,000 alumni and growing. The book includes over 100 photos, plus Forewords by two special friends – Debbie Reynolds and Hugh Hefner.
- 2008 Paul Harris Award, Rotary International
- 2006 Excellence in Education Award, National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC)
- 2003 “Spirit of America” Award, National Council for the Social Studies
- 2002 Humanitarian Award, Lions Clubs International
- 2002 Distinguished Service Award, National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP)
- 2000 Lifetime Achievement in Philanthropy, National Society of Fund Raising Executives, Greater San Fernando Valley Chapter
- 2000 Teddy Roosevelt Youth Leadership Development Award (the first given), Rocky Mountain College
- 2000 Certificate of Merit, Freedoms Foundation
- 2000 “Lifesaver” Award, The Thalians
- 2000 “Champions of Children” Award, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
- 2000 Ellis Island Medal of Honor Award, The National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations Foundation, Inc. (NECO)
- 1998 Meritorious Public Service Citation, the highest civilian award given by the U.S. Department of the Navy
- 1997 “Treasures of Los Angeles” Award, Central City Association of Los Angeles (CCA)
- 1997 “1996 Man of the Year” Award, KNX Newsradio
- 1995 Vision Award, ESA International (Epsilon Sigma Alpha)
- 1995 “Hearts at Work” Award of Honor
- 1995 “Foundation Fellow,” Ohio District Kiwanis Foundation
- 1994 American Celtic Globe Humanitarian Award, ICCUSA (Ireland Chamber of Commerce)
- 1994 Private Enterprise Exemplar Medal, Freedoms Foundation
- 1993 “The Real Top Gun” Award, HOBY Board of Trustees & National Office Staff
- 1993 Lifetime Achievement Award, Franklin Mint
- 1992 Western Heritage Wrangler Award, Great Western Performers Hall of Fame
- 1990 Lifetime Achievement Award, Los Angeles Business Council
- 1989 60th Annual American Education Award, American Association of School Administrators (AASA)
- 1988 Delaware State Federation of Women’s Clubs
- 1987 Holiday Project Award, San Francisco, CA
- 1987 General William Booth International Humanitarian Award, Salvation Army
- 1987 American Education Award, American Association of School Administrators
- 1986 Outstanding Love & Concern, General Federation of Women’s Clubs
- 1986 Ambassador Award, U.S. Jaycees
- 1985 Semper Fidelis Award, U.S. Marine Corps
- 1984 National Family of Man Award (the first given), Family Counseling Service
- 1984 Pat O’Brien Memorial Award (the first given), University of Notre Dame Club, Chicago
- 1983 Special Award for Philanthropy, National Society of Fund Raising Executives
- 1982 Outstanding Support to the Youth of America, U.S. Jaycees
- 1980 Silver Helmet Award, AMVETS
- 1979 Service to Mankind Award, Hollywood Sertoma Club
- 1978 Governor’s Award, State of Ohio
- 1976 District of Columbia Humanitarian Award
- 1976 American Patriotic Award, VFW
- 1975 Leadership Award
- 1974 Globe and Anchor Award, National Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation
- 1974 George Washington Honor Medal, Freedom Foundation, Valley Forge
- 1973 Golden Plate Award, American Academy of Achievement
- 1972 Freedom Through Knowledge Award, NASA
- 2003 Doctor of Fine Arts, Troy University, Troy, AL
- 2000 Doctor of Public Service, The George Washington University, Washington, DC
- 1991 Doctor of Humane Letters, Green Mountain College, Poultney, Vermont
- 1991 Doctor of Humane Letters, Bloomsburg University, Bloomsburg, PA 1991
- 1987 Doctor of Public Service, University of Denver, Denver, Colorado
- 1986 Doctor of Laws, St. John’s University, Jamaica, NY
- 1986 Doctor of Humane Letters, Lebanon Valley College, Annville, PA
- 1986 Doctor of Humane Letters, St. Mary of the Plains, Dodge City, KS