Hugh O'Brian Became Actor After Winning Blind Date with Virginia Mayo

Photo of Hugh O'Brian in the TV series The Legend of Wyatt Earp
Hugh O'Brian, television's Sheriff Wyatt Earp

Hugh O'Brian took a deep breath as the car pulled up to the little funeral parlor. He knew that the others in the car were watching him out of the corners, of their eyes, to see if he'd begin to break down, begin to cry. But he took a deep breath and clenched his fists and he had a hard time not shouting out, "There aren't going to be any tears or any breaking down, folks -- because Mary isn't dead, Mary couldn't be dead, Mary couldn't really have died just like that and left me!"

The car stopped. "Hugh," his mother said, softly, as she took his arm. "Hugh ... we're here." The tall, eighteen-year-old boy didn't move. Instead he stared out the window to his right, at a highly-polished plaque on which somebody had carefully and coldly chipped out the words: Undertaker: Day and Night Service. "Hugh," his mother said again. The boy fought back the tears as he nodded, finally, and opened the door.

The others remained in the car while they watched him walk very slowly to the door of the funeral parlor, open it, stand rigid for a few moments and then go inside. Two girls were standing in the lobby, their eyes red, their hands clutching at their pocketbooks, as Hugh walked in. One of them came over to him. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry, honest." Hugh looked at her. He tried to smile. He tried to say, "What are you sorry about? What's wrong with everybody, anyway?" But instead he took another deep breath and the heavy smell of carnations from another room, a room not too far away, nearly choked him and he walked past the girl without saying anything.

The next few steps were the longest he'd ever taken in his life. And then suddenly, without any warning, he was standing in the doorway leading to the big room with the carnations and the other flowers -- and he saw her. "Mary?" he called, as though by some miracle she might answer him. "Mary?" he called as he ran across the room and past the people who were seated silently in the neat rows of bridge chairs which fanned out from the back wall. "Mary?" he called as he grabbed the sides of the smooth white coffin and stared down at the girl he'd loved so much. "It's Hughie, Mary," he said, his voice breaking. "I got the telegram that you wanted to see me ... and now I'm here, Mary ... I'm here."

Finally, he cried. Mary was dead and, without shame, he stood there and looked down at the beautiful, almost-smiling face and cried, until someone came over to him, took his arm and led him over to a chair where he could sit and cry some more and take a long last look at his girl and remember.

"I remember," Hugh says now, "how I met Mary, that first day of school in Winnetka, Illinois, when the teacher assigned us to seats and Mary's was at the desk next to mine. She was very pretty, the prettiest girl I'd ever seen. I remember how the first time I saw her I just enjoyed looking at her and how a couple of days later, after we got over our first shyness, we began talking to each other. It's fantastic, but for the next 10 years we were together all the time, practically every hour of practically every day.

"Mary lived only a few blocks from me and every morning I used to call for her on her porch and we'd go to school together. Then, at lunchtime, we'd always eat together -- if we went to Mary's house her mother would usually make bacon and peanut butter sandwiches, which we used to gobble up, Mary two and me three. Or we'd eat together at my house. My mother usually had a stew for us or spaghetti, and Mary always used to say, 'Mrs. O' Brian, when I get big, will you teach me how to make this for Hughie?'

"After lunch, Mary and I would go back to school and you'd probably figure that at three o'clock, for a few hours at least, Mary would go her way and I would go mine. But no, Mary would come with me, wherever I wanted to go. If I went to play baseball or football or anything, Mary would always tag along with me. Some of the other kids didn't think very much of this, but it always made me feel nice to know that she was there, just watching me, just with me.

"At night, after supper, we'd get together and do our homework. Then, if we were at Mary's house, we'd sit and listen to the radio. Or if we were at my house, we'd listen to my mother talk about life. My mother had a feeling about living -- I learned it from her, and follow it to this day: I enjoyed yesterday, I love today I look forward to tomorrow. Or she'd talk about the theater and movies and acting. She thought it was very glamorous and a lot of fun and she would tell us how she wanted to be an actress when she was a young girl, and she'd always add, 'And maybe, Hughie, you'll want to be an actor some day?'

"The thought of being an actor seemed so silly, then. But I guess some of that talk rubbed off on me those nights I used to sit there with Mary listening, all wide-eyed, to my mom. 'Wouldn't that be nice,' Mary would say to me as I walked her home, 'if someday you did become an actor and I was your wife and we went to the movies every night and just sat looking at you!'

"I don't know just when, during all those years, Mary and I fell in love -- or just how. But we did come to love each other. And now, looking back on it, I can't help feeling that no matter how young we were, how unknowing we were, it was as strong a love as two people could ever know.

"Mary wasn't happy when I had to leave to go into the Marines. I wasn't happy about leaving her, either. But there was a war on, I was 18, my dad was a Marine captain -- and I'd always wanted to be a Marine, too, for a while, at least. We loved each other, I told her, and it was a cinch the war had to be over someday and then we'd get married and everything would turn out okay. We'd live happily ever after, forever, Mary and Hughie ...

"Well, everything didn't turn out okay. Mary got sick soon after. Forgive me if I don't make public the details of her illness. And then, she died. It's hard to tell you exactly how I felt when I realized that she was dead. I guess that sometimes, even now, it's hard for me to feel that she really isn't here any more ...

"Anyway, Mary was dead and everything inside me seemed to have died, too."

After the funeral, Hugh returned to his Marine base in California. He was promoted to drill instructor -- the youngest in Marine history. He was lucky: hour after hour, in this tough new job, he was out on the dusty marching field growling out orders to hundreds of green leathernecks, yelling for perfection, hup-hup-hupping his lungs out from dawn to dark, sweating out some of his sorrow; so dog-tired at the end of the day that he'd be in his sack by 10 and fall right to sleep. And forget about Mary, for a little while at least. Except for dreaming about her. But in the dreams she was always alive and laughing, so that was all right.

That year was a bleak one for Hugh. Especially the Sundays, when his buddies would go out on passes or their girls would come visit them on the base. Hugh rarely left the base on these days. Twice a good friend of his had his girl bring along another girl -- just to sort of casually introduce to Hugh and maybe get him to smile and talk a little. But both times Hugh simply shook hands with the girls and then made some kind of excuse about having to go somewhere and do something and he'd take off for his barracks, to sit for hours and write a letter to his mother. Or maybe pick up a book -- usually something on law. He'd always figured he'd eventually wind up being a lawyer. And then he'd just fall back on his sack and wait for the chow bugle, then a movie, then back to his sack and to sleep again.

It was at about the end of that first year after Mary's death when one of his buddies, who thought it was high time his pal snapped out of it -- got an idea. It was going to take what some might call psychology, his buddy figured, but it was sure going to be worth the try. "You want a date, O'Brian?" he asked after drill one day. knowing just what the answer was going to be.

"No, thanks," Hugh said.

"Aw, come to think of it, you probably couldn't get this one anyway. It's with me of those big, beau-ti-ful movie stars."

"I said I don't want a date, period."

"And I said you probably couldn't get this one anyway!"

It worked. After about half an hour of fake taunting, Hugh got his Midwestern dander up and the next morning he was standing stiff at attention in front of his colonel asking for a 72-hour pass.

"What do you want it for?" the colonel grunted. "Well, sir," said Hugh, "there's a radio how up in Los Angeles I'd like to go on. It's called Blind Date."

"Blind Date?" asked the colonel, squinting his eyes a little bit. "Well, sir, some of the boys were kidding me about ..." Hugh started to say.

The colonel, who'd been studying Hugh's record and noticed that this was the first special pass he'd ever asked for. interrupted him. "You can go, O'Brian," he said. "But," he added, "don't bother to come back here if you don't win!"

Hugh went up to Los Angeles and met both his friends' and his colonel's challenge. He won. His prize was a date with Virginia Mayo. Hugh had a lot of fun that night, the first fun he'd had in a long, long time. They went out to dinner, then dancing, and Virginia didn't mind at all when she felt his arm tightening around her in that tender way that always meant a boy was dreaming he held someone else in his arms. Then they went somewhere for a nightcap.

As they said good night, Virginia invited him to come visit her on the set the next morning. She was making a movie with Danny Kaye. "You'll really have a ball," she urged, waiting for an answer, remembering the once or twice during the evening Hugh had let something slip about a girl he'd had. Hugh refused the invitation at first. But Virginia insisted. "You don't want to be the only man in the world who'd turn down a chance to meet a whole flock of Goldwyn Girls, do you?" she asked. "Well, " Hugh said, giving it some serious thought. "No."

"Then," said Virginia, pausing to give the big Marine a kiss on the cheek, "I'11 see you at the studio tomorrow morning."

Hugh O'Brian fell in love that next day. Not with any of the gorgeous Goldwyn Girls -- and Virginia made sure he got to meet them all. Not with any girl, as a matter of fact -- Mary was all the girl he'd ever want. But in one fell swoop, he fell in love with that thing his mother had been talking about all these years -- the excitement of Hollywood, the lights, the tremendous cameras, the fuss and tension and camaraderie. The tremendous thought of maybe someday becoming an actor.

The memory of those few hours on Virginia's set remained with Hugh all the way back to the base that afternoon, and all during the remainder of his hitch in the Marines -- while he ate, drilled, dreamed. When he left the Corps in 1947 he didn't know exactly what to do. Do you want to be a practical young man? one part of his conscience would ask him, and become the lawyer you originally wanted to become? Or, the other half of his conscience would ask, do you want to struggle a little bit and become an actor?

The first half of Hugh's conscience won out -- for a while. Maybe because so much of that dream had been lived with Mary. He applied for entrance to the law school at Yale. He felt pretty good about his choice, right up until he got a letter telling him that he'd been accepted. He read the letter over a couple of times. Security, the first half of his conscience smiled at him. Aren't you glad?

Hugh shook his head, very emphatically. No! he thought, out loud. Then he reached for a phone and called Jack Holland, a friend who ran a small theater group in Hollywood known as The Stagelighters. "Can I come out and try for a part in one of your plays?" asked the young man who'd never had any experience. Next thing he knew, Hugh was packing his suitcase.

Hugh got his first role, a lead, in an elegant little comedy by Somerset Maugham called Home and Beauty. "He was pretty rough around the edges," says Jack Holland, reminiscing about those early days, "but he worked hard!"

"Hugh didn't come from a poor family," another friend will tell you, "but when he decided to become an actor he also decided to do it completely on his own."

To supplement the few dollars he got from his acting at the little playhouse at night. Hugh became a private businessman by day. The businesses included gardening, garbage collecting and selling nylons.

"While I was doing all this," Hugh remembers. "I was living at a boarding house called The House of the Seven Garbos. I remembered hearing about this wonderful place from some of the Goldwyn Girls I'd met on that set a few years earlier. They'd said it was nice and cheap and this was definitely for me at the moment. You could have knocked me over when I got there with my suitcase in hand that first day. What I expected to be a run-of-the-mill boarding house turned out to be a mansion on top of a hill with a swimming pool and a couple of tennis courts. The woman who operated it, bless her, had bought if from somebody who'd been very anxious to sell it fast and she'd converted it into a palace of rented rooms for young kids trying to break into the movies -- Ruth Roman was one of us sharecroppers at the time.

"For fifteen dollars a week. I got a room and a good hot family-type dinner every night. For breakfast and lunch there was an honor system in the kitchen that worked something like this: you marked down everything you took from either the icebox or the pantry on a big master pad. If you took a couple of slices of bread, you marked down two cents, I think it was. If you took a wad of peanut butter, you marked down threee cents. Tomatoes were four cents apiece, I think. "Actually, though, the best eating came at about one o'clock in the morning when most of the girls would come back from their dates. We poor guys were so broke we used to have to sit around alone on nights we weren't acting over in the playhouse -- reading or studying new part or just chewing the fat. This wasn't only lonely -- but a fellow can get pretty hungry just sitting around like that for hours.

"Well, the girls took good care of this. Somehow they would hoodwink their dates at Ciro's and Romanoff's and Mocambo into getting them an extra steak for their 'dog' or a slab of roast beef for a 'poor roommate who's sick tonight, poor thing, and didn't even have the strength to go down to supper' -- I'll never forget the cute little blonde from Tennessee who would always finagle an apple pie 'for my blood condition' from whichever guy she went out with -- and what a feast we fellows would have when the girls got back, called out goodbye to the departing Cadillacs and Jaguars and came rushing up to our rooms with whatever they'd managed to get their hands on, shouting, 'Come on, boys, it's indigestion time!'"

Hugh was still living at the House of the Seven Garbos a year later when he got what looked like his big break. A talent scout had seen him in a play at the Stagelighters on a Saturday night and phoned him Monday morning, first thing. The scout told him that a big producer at a big studio needed a tall, young type for an important role and that he'd just arranged for Hugh to meet the producer on Wednesday morning.

"'This is it,' I told myself," Hugh says now. Or maybe he was telling Mary -- forgetting that it wasn't both of them anymore that he was dreaming and working and planning for. Only -- it was, always. Because the dreams were just work if there wasn't Mary. "This was the big chance I'd been waiting for. I went to the producer's office, all right. And I was out of his office a couple of minutes later, minus any big break and any part in any picture. Looking back, I'm glad it happened that way. I'm glad now that the next 25 interviews, too, went exactly that way. After all, I needed experience and experience takes time, lots of time. Yep, I'm glad now -- but it sure hurt bad when it was happening."

It took more than another year before Hugh really began to hit it right. He was selling hosiery as a sideline by this time -- "Having given up as a gardening and garbage tycoon," he says -- and, wisely, he made a point of calling on producers' and agents' secretaries a couple of times a month and asking them (1) did they need any stockings, and (2) did their bosses need any fresh talent?

One day the secretary to agent Milo Frank greeted him with a big smile. "Park the valise, Hugh," she said, "straighten your tie and come with me." She took his hand and led him into Frank's office. "This is the young man I was telling you about," she said to her boss. Frank nodded. "Can he act?" he asked his secretary.

Hugh answered for himself. "Yes, sir," he said.

"We'll see," Frank said.

That evening the agent watched Hugh in a play and two days later, Hugh was screen-tested for the Ida Lupino movie, Young Lovers. Three days later, he got a call from Frank's secretary. "You've sold your last pair of nylons, Hugh," she said happily. "You're in the movies now!"

After Young Lovers was finished, Hugh went back to Winnetka to spend Christmas with his folks. His thrilled mother met him at the railroad station, bursting with pride. "You've made good in Hollywood," she whispered, over and over again, hugging him, kissing him.

"Well, you can't say I made good yet," Hugh tried to say.

But Mrs. O'Brian would have none of this. "You've made good," she said, "and you've made today the happiest day in my whole long life." At Christmas dinner that evening there was lots of good food and talk, and even a little laughter when Hugh could blot from his memory the little girl, the grown woman, who had sat at this table with him so often during the years they had had each other. The few happy hours And immediately after dinner, Hugh handed his mother a gift. "This is for you and Dad," he said as he handed her a large, red-ribboned envelope. "I guess I should wait till midnight, like we always do, but I'm kind of excited and I'd like you to open it now."

His mother wept, just like that and right there at the table, when she saw what the present was -- two round-trip tickets to Hollywood and two special preview tickets for Hugh's first picture on the night after they got there. "Hughie," she cried and took his hand. She couldn't say anything more. It should be three, Hugh thought, and he could feel the tears that wanted to fall. Oh Mary, it should be three tickets!

"Well, Mom," Hugh said, smiling, "you're the one who prayed me into becoming an actor. So I guess you should be the first one to have to see me in a movie."

Mrs. O'Brian nodded. Then, suddenly, she got up from the table, walked into the adjoining living room and placed the envelope on the big Christmas tree at the far end of the room. "No sense getting all these tickets blurred with my tears," she called out. "The usher at that theater in Hollywood's liable not to let us in if he can't read what it says."

"The next few hours were very happy," Hugh remembers. "We opened the rest of our presents at midnight and we sat around and talked some more and we sang a little -- carols and songs we used to sing when I was a boy. And then it was time to go to bed. I shook hands with my father and brother, kissed my mother and we all went to our rooms.

"The house was very quiet the next morning when I woke up, much quieter than I ever remembered it being. I got dressed and went downstairs for breakfast. My father was in the kitchen along with a few of our neighbors. They were just sitting there. None of them was saying anything. Then one of them came over to me and asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee, like he was saying, Hughie, I could cry for you.

"'What's wrong?' I asked. He couldn't answer. Then a neighbor woman came over and told me, as gently as she could, that Mom had died in her sleep sometime during the night. Just like that, Mom was gone."

When Hugh got back to Hollywood after the funeral, his determination to make good, really make good, was stronger than ever. "I know," he says, "that the Good Lord gave my mom a choice seat up there so that she could watch me down here -- and I wanted her to be proud of me, as proud as she had been that Christmas Eve. I wasn't going to let her down."

It was a tough fight for the next nine years, with too many hours of solitude hours spent remembering two tickets tha should have been three, that shockingly, suddenly need not even have been two.

Hugh got parts, nice parts, in pictures now and then, and everybody thought he was a fine young actor and all that. But somehow that lucky firecracker that explodes under one-in-a-thousand actors in Hollywood and sends them zooming to fame wasn't having any truck with Hugh O'Brian. That is, not until the day not to long ago when a friend called Hugh and asked him if he wanted to try out for a half-hour television series about someone named Wyatt Earp.

"About who?" Hugh asked.

"Wyatt Earp," came the answer. "The Wild West marshal, one of the greatest law officers of all time."

"Wyatt Earp," Hugh mumbled.

"Yeah." "Sure I'll try," said Hugh.

The success of his try was, as everyone now knows, phenomenal. The pilot film which Hugh made rang up the quickest sponsor sale in TV history and, soon after Wyatt Earp became one of the most popular shows in the country. Wrote one TV critic: Here at last is a actor playing a Western hero. Said another critic: The kids love him. The ladies adore him. And I've never heard a man-critter say a word against him. Here's one guy who's really going places.

And how does Hugh O'Brian feel -- now that he's really going places? About his career, he'll tell you, "It feel great, of course. A lot of hard work went into it, goes into it, will continue to go into my becoming the kind of actor I want to become."

About life in general, Hugh will tell you, "I'd like, very sincerely, to get married. I'm a little over 30 now; I've got a good job; I've got a lot to be thankful for. But there's something missing, and that's somebody to share my life with-- and my good fortune," he adds, with a laugh that's so rare from Hugh.

"Just between us, I think maybe I've found the girl. I don't feel I should tell you her name right now. I don't think it's right to say anything specific about her now. But I'll tell you this. She's a girl who is sweet, and gentle, and understanding and who makes me feel like a man. Not just like another human being who happens to be hanging around -- but a man. And she's a companion to me. Maybe I it sounds silly and unromantic to use the word companion, but to me there's no more beautiful word in the English language. It means she's interested in the same things I'm interested in, shares the things I love -- she's a companion. hat's really something to build a life on!

"Yep, I think I've found the right girl. It's going to take a little more time for both of us to be sure. But I think we may be making a nice announcement very soon. If we do, I know it'll make me very happy."

And as he talks about his new girl and their possible marriage, you can't help but get the feeling that Hugh's mom and his Mary -- watching from up there -- will be made very happy, too.

Ed DeBlasio in Modern Screen, June 1957

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