|Cause of death Heart attack|
Years active 1920s–82
Height 1.8 m
|Full Name William Joseph Patrick O'Brien|
Born November 11, 1899 (1899-11-11) Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
Died 15 October 1983, Santa Monica, California, United States
Spouse Eloise Taylor (m. 1931–1983)
Books Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp
Movies Angels with Dirty Faces, Some Like It Hot, Knute Rockne - All American, Ragtime, The Fighting 69th
Similar George Raft, James Cagney, Joe E Brown, Frank McHugh, Lloyd Bacon
William Joseph Patrick "Pat" O'Brien (November 11, 1899 – October 15, 1983) was an American film actor with more than one hundred 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.
- Early life
- Early career and Warner Brothers
- Later film career
- Radio television and stage
- Irish Mafia
- Personal life
- Television work
Pat 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 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 moved to New York, where he lived for a while with Tracy (who had also become an actor), and began a career on the stage.
Early career and Warner Brothers
After a decade in plays on Broadway and in the New York City area, O'Brien began appearing in movies in 1930. Often playing fast-talking "smart alecs" or romantic leads at first, he soon progressed to playing a string of authority figures, especially cops and priests. 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."
Warner Brothers hired O'Brien as a contract player in 1933. He remained with the studio until 1940, when he left after a dispute over the terms of his contract renewal. He appeared with James Cagney, also under contract to Warner Brothers, in nine feature films, including Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and Cagney's last film, Ragtime (1981). 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." At Warners, O'Brien also played the lead in the boxing film, The Personality Kid (1934), as well as in the bio-pic Oil for the Lamps of China (1935), which he called "one of my favorite pictures."
O'Brien is best known for his role as the famous Notre Dame University 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.
Later film career
After he left Warner Brothers in 1940, O'Brien briefly worked for Columbia Pictures. Soon he signed a contract with RKO and appeared in several movies for that studio. In 1946 he starred in the successful film-noir suspense film, Crack-Up.
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).
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. He had a small role as Burt Reynolds' father in the 1978 comedy film The End, opposite Myrna Loy, cast as Reynolds' mother.
In later years, O'Brien recalled that he had had three "great" movie roles in his career: Knute Rockne, Hildy Johnson in The Front Page, and Father Duffy in The Fighting 69th.
Radio, television, and stage
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."
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. His final filmed performance came in a 1982 episode of Happy Days.
In 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. Near the end of his life, he toured in a stage production of On Golden Pond, which he considered "absolutely the best play" he had ever read.
In the late 1930s, Pat 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 Ralph Bellamy and Frank Morgan. Bert Lahr, Louis Calhern, and James Gleason were occasional 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 died or moved. 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.
Pat O'Brien died on October 15, 1983 from a heart attack at age 83. Ronald Reagan, who was president at the time, released a White House statement noting his sadness over O'Brien's death. The president had called the actor at the hospital days before his death.