|Emmy Award winner Sherwood Schwartz is the creative genius behind GILLIGAN'S ISLAND and THE BRADY BUNCH television shows. His career began in the late 1930s writing for the Bob Hope radio program. In the 1950s, he was working in television and it was on the Red Skelton Show that he met Dave O'Brien.|
Special thanks to Mr. Schwartz for his remembrances of Dave O'Brien.
Want more info on Sherwood Schwartz - Wendy Winans has a website devoted to him and the Brady Bunch: http://www.bradyworld.com/
and a more detailed biography of Mr. Schwartz is at: http://www.bradyworld.com/cover/schwartz.htm.
DAVE O'BRIEN ... A Remembrance
by Sherwood Schwartz
When I first met Dave O'Brien, I knew Dave had been a stunt man, but mostly he was famous as the director and hapless star of the Pete Smith shorts when he was great at falling down stairs, bumping into things, and not Noel Coward comedy. He was a large man, perhaps 6'3" and 220 lbs. He was a wonderful physical comedian and in physical proportions similar to Red Skelton, the weekly series I was writing at that time (1956 or '57). However, it was not this physical resemblance to Red which cast him as an actor. He was simply an actor who was cast in a small part in one of the Skelton episodes. I was the head writer on the Skelton show and I observed his remarkable ability to add little funny bits during several scenes in the show. Obviously, the director and producer and I all allowed these changes because they were wonderful additions to the scenes.
(From Old Corral image collection)
Above - Dave O'Brien as the fabled air hero in the cliffhanger CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT (Columbia, 1942).
Below - two of the members of the original Texas Rangers' team - singing cowboy Jim Newill on the left and Dave 'Tex' O'Brien on the right. O'Brien appeared in all 22 films in the series which was released from 1942-1945.
(From Old Corral image collection)
I made it a point to meet with Dave and ask if he would like to join the writing staff: for two reasons. In the first place, he would be able to add humorous bits to scenes while we were actually writing in the room together. And he was also able to play the part of Red in the scenes as we were writing. I knew instinctively that if Dave could do it, Red could do it. Dave resisted this invitation to join our writing staff, because he claimed he was an actor but he wasn't a writer. We discussed this at some length and Dave finally confessed he couldn't be a writer because he'd had very little schooling, never even having finished high school. He said he couldn't even spell. He was very embarrassed because he was illiterate, and knew the rest of the writing staff all had college degrees. Jess Goldstein had been an English teacher, Marty Ragaway was a college graduate. I assured him that he didn't need to spell to be a writer. Secretaries had to know how to spell, but writers didn't.
Meanwhile, he had performed on the Skelton show in two or three other parts and each time, as I expected, he managed to inject additional pieces of comedy. I pointed out that the other writers on the show were Jesse Goldstein and Marty Ragaway and that Jesse had been an English professor but that didn't prevent him from writing prat falls and broad comedy just because he knew a lot of three syllable words. I myself had gone through pre-med and had a masters degree in biological sciences and that didn't prevent me from writing the kind of broad comedy that was Red Skelton's trademark. (In fact, I know very few comedy writers who started out by taking courses in literature or writing. If they wrote or thought funny, they eventually became comedy writers.) So I insisted Dave join Jesse, Marty and myself to form the writing staff of the Red Skelton Show.
Finally, I prevailed and rather timidly, Dave joined Jesse, Marty and myself.
It's customary, in a gaggle of gag writers for a lot of give and take in a room where jokes are bouncing around the walls at 50 or 60 miles an hour. (Note: If you have ever seen the oft repeated taping of the behind the scenes writers room in the preparation of a Sid Caesar episode, it's much the same in every group of men whose serious business is finding the best punch line for any joke.) The only problem I found with Dave was he didn't take rejection kindly. If I said something that I thought was very funny, either Jesse or Marty could say, "For Christ sakes, what's so funny about that?" The same thing would happen if Jesse or Marty said something that wasn't well received. But Dave was very sensitive.
If the three of us didn't agree that his remark wasn't hilarious, he would, in effect, sit in the corner and be lost for the rest of the writing session. I think it was because of his own insecurity based on his lack of education that made him retreat when his contribution was ignored. It took a very long time before he was free and easy as the rest of us were at insulting each other mercilessly if we didn't think something wasn't funny enough.
Meanwhile, Jesse and Marty and I were able to use Dave as an ersatz Skelton in doing all the physical shtick that Dave could do just about as well as Red. If Dave could make a certain move or twist his body or face the way Red would, Dave was worth his weight in gold. It just took a long time to convince him of his value to the writing staff.
If I may take some credit for myself in this matter, Dave, in a million years would never have expected to be up on that stage receiving an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in Comedy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his contributions in writing for the Red Skelton Show. On the Emmy I should note, Jesse Goldstein had died a year earlier and was replaced by my brother Al Schwartz, with whom I had frequently worked. You will also find on that Emmy Award Red Skelton listed as one of the writers. The truth of the matter is that Red was never in a room with the writers. That was because of a pre-condition of mine that I refused to meet with Red.
That was due to his continuing insult about writers in general and his own writers in particular. So my condition of employment with C.B.S. was that I never had to meet with Red about the script.
Red and I had a pleasant sort of arrangement where we could discuss the weather ... or the weather ... or the weather, but we never talked about the script.
It was very difficult, I'm sure, for C.B.S. to get Red to agree to this arrangement which, in effect, made me his executive producer. Red never even knew what character he was going to play from one week to the next. This may seem like a strange arrangement, but I learned during those years that every variety show had its own arrangement. So strange is really ordinary in this particular area of show business.
Dave's great passion was his boat. He must have spent two-thirds of every dollar he ever earned on that boat. Maybe four-thirds. He was always varnishing it, changing the metal fittings, etc., etc. The boat was called "The White Cloud". It was a beautiful boat, about 70' or 80' long, and as I indicated, always spic and span. Dave was forever inviting my wife and I to go sailing, but my wife was not a particularly good sailor as Dave quickly found out when he had to revarnish the deck wherever she went. It's like the old joke, "I don't have a weak stomach. I'm throwing it as far as anybody."
Dave was a great sailor, and he won a lot of short boat races with "The White Cloud". However, his ambition was to win a race from Long Beach to Guadalajara. He tried several times to win that particular race. He came in third several times, second a couple of times, but was determined to win. Finally, on one fateful day, he was returning round trip from Long Beach to Guadalajara, approaching the finish line in Long Beach. He saw the finish line and he yelled in delight, "I finally did it! I finished first! This is the happiest moment in my life!"
And that was Dave's final breath. He accomplished the one thing that had alluded him and he died right there of a heart attack.
On that same topic, some years later, I was in Hawaii at Don Ho's nightclub when he invited people from the audience to come up and sing their favorite song. A man sitting at the next table to me rushed up on the stage and said, "Don, I've been waiting for this opportunity for years." He sang a duet with Don Ho, and he said, "This is the happiest moment in my life." He returned to his table next to me and fell backwards in his chair and died of a heart attack.
There was one other incident in my life where somebody said, "This is the happiest moment in my life", and then promptly died. Maybe the human heart can't take that kind of finality. At any rate, I have carefully avoided ever saying, "This is the happiest moment in my life." I guess I hope happier moments will come along.
Dave was a great stunt man, a great director, and even though he didn't realize it, a great writer, and a terrific practical joker. When he died, I lost a very good friend, an irreplaceable friend, because he was a unique personality.