May 26, 2013

Hugh O'Brian and the Gay 1950s

Hugh O'Brian (no relation to the child star Clay O'Brien) was one of the few beefcake actors of the 1950s not discovered by gaydar-proficient talent agent Henry Willson -- although he was rumored to be gay.  He just wanted to be discovered for his talent, not for his biceps and bulge. A high school athlete and former Marine, he began acting in 1948, and appeared in a steady stream of B-actioners, mostly cowboy and war flicks, through the 1950s.

In 1955 Huge got his big break, playing legendary Wild West marshall and sharpshooter Wyatt Earp, who participated in the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral (1881), along with his brothers and his close friend Doc Holliday.

 A 1931 biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, omitted the gambling, prostitution, and shady business deals,  transforming him into a heroic character who brought "law and order" to the Old West. Movie versions of his life appeared in 1934, 1939, 1946, and 1957.

The tv series, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-61) whitewashed the character even farther, but didn't skip on the gay subtexts.  Earp isn't married, and falls in love no more than once per season.

He lives in a masculine-coded world of brawlers and gunfighters, renegade Indians and gun-shy dudes.  He has many friends, Doc Holliday, Deputy Hal Norton, Bat Masterson, Marsh Murdock, and his brothers, but never settles down to any long-term relationship.







After Wyatt Earp, the typecast Hugh performed as any number of heterosexual cowboys, detectives, and do-gooders. but he managed to draw in a gay subtext occasion.

In Love Has Many Faces (1965), he plays a male prostitute (coded as a "beach boy") out for revenge against his former pimp who has gone "straight" (Cliff Robertson).






In Africa: Texas Style (1967), cowboy Jim Sinclair (Hugh) and his Indian sidekick John Henry (Tom Nardini) go to Africa, where they buddy-bond and encounter scalawags.  They don't get girlfriends, but they do adopt a young native boy, Sampson (John Malinda). (It was adapted into a tv series starring Chuck Connors.)

Huge reprised the Wyatt Earp character several times, most recently in Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone (1994).

He married for the first time in 2006, at the age of 81, but according to close friend Debbie Reynolds, he was straight.  He just didn't want to get tied down.

If he was straight, why were all of his friends gay?  Well, she says, there simply weren't a lot of straight beefcake actors in 1950s Hollywood, so you had to be gay-friendly if you wanted friends.