Pat O'Brien (1899-1983)

Pat O'Brien
Pat O'Brien
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Pat O'Brien was a film actor who made over 100 movies in a long career, often playing Irish characters, although he, himself was American born and bred.


Pat O'Brien was born William Joseph Patrick O'Brien on November 11, 1899 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin into an Irish-American family. All four of his grandparents were immigrants from Ireland. He had two younger brothers, both of whom died as babies.

Early Years

Pat attended the Jesuit, Roman Catholic Marquette Academy in Milwaukee and became interested in Catholic theology, briefly considering entering the priesthood. However, at this time he developed an interest in the theater and began regularly watch plays with one of his schoolmates, who became a lifelong friend, future Hollywood star, Spencer Tracy.

His studies were interrupted early in 1917 when, along with Spencer Tracy, he joined the US Navy, training at boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago, which lasted until the end of World War I. On discharge he resumed his studies at Marquette Academy and then went on to Marquette University to study law.

Stage Career

He had determined on a stage career and he interrupted his studies to move to New York City, living for a while in Manhattan with Tracy who was also beginning his acting career. He studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, paying for the lessons with his severance pay from the Navy. His first professional engagement was in the Broadway production "Adrienne" as a dancer and he began to work regularly during the 1920's when he joined a stock company travelling round the east coast.

For the rest of the decade Pat continue to appear on stage, gaining valuable experience and eventually becoming a regular on Broadway. He became well known as a talented and dependable actor and in 1930 came to the attention of Hollywood.

Hollywood Actor 1930

His first movie appearances were in the one reelers 'My Mistake' and 'Compliments of the Season' in 1930 and the following year he was cast in a leading role in 'The Front Page', a screwball comedy co-starring Adolphe Menjou. The film was a success and O'Brien's movie career was well and truly launched.

Warner Bros. 1932

O'Brien became a contracted Warner Bros. employee in 1932 and would stay with them for the next seven years. During this time he confirmed his status as a top class actor with substantial parts in such films as 'Blonde Bombshell' in 1933 with Jean Harlow, 'Flirtation Walk' the following year, 'Ceiling Zero' with James Cagney in 1936 and 'Boy Meets Girl' and ' Angels with Dirty Faces', again both with Cagney, in 1938. In 1940 he again teamed up with Cagney in 'The Fighting 69th'. In all O'Brien and Cagney would make nine films together.

Knute Rockne, All American 1940

In 1940 O'Brien appeared in the movie for which he is best remembered, as Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne, in 'Knute Rockne, All American', the film in which he exhorts his team to "win just one for the Gipper," played by Ronald Reagan. The saying became even more famous when Reagan used it as a slogan for his campaign for president in 1980.

O'Brien left Warner Bros. in 1940 to work as a freelancer and he continued to appear in several movies a year, usually in leading roles. In 1943 he appeared in the semi-documentary 'Bombardier' and the following year he was the star of the war film 'Marine Raiders'. After the comedy 'Having a Wonderful Crime' in 1945 he switched genres and starred in the film-noir 'Crack-Up' in 1946. He often portrayed Irish characters and played an Irish priest in 'Fighting Father Dunne' in 1947. He portrayed a priest again in 'The Fireball' in 1950, with Mickey Rooney and in 1951 he appeared, for the first time with his old schoolfriend, Spencer Tracy, in 'People Against O’Hara'.

Career Downturn

O'Brien's movie career slowed down during the 1950's although he did appear in the dramatic war film 'Okinawa' in 1952 and he finished the decade in some style with a good supporting role as a cop in the classic comedy 'Some Like It Hot'. His film roles became few and far between after that. He appeared in a Disney movie 'The Sky's the Limit' in 1975 and finished his career in 1982 appearing one last time with his friend James Cagney in 'Ragtime'.

Television Career

O'Brien began acting in television dramas as early as 1952, in the 'Schlitz Playhouse' and he continued for the rest of his career to regularly appear on the new medium in such programs as 'Celebrity Playhouse', 'Science Fiction Theatre' and 'Lux Video Theater'. In addition he appeared in series such as 'Crossroads' and 'Studio 57' from 1956-7 and from 1960-61 he starred in 34 episodes of a comedy series entitled 'Harrigan and Son'.

As his movie career wound down, so his television career gathered pace and during the 1960's and 1970's he became a familiar figure on the small screen in series such as 'Hazel', 'The Virginian' and 'Banyon' and he also appeared numerous times as himself, making guest appearances on chat shows with Ed Sullivan, David Frost, Merv Griffin and Joey Bishop. His final screen appearance was in the series 'Happy Days' in 1982.

In addition to his film and television work O'Brien did a one man travelling show during the 1960's and 1970's performing in roadshows and nightclubs.


O'Brien married actress Eloise Taylor in 1931, and the couple had four children, three of them adopted.

He published a well received autobiography, 'The Wind At My Back' in 1965.

O'Brien was a very sociable man, well known for his love of jokes and storytelling and he had numerous long lasting friendships. He met James Cagney in 1926 and they remained friends until O'Brien's death. He was a member of the so-called 'Irish Mafia' - a group of mainly Irish Americans including O'Brien, Cagney, Frank McHugh, Jackie Gleason and Spencer Tracy, who regularly socialised together.

Pat O'Brien died in Santa Monica, California, on October 15, 1983 from a heart attack. He was aged 83 years.

Pat O'Brien Academy Awards

No Nominations:

Pat O'Brien Filmography

My Mistake (Short)
Compliments of the Season (Short) (uncredited)
The Nightingale (Short)
Honor Among Lovers
The Front Page
Crimes Square (Short)
Personal Maid
Consolation Marriage
Happy Landing
Hell's House
Scandal for Sale
The Strange Case of Clara Deane
Hollywood Speaks
American Madness
Flaming Gold
Air Mail
Laughter in Hell
Destination Unknown
The World Gone Mad
Bureau of Missing Persons
Blonde Bombshell
Football Coach
I've Got Your Number
Gambling Lady
Twenty Million Sweethearts
The Personality Kid
Here Comes the Navy
I Sell Anything
Flirtation Walk
Devil Dogs of the Air
In Caliente
Oil for the Lamps of China
The Irish in Us
Page Miss Glory
Stars Over Broadway
Ceiling Zero
I Married a Doctor
Public Enemy's Wife
China Clipper
The Great O'Malley
San Quentin
Back in Circulation
Submarine D-1
Breakdowns of 1938 (Short)
Women Are Like That
Out Where the Stars Begin (Short)
Romance and Rhythm
Boy Meets Girl
Garden of the Moon
Angels with Dirty Faces
Swingtime in the Movies (Short) (uncredited)
Unfit to Print
Orphan of the Ring
Devil on Wheels
The Night of Nights
Slightly Honorable
The Fighting 69th
Years Without Days
'Til We Meet Again
Torrid Zone
Submarine Zone
Flowing Gold
Knute Rockne All American
Two Yanks in Trinidad
Flight Lieutenant
The Navy Comes Through
The Iron Major
His Butler's Sister
Marine Raiders
Secret Command
Having Wonderful Crime
Man Alive
Perilous Holiday
Fighting Father Dunne
The Boy with Green Hair
A Dangerous Profession