Sep 10, 2017
Academy Award-winning actor Edmond O’Brien was born September 10, 1915. In a career that spanned five decades, O’Brien was one of the all-time great character actors of the big and small screens. But to old time radio fans, O’Brien is best known as “the man with the action-packed expense account” – Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. O’Brien starred as Dollar from 1950 to 1952, and to many fans (this writer included), he’s second only to Bob Bailey in the ranking of actors who played “America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator.”
O’Brien worked onstage before he made his film debut in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). It led to a long film career where he turned in memorable performances in White Heat and – in a kind of test run for Johnny Dollar, O’Brien starred in The Killers (1946) as an insurance investigator probing the murder of Burt Lancaster’s Swede. In 1950, O’Brien starred in one of his most famous movies – the film noir classic D.O.A. where he played a poisoned man investigating his own murder.
That same year, O’Brien assumed the title role on Johnny Dollar and he would star as the sleuth for 103 episodes. O’Brien succeeded Charles Russell, who voiced Dollar for the program’s first year. Russell was sardonic and sly, a lighthearted character more in the vein of a Dick Powell radio detective (Richard Diamond or Richard Rogue of Rogue’s Gallery). As played by Russell, Johnny Dollar was described “at insurance investigation, he’s only an expert. At making out his expense account, he’s an absolute genius.” The tongue-in-cheek grifter aspects of the character were exiled when Edmond O’Brien stepped in. His Johnny Dollar was no-nonsense, two-fisted, and tough. It wasn’t hard to imagine him taking hits from an office bottle while he waited for the phone to ring and bring him a new assignment.
Interestingly, O’Brien had a shot at a radio series one year earlier. In May 1949, he recorded an audition program for Night Beat in the role that would eventually be played by Frank Lovejoy. While I think O’Brien would have been good in that show, I think his tougher approach was better suited for Johnny Dollar. Frank Lovejoy’s more compassionate take was a better fit for the character and the series.
Elsewhere on radio, O’Brien made four visits to Suspense (“radio’s outstanding theater of thrills”) and he could be heard on Family Theatre and The Lux Radio Theatre. One of his memorable appearances on Lux came in the program’s November 28, 1949 recreation of Key Largo with O’Brien playing the Humphrey Bogart role in John Huston’s film.
Throughout the 1950s and his tenure on Johnny Dollar, O’Brien continued to appear in films but his fluctuating weight made it difficult for him to get leading roles. He continued to do strong character work – as a mobster in Pete Kelly’s Blues and in an Oscar-winning turn opposite Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart in The Barefoot Contessa. He’d pick up a second nomination for what I consider one of his all-time best performances – as an alcoholic Senator enlisted to defeat a military coup against the President in John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May (1964).
O’Brien transitioned into television in the 50s even as he continued to star on the big screen. He played another private eye in the syndicated series Johnny Midnight (1959-60) and he starred as a flamboyant San Francisco attorney in Sam Benedict. The single-season show was created by E. Jack Neumann, a veteran radio writer who’d penned episodes for Johnny Dollar during O’Brien’s run on the show. Elsewhere on television, O’Brien made guest appearances on many classic shows of the 60s and 70s, including Mission: Impossible, The Streets of San Francisco, and McMillan and Wife. His final credits came in 1974 before memory problems (later diagnosed as Alzheimer’s Disease) led him to retirement. Alzheimer’s would ultimately claim him at age 69 on May 9, 1985. Though he died far too young and was forced to retire before his time, Edmond O’Brien left behind a legacy of amazing performances both on screen and on radio in over 100 episodes of “action-packed expense accounts” as Johnny Dollar.