Catholics in the Movies: George O’Brien (1899-1985)

The son of San Francisco’s police chief, George O’Brien was the grandson of Irish immigrants who settled in that city during the 1870’s. After graduating high school, he served in the Navy during World War I. He served as a stretcher bearer during the war and was later Light Heavyweight Champion of the Pacific Fleet. After the Navy he was pre-med at the Jesuit Santa Clara College (now Santa Clara University). A chance meeting with cowboy star Tom Mix at a rodeo led him to a movie career, which he began behind the scenes carrying props. Virile and athletic, he worked as a stunt man for the likes of Rudolph Valentino. (Later when he became a star in his own right, O’Brien would be known as “the Irish Valentino.”) This led to bit parts, and when director John Ford noticed him, he was given the lead in Ford’s 1924 railroad epic The Iron Horse. In 1927 O’Brien starred in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, which some consider the greatest film of the silent era. With the arrival of sound, however, O’Brien became mainly a B-Western star. When World War II broke out, he rejoined the Navy, serving as a Beach-Master in the Pacific theater. After the war he appeared in a few films for his old friend John Ford, including Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Staying in the Naval Reserve, he retired as a Captain. Going into the ranching business and traveling the world filled his later years. In 1981 he suffered a stroke that incapacitated him until his death in 1985. O’Brien was said to be a devout Catholic who attended daily Mass. His son Darcy wrote a biography of Blessed John Paul II. George O’Brien has a star to honor his pioneering work in Hollywood.

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