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Edmond O’Brian and National TV Dinner Day

The second week in September, and the weather should be cooling off in the Great Lakes by now. Could even spend a few days with the windows open just to get some air in the building, as long as the neighbors keep it down.

10 September, a momentous day in China (before they knew it was even September) in 210 BC, when Qin Shi Huang died; this was the founder of the Qin dynasty and first emperor of a unified state that could be called China. It was he who brought the warring states under central control and secured most of modern China.  On this day in 1897 in London was the first drunk driving arrest–gotta wonder what that field sobriety test looked like. George Smith, a 25-year-old London cab driver, was arrested after ramming a building; he pled guilty and paid a 25 shilling fine.  Finally, on 10 September 1977, the guillotine was last used in public. Hamida Djandoubi was a Tunisian-born farm laborer who kidnapped and murdered his former girlfriend in 1972. He was convicted and sentenced to death, the last time the guillotine was used in public, and the last capital sentence to be carried out in the European Union. Today is also National Swap Ideas Day, dreamed up by Robert L. Birch (no, really). But today we talk about the hardest working man in Hollywood, and convenience under tin foil.

His first film contract with RKO brought him in contact with Eve Arden and Deanna Durbin at Universal, but his first really big part was with James Cagney in White Heat (1949).

Eamon Joseph O’Brien was born on 10 September 1915 in Brooklyn, New York, the last of seven children. He did street magic as a child and learned the acting trade early in his life, at the feet of Harry Houdini and Sanford Meisner. His fellow students included Lillian Gish and Burgess Meridith in summer stock and Shakespeare road shows.  His first film contract with RKO brought him in contact with Eve Arden and Deanna Durbin at Universal, but his first really big part was with James Cagney in White Heat (1949).

220px-EdmondOBrien. Wiki Commons
Edmund O’Brien as Frank Bigelow in “DOA” (1950)

But his best-known role was in DOA (1950), where O’Brien played a notary public who spent the last hours of his life investigating his own murder. That got him enough notoriety to land a role in The Barefoot Contessa (1954) as Oscar Muldoon, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe. He would be nominated for the same awards for his role as a boozing senator in Seven Days in May (1964), winning the Golden Globe and another Oscar nomination. He also won the Western Heritage Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture for his role as yet-another lush in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962). As many awards as O’Brien won, however, did not compensate for his health challenges: his weight swung drastically, and he suffered from arthritis in his hips.

As an independent actor, O’Brien showed a business acumen and creative talent all his own, earning him the moniker “the hardest working man in Hollywood.”

O’Brien also landed leading roles, notably in Sheild for Murder (1954), 1984 and A Cry in the Night (1956).  But he’s undoubtedly best known for his characters, which he always thought were more natural to play than lead because an actor “could always fill in white space with a wisecrack.” His cinematic work was matched by his television roles, making him one of the few actors who could and did play both mediums with relative ease. O’Brien was best known on TV for Johnny Midnight (syndication, 1960) and Sam Benedict (NBC, 1962-63), and for literally hundreds of character roles on scores of programs. As an independent actor without permanent contracts in an age when contracts were the only route to steady work, O’Brien showed a business acumen and creative talent all his own, earning him the moniker “the hardest working man in Hollywood.”

Legend has it that O’Brien was to have been awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1986, but he passed before a vote was held.

O’Brien’s last roles on the big screen or small were in 1974 when he was 59. But his weight and his hips were getting the better of him, his memory seemed to be failing and so was his heart. So was his bank account. For all the work he did, his finances were never sterling, he was divorced twice, and the father of three children, all of whom ended up in television. Edmund O’Brien died in Inglewood, California of Alzheimer’s Disease on 9 May 1985. Legend has it that O’Brien was to have been awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1986, but he passed before a vote was held.


Now, today is National TV Dinner day because on 10 September 1953 the first TV dinners (turkey with all the trimmings) were made commercially available in the US by Swanson. The food was pre-cooked and came in aluminum trays, and the meals were meant to be heated in the oven at home. They were intended for convenience like so many things in the ’50s were, and just having a TV was a status symbol: the scene above was promotional for the televisions, not the non-packaged meals.

TV dinners have gone through many transitions since their origins. Swanson wasn’t the first and was hardly the last, but Swanson was the first to make it a commercial success. In my youth, TV dinners were common about once a week when Dad was out-of-town on business. They were generally OK but tended towards the bland, and in the ’60s there wasn’t a great deal of variety: chicken, roast beef, turkey, repeat. When the brownies started in the mid-60s, this was something, and there were hot dogs with buns and beans and franks. Then, as ever, life changed, and I didn’t see another TV dinner until I saw the Army’s version–the T-Rations–only once, sometime around 1975. They were about the same except on a cardboard tray and slightly larger.

In my bachelor days I tried some TV dinners again, but either I had outgrown them, or the industry had just stopped trying, as I found them bordering on the disgusting–even my cooking was better. I don’t think I’ve had a TV dinner since the early ’80s.

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