George O’Brien, an athlete turned actor who appeared in about 75 films over 40 years, died Wednesday in a Broken Arrow, Okla., convalescent home. He was 86 and had been partly paralyzed since a stroke in 1981.
Born in San Francisco, where his father was chief of police, O’Brien became the Navy’s Pacific Fleet light-heavyweight boxing champion during World War I. After his discharge he was introduced to cowboy star Tom Mix who helped him find work as an assistant cameraman, extra and stunt man.
One of his early film tricks involved Rudolph Valentino knocking O’Brien from the rigging of a ship into the sea.
O’Brien’s first featured screen appearance was in “White Hands” in 1922 and although he quickly appeared in four other films he remained a relative unknown until John Ford selected him to star in “The Iron Horse” in 1924.
That two-hour early epic about a son helping to build the first transcontinental railroad and concurrently seeking to avenge his father’s death featured a then-rare cast of thousands and established Ford as a serious director and O’Brien as a star.
It also marked the beginning of O’Brien’s long-running personal and professional relationship with Ford, which extended to 1964.
In 1927 he appeared opposite Janet Gaynor in “Sunrise.” That tale of a villager in love with a city woman is considered among Hollywood’s finest silent productions.
By now publicists had dubbed O’Brien “The Torso” because of his physique and he began working with some of the biggest names in films--Mary Astor, Wallace Beery, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., William Powell and Myrna Loy.
After 1930 O’Brien became one of Hollywood’s essential Western stars in “Riders of the Purple Sage,” “Frontier Marshal,” “The Cowboy Millionaire,” “Daniel Boone,” “The Fighting Gringo” and dozens more.
He re-enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor in 1941 and was at Attu when American forces captured that Aleutian island from the Japanese.
After the war he returned to his horse and a featured role in “Fort Apache,” another John Ford spectacular with a cast that included John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Shirley Temple.
In 1949 he made “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” also with Wayne. His last film was Ford’s 1964 “Cheyenne Autumn.”
After his retirement from films O’Brien directed and produced stage plays in the United States and Europe, and produced and wrote scripts for movies and TV.
He had married actress Marguerite Churchill, who appeared with him in “Riders of the Purple Sage” in 1933 but they divorced in 1948.
He is survived by a son, Darcy, a daughter, Orin, and a granddaughter. After a Rosary in Broken Arrow, O’Brien will be buried at sea by the Navy off the coast of San Diego.