LOS ANGELES, March 17 (UPI) -- Nearly 50 years after he established Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership, the veteran Hollywood actor best known to TV fans as Wyatt Earp is still looking for leaders in U.S. high schools -- even gang leaders "if you haven't got somebody else."
O'Brian was featured in dozens of movies in the late 1940s and early '50s -- mostly Westerns and military dramas starring such names as Spencer Tracy, Audie Murphy, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis. He became a star playing the title role in the Western series "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp" -- a Top 10 hit that aired on ABC from 1955-61.
It's not uncommon for actors to say that a hit TV show or movie is a "life-changing" experience, but for O'Brian the real life-changer came in 1958 when he spent nine days visiting Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer at Schweitzer's clinic in Africa. As O'Brian was preparing to return to the United States, Schweitzer told him: "The most important thing in education is to teach young people to think for themselves."
O'Brian's response to Schweitzer's admonition was to establish Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership.
"The last thing that man said to me was, 'Hugh, what are you going to do with this?'" O'Brian said in an interview with United Press International. "I had no reply. I thought about it on the plane, and I had my first group of kids within two weeks."
O'Brian said his business advisers -- his attorney, accountant and business manager -- thought he was "nuts" to take on the project.
"It wasn't that I wasn't doing something," said O'Brian. "I was on the national board of the Boys Club. I was national campaign chairman for cystic fibrosis and California chairman of the American Cancer Society. But I was just kind of a glorified volunteer, going around patting other volunteers on the back. The HOBY program became my whole life."
O'Brian, who will turn 80 next month, has continued acting, appearing in dozens more feature films and TV movies -- including the 1965 feature "Ten Little Indians" and the 1988 Arnold Schwarzenegger-Danny DeVito comedy "Twins." He reprised his signature role in 1994, in "Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone" -- a TV movie that combined new footage with colorized footage of "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp."
The '50s series was frequently referred to at the time -- and O'Brian still refers to it -- as the first "adult Western" on network TV. In part, it was seen that way because the wardrobe was more authentic than the kinds of outfits cowboys typically wore in Hollywood movies and TV shows.
These days, the HBO series "Deadwood" makes a claim to authenticity on a different basis -- that its characters employ the crude and vulgar language that was commonplace in the Old West but excised by Hollywood throughout the years. O'Brian said he admires the authenticity but takes some offense at the cursing and swearing.
"I think they've gone overboard on that a little bit," he said. "But it is very much a realistic show and I think because of that, it has attracted a reasonable crowd."
O'Brian estimated that 345,000 kids have gone through the HOBY program over the years. The members of the first group are now in their mid 60s.
O'Brian said HOBY selects 10th-grade students to participate in leadership conferences around the country through contacts with public and private high schools. He said the program isn't necessarily for the highest-achieving students -- rather it is for the ones who show promise as leaders.
"I'm looking for the guy and gal that have the eyes and ears of their classmates," he said. "Give me a gang leader if you haven't got somebody else. Do not give me grade points -- though I'm not knocking grade points."
O'Brian said gang leaders have turned their lives around through their participation in HOBY -- whose alumni also include countless political professionals.
"We have a tremendous number up on Capitol Hill at any given time," he said, "and 10 to 20 at the White House."
O'Brian said hundreds of HOBY graduates have served in the U.S. State Department.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is a HOBY alumnus, as is Sheraton S. Kalouria, who now works as vice president of Daytime Programming at NBC Universal. Kalouria will receive the HOBY Alumni Achievement Award next Tuesday at the 22nd annual HOBY Albert Schweitzer Leadership Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Eight awards will be presented, including the Albert Schweitzer Leadership Award -- HOBY's highest honor -- to Wells Fargo Bank Senior Vice President Janice Burrill.
Entertainment industry legends Art Linkletter and Pat Boone are set to emcee the ceremonies.
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