12 August 2006 | Cheyenne-Bodie
Film noir icon Edmond O'Brien in a TV noir
Forty-five year old Edmond O'Brien played a former Broadway star who becomes a private detective. Presumably Johnny Midnight was his stage name, not his birth name. Johnny lives in a plush Manhattan penthouse with a stunning view of the city. Johnny has a wise-cracking young Japanese man for a "houseboy". A haunting version of "The Lullabye of Broadway" was the theme song. Johnny Midnight narrates his adventures in the classic Bogart/MacMurray style. The best thing about this series (other than O'Brien) was the title Johnny Midnight: what a great name for a noir character!
The producers of "Johnny Midnight" reportedly refused to hire an overweight Edmond O'Brien for the role unless he went on a crash vegetarian diet. Maybe the reason Johnny Midnight retired from Broadway stardom was his weight problem. However, O'Brien seemed to carry the weight easily and made a fine, rather dashing middle-aged hero.
Edmond O'Brien always straddled the line between character actor and leading man. He was memorable as the insurance investigator in "The Killers" and as an undercover cop after James Cagney in "White Heat". But O'Brien's tour de force role was as the poisoned CPA Frank Bigelow, who tries to find out who murdered him in the classic film noir "DOA". O'Brien was convincing in every department of that exceedingly demanding role. His narration and his sweaty and energetic acting kept the tension unrelenting. In reviewing the remake of "DOA", Siskell and Ebert both agreed that Dennis Quaid was a much better actor than Edmond O'Brien. I was dumbstruck by the comment. To me O'Brien was mesmerizing and Quaid seemed to have no emotional reaction at all to his impending doom. "DOA" is one of the great film plots like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". It cries out for another, better remake and an actor of O'Brien's stature in the lead.
"Johnny Midnight" was a thirty-minute show produced by Revue (later Universal Studios) in 1960. Other 30-minute detective shows produced by Revue at the time were "M Squad" with Lee Marvin, "Johnny Staccato" with John Cassavetes, "Mike Hammer" with Darren McGavin, "Markham" with Ray Milland, "Shotgun Slade" with Scott Brady and "Coronado 9" with Rod Cameron. All these shows were very professionally done but relied heavily on the charm and talent of their lead actor. Edmond O'Brien was always awfully good company, and "Johnny Midnight" is underrated.
O'Brien had two more series. At the age of 47 he gave a forceful performance as flamboyant San Francisco attorney "Sam Benedict" (1962) in an hour long drama. And O'Brien was excellent as Will Varner in a TV version of "The Long Hot Summer" (1965) with Roy Thinnes as Ben Quick, Nancy Malone as Clara Varner, Lana Wood as Eula and Ruth Roman as Minnie. O'Brien left "Summer" when the producers decided to focus on relative newcomer Thinnes, who was also exceptional. Dan O'Herlihy replaced O'Brien. O'Brien never played leading man roles again after taking on the role of Will Varner at the age of 50.
O'Brien managed to keep his film career alive at the same time that he was all over television. Some of his memorable 1960's films were "Seven Days in May" (Oscar nomination), "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", "The Longest Day" and "The Wild Bunch".
"Johnny Midnight" was the first time I saw O'Brien, and I have searched out his work ever since.