R.I.P. Erin O'Brien, who played Andy Griffith's gal and the title character in the '77 Sunset Strip' pilot
The former Tonight Show singer made her final TV acting appearance on Perry Mason.
The 77 Sunset Strip pilot was cinematic. Literally. Running nearly 80 minutes long, the black-and-white mystery was released in theaters in some markets, in the Caribbean, for instance. The flick was titled Girl on the Run, and gave top billing to Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Erin O'Brien, who played the titular "girl on the run."
As an interesting aside, Edd Byrnes portrayed a hitman named Kevin Smiley, who constantly combs his hair before heading to jail in the end. Audiences loved the hip dude so much, Warner Bros. brought Byrnes back as a series regular for 77 Sunset Strip, as the comb-obsessed Kookie. At the start of episode two, Zimbalist talked to the audience and explained, "We previewed this show, and because Edd Byrnes was such a hit, we decided that Kookie and his comb had to be in our series. So this week, we'll just forget that in the pilot he went off to prison to be executed."
But let's go back to Girl on the Run. Erin O'Brien had recently signed to Warner Bros. as a contracted performer. She had made a name for herself regularly singing on The Tonight Show in the Steve Allen era. She also appeared on The Frank Sinatra Show and The Bob Hope Show before being inked to the movie studio.
The year 1958 would be her breakout year, though not exactly in the manner the studio intended. Warner tested her as the lead in Marjorie Morningstar opposite Gene Kelly. Unfortunately, Kelly told her, "Miss O'Brien, I feel you're too tall for the part." She asked for another gig.
Instead, she ended up in Girl on the Run and Onionhead. The latter motion picture is of great interest to MeTV fans, as it played an important part in the career of Andy Griffith. The North Carolina comedian and orator was beginning to carve a niche for himself in military comedies. No Time for Sergeants proved to be a smash on Broadway and on screens. Onionhead was in the same wheelhouse, casting Griffith as a US Coast Guard cook.
O'Brien was cast as Griffith's sorority girl steady, Jo. "Griffith demonstrates he is agile in comedy or romance," The Miami News wrote in its review. Unfortunately, other critics and the box office were not as kind to this blend of comedy and drama. The film flopped. Griffith, who had also come down with a bad illness during filming, soured on the whole movie-making process afterward. He gave up his big-screen career and transitioned to television.
O'Brien, too, mostly stuck to TV for the rest of her brief career. She could be seen as a guest on Maverick, Sugarfoot, Tombstone Territory, Death Valley Days, and Bat Masterson (in which she played an undercover Pinkerton agent).
In the early 1960s, the roles began to dry up. Her finally TV acting role came on Perry Mason, in "The Case of the Golden Oranges." She wore a bathrobe and answered her door to find Paul Drake.
O'Brien passed away on May 20, according to The Hollywood Reporter. She was 87.