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From Reefer to Ranger: does anyone remember Dave 'Tex' O' Brien

Updated on July 17, 2016
Charlie LeSueur profile image

Charlie LeSueur is Arizona's Official Western Film Historian, Fellow @ Scottsdale Museum of the West & author of 4 books on the subject.

Dave shows off his new swim suit and excellent physique

Remembering this forgotten actor and what was and should have been

Although I do poke fun at Dave in this story, it's nothing that he did not do himself as he easily switched back and forth between poverty row guntotin' cowboy to slapstick comedy leading man, and then move over to the other side of the tracks for smaller roles in bigger films. As you'll see Dave is one of those under the radar acting gems that requires further examination. It's time he is remembered for more than just the reefer guy who demands his girlfriend play the piano faster in a 1930s cult classic.

Dave O' Brien, Renaissance Man

Born with the non-star-like name of David Poole Fronabarger on May 31, 1912, a truly unsung hero of many a western film is Dave O’ Brien. Dave made 243 film and television appearances of which a major portion of them were "B" westerns. During his days riding the range, Dave supported cowpokes such as, Roy Rogers, Bob Steele, Buster Crabbe, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy and Tex Ritter. He appeared with Dorothy Page, billed as 'The Singing Cowgirl,' in two of her three films at Grand National Pictures in 1939. Just a year before that studio closed it's doors for good.


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One of the early efforts to alter the singing cowboy films that were gaining huge popularity in the first full decade of sound. Singer Dorothy Page had a brief

Dave started out in Hollywood as a stuntman, a talent that would serve him well under Dave O' Brien and David Barclay when he starred, wrote and directed several of the Pete Smith comedy shorts for MGM throughout the '40s and '50s. After his screen career was finished he found himself a major asset working on the production end of the Red Skelton Hour, where he developed stunts for Red Skelton.

Dave was an excellent specimen of manliness, usually working in duos or trios in westerns such as the Texas Rangers series at Producers Releasing Corporation. One of the many low budget ripoffs of Republic Pictures Three Mesquiteers films churned out with different combinations for PRC and Monogram. He was billed as Dave 'Tex' O' Brien until Tex Ritter was brought in as part of the group, the nickname was then dropped to avoid confusion.



By this time Bela Lugosi had made so many poor choices in his career that he would never attain the stature of "Dracula," "The Black Cat" or "Son of Frankenstei

Dave would get an occasional lead in a film or serial as he did in Columbia Pictures' Captain Midnight in 1942. That same year he began a fruitful teaming at MGM with 'shorts' producer/director Pete Smith, popular at the time for his 'Pete Smith Specialties,' one of the filler shorts series that appeared before a feature film at the local theater. However, working at MGM with Smith for 10 years still didn't help his career. He was a working actor much like John Wayne was when given Stagecoach in 1939 by his mentor, director John Ford. But Smith was no John Ford and Dave remained in B features at PRC, with occasional work at Columbia Pictures.

For fans of 'Tex' O' Brien it must have been quite a shock for them to watch him do pratfall after pratfall while continually losing his obviously fake hairpiece. Dave was totally bald, but many an obvious hairpiece covered a barren leading man's pate during the days of studio contract players. He would also become more involved with production of the MGM shorts division as the Texas Rangers series ended in 1945 after 22 films in four years.

In 1957, still under the name David Barclay, he became involved on the production end of The Red Skelton Hour doing basically much the same as he did with Pete Smith, although for Red instead of himself, eventually becoming a head writer.


Have Hairpiece, will Travel

You really want me to dive in?

I'm not wearing my what?

O' Brien invents Rogaine (just kidding)

Read more about Dave O' Brien and all the great B movie cowboys in "Riding the Hollywood Trail: Tales of the Silver Screen Cowboys." The tale begins in 1905 wit

There's Hell Toupee!!!

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One of Dave's non-genre films which displays what he could have done if given the chance..

1955 "Pete Smith Specialty" featuring Dave doing some fantastic stuntwork, appropriately with horses

By the time Tex Ritter joined the Texas Rangers he had already had a successful career as one of the very first real singing cowboys starring in his debut film

Never becoming one of the top action stars or screwball comedy actors, both genres of which he did extremely well, Dave O' Brien/Barclay's career was never-the-less a rich and full one. He fought all the western bad guys, appeared in the East Side Kids series, and played Captain Midnight, as well as bringing his talents for pratfalls to MGM when he joined Pete Smith's comedy shorts in 1945 and staying until 1950. If one were to pinpoint a break out move in Dave's career his association with these specialty shorts would indeed be it, which in a way would make Pete Smith his John Ford. Ending on a high note as one of the production heads on the Red Skelton television production team was the icing on the cake. One wishes that Dave had taken time to write his memoirs, it's people like this that have the most interesting tales to share.

Columbia and Republic Pictures were the most prolific of the studios to make serials. Each week you'd be expected to return to the theater to see how the hero

Infamous Piano scene from, "Reefer Madness." (1936)

Unfortunately the role that he will arguably be best remembered for is that of the manic pot head screaming and laughing wildly, through billowing white marijuana smoke, for his equally fried piano playing girlfriend to play it, "Faster! Play it faster!" in the cult classic Reefer Madness (1936).

Ironically, our hero would die November 8, 1969 of a heart attack on his schooner, appropriately named "White Cloud." He had just set down anchor off the coast of Santa Catalina Island right after winning a big race from Marina del Rey. His final words were, "This is the happiest day of my life."

"Meet The O' Briens." Unsold 1954 comedy pilot for a Dave O' Brien television show. Impressed yet?

© 2016 Charlie LeSueur

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    • profile image

      Vic 13 months ago

      A handsome actor who should have had wider stardom.

    • Charlie LeSueur profile image
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      Charlie LeSueur 14 months ago from Phoenix, AZ

      You're spot on, Shyron. Dave played Jack in "Tahiti Nights" (1944). He was one of those faces that was in A and B films. If you weren't a B western fan you'd probably never know just how much he contributed to the sub-genre.

      "Reefer Madness" is one of those propaganda type films that was made to show the "dangers" of Marijuana. Very over the top, but it was at a time when not to many outside the entertainment industry really knew much about it. The film gained it's biggest popularity in the 1960 art house theaters at midnight showings when most everybody in there was actually high on the stuff.

      Thanks so much for sharing, Shyron. Love talking about all kinds of films,

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 14 months ago from Texas

      Charlie, I loved the old western films and miss them. I didn't know they knew about reefers in the 1930s.

      Thank you for writing this, I think remember this guy for a B/W film I saw once called "Tahiti Nights" I didn't see that many old films and this one was not a western, so maybe it was someone else.

      I did enjoy reading this.

      Blessings my friend.