Official "Action News" Publicity Photo
Broadcast Pioneers’ Hall of Famer Jim O’Brien was born James Oldham in Galveston, Texas on November 20, 1939. During an interview on "Prime Time," host Jim O'Brien talked about his life:
I was raised on a little farm, which was not a farm where we had to farm for a living. My father had a job in town, but he always wanted to have land and cattle and horses and a little crop, here and there. My father was a very hard working kind of a guy. His creed, his way of living was just to work hard. He raised me that way. Just to give a man a man, a day's work for a day's pay.
On a 1983 WPVI-TV broadcast, "AM Philadelphia" hosted by Broadcast Pioneers member Dave Roberts, asked, "about his skydiving experiences. Roberts asked, when did it start, Jim replied:
August 12, 1978. That's when "Prime Time" started. The very first "Prime Time" show was my first jump. And then we pursued it after that. The first jump is a real moment. ...My main thing that you feel is, 'why did I ever get involved in this,' A lot of people who saw the first "Prime Time" show said, 'we see fear on your face.' But you're misreading that. That was terror. There's nothing quite like it. You see yourself in a light that you'd probably never see yourself before when you make that first jump.
A lot of people say, 'gosh, I'd like to climb a mountain or drive a fast car or whatever. There's always something that somebody would like to do, but you never, ever have the chance. Well, I always wanted to parachute and never got the chance. Then all of a sudden, with the start of the "Prime Time" series, almost five years ago, they rigged me up with a school and instructor, and I accepted the challenge and pursued it from there.
O'Brien's broadcasting career began in college at Baylor University (the largest Baptist university anywhere in the world) and it took him from coast to coast as a rock jock and program director before coming to the Delaware Valley. In 1966, he was doing morning drive at WSAI in Cincinnati .
Previously, he was in Denver. Then he went to several other stations and finally to KHJ in Los Angeles as Program Director but didn't like management as much as being on the air. However, O'Brien found it tough to get an air job because all the PD's thought that Jim might be after their jobs. All except WFIL Radio's Jay Cook who hired him.
Jim arrived in Philly during August of 1970 as one of the WFIL Boss Jocks. Actually, it was Monday, August 17th. He started at WFIL Radio on the same day of Broadcast Pioneers member Steve Levy who would become one of Jim's closest friends.
When Dr. Don Rose left WFIL Radio in 1973, Jim got the coveted morning drive slot. His WFIL newscaster was Broadcast Pioneers member Allen Stone and his engineer was Broadcast Pioneers member Howard Eskin. It was O’Brien who encouraged Howard to pursue a career on air.
Broadcast Pioneers member Larry Kane told us a story about Jim O'Brien appearing on Channel 10 in 1979. As Larry told us, there was a big snowstorm in Philly and City Line Avenue was like a ghost town. Channel 10 thought it would be nice to do a live shot on the lawn of Channel 10 with Larry's back towards City Line (and Channel 6). All of a sudden, Kane heard some screaming and a second later, was tackled live on Channel 10's air by Jim O'Brien. The two dusted themselves off and talked on camera for a few moments. You never know what is going to happen with live TV.
Jim started on Channel 6 as a weekend sportscaster in 1971 or 1972.
There has been some question when Jim O'Brien started on Channel 6. However, we now believe we have the time line correct. Broadcast Pioneers member Larry Kane was the main anchor on "Action News" and he remembers that Mayor-elect Frank Rizzo (on election night) came to the WFIL-TV studios to be on the air with Larry Kane. He entered the studio just as the 11 pm newscast was starting and tripped over a wire on the floor. Larry said that Jim O'Brien came over and help Rizzo get up. He was possibly filling in on the sports, but we cannot confirm that.
In 1972, WFIL Radio, WFIL-FM and WFIL-TV were sold to separate owners but remained in the same building. WFIL-TV became WPVI-TV and in 1973 (possibly 1972), Jim O'Brien started as their main weathercaster on the 6 pm and 11 pm newscasts. This is where the confusion comes in.
However, Jim O'Brien left the TV airwaves shortly after taking over morning drive on WFIL Radio. Jim was gone from weather and replaced by Bob Gale (who later wrote the motion picture, "The Buddy Holly Story.") and later WFIL Boss Jock Dave Parks. Late in 1974, Jim O'Brien decided to return to weather on "Action News." This was verified by Broadcast Pioneers member Larry Kane, the anchor of "Action News" at that time. A little while later, O'Brien anchored the 5:30 pm newscast (before they began a 5 o'clock newscast)
His other duty in addition to his weathercasting duties. Jim hosted a morning one-hour long TV program (10 am to 11 am) called "Dialing for Dollars" where Broadcast Pioneers member Paul Norton was his announcer. O'Brien was also the Host on the "Steel Pier" broadcast that was earlier hosted by Broadcast Pioneers member Ed Hurst.
Larry Kane also told us another story about something that took place on Monday, November 1, 1976. President Gerald Ford was in town and was at Channel 10 recording some last minute TV commercials. Kane made some calls and was able to get a possible commitment for the President to appear live on the 6 pm news on Channel 6. Kane warned his producer and also mentioned to O'Brien that the weather may have to be reduced that evening. O'Brien said, "no way." At 6:21 pm, the President walked into the studios and did a live interview with Larry Kane, the first time a sitting president did a live interview for a local station. Even though Jim's weather was reduced, Jim came over and greeted the president as he entered the studio. He said, "welcome, Mr. President." Larry ended the cast with "This is Larry Kane on behalf of Jim O'Brien, Joe Pellegrino (a member of the Broadcast Pioneers), Gerald Ford, and the entire Action News team, Good Evening." As soon as they went to credits, O'Brien again started shaking the president's hand and again saying "glad to see you."
Broadcast Pioneers member Jerry Blavat says that before Jim O'Brien was on television, O'Brien commented to Jerry that he loved the wide ties that Blavat wore on TV (Jerry's Place), so when Jim started TV, The Geator gave O'Brien a half dozen ties and O'Brien wore a different one on Jim's first six broadcasts.
About television newscasting, Jim O'Brien once said:
I get this tremendous opportunity at 5 o'clock to cover the full spectrum of news, whether it be a little, local feature kind of a story that I'm just gonna just lead into or actually tell the story or it could be an international event such as a Korean jetliner or Lebanon or whatever.
All the time, he was doing a full-time morning drive air shift on WFIL Radio. He left radio in April of 1977 to devote his energies full-time to television. He also hosted the Channel 6 program, “Dialing for Dollars” and the Saturday evening news magazine called “Prime Time.” The last record Jim O'Brien played as a regular Boss Jock (he appeared on Famous 56.com after he left the station for special promotions) was Jimmy Elledge's 1962 hit, "Funny How Time Slips Away."
His weathercasts were unique. He sometimes used a pointer and talked about rain coming in as those “bad humdingers from the south.” “Dad Gum” and talking about “Casa Grande” became part of his shtick.
As a TV newsman, he covered a wide variety of events from the launch of the very first U.S. Space Shuttle to the Pope's visit to Philadelphia.
Jim O’Brien loved riding his motorcycle and enjoyed skydiving. An experienced jumper with 813 jumps to his credit, he died shortly after noon (12:20 pm) on Sunday, September 25, 1983 in a skydiving accident in New Hanover, Montgomery County. Jim and a friend were jumping from 8500 feet and both chutes opened normally during their second jump of the day.
They both started a maneuver called a “corkscrew” which allows them to get to the ground faster and thus they would be able to do more jumps in one day. The two got tangled. Jim decided to cut his ropes and open his reserve chute. However, he was too close to the ground and his chute did not have time to completely open. Jim’s jumping buddy for that day was supposed to be Gary Papa, an inductee into our “Hall of Fame” but Gary canceled at the last minute. O’Brien once said after a jump, “That whole experience, which lasted 45 minutes, was as near to God as I ever hope to be.”
Broadcast Pioneers’ Hall of Famer Jim Gardner said of O’Brien, that he was “the most effective communicator I’ve ever known in the business.” Broadcast Pioneers member W. Carter Merbreier (Captain Noah), who had dinner with Jim O’Brien (along with Carter's wife, Pat, Mrs. Noah) the night before, performed the ceremonies for Jim at the Overbrook Presbyterian Church at City Line and Lancaster Avenues in Philadelphia. Voted the area's best weatherman by Philadelphia Magazine, after his death, O'Brien lived my himself in a three acre farmhouse in Lower Merion Township.
O’Brien was buried in his home state of Texas near some moss-covered shade trees on Thursday, September 29, 1983. Jim O’Brien was 43 years old.
Showbusiness ran in the family as his daughter Peri Gilpin,went into acting. He also had a second daughter, Patty.
Jim once said:
...A lot of folks aren't willing to or able to concentrate as hard as you have to, to be able to get the job done over a given period of time on the air. In other words, you got this little, bitty time on the air, whether it be an hour or a few seconds at a time or a couple of minutes, whatever it is. You got a job to do and if you concentrate hard enough, you can do it. And that separates the men from the boys. But what I figure is that they trust me. They believe me in whatever role I am, they say, that's Jim O'Brien and he's doing what he always does. He's trying to tell us something. He's trying to communicate with us. And that's the bottom line.
Broadcast Pioneers member Steve Levy and personal friend of Jim O'Brien e-mailed:
You mentioned "Dialing for Dollars." Jim and I frequently co-hosted the show and we co-hosted the last 6 weeks of its tenure. Now, that was fun.
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Bio researched and compiled by Broadcast Pioneers historian Gerry Wilkinson
Special Thanks to Broadcast Pioneers member Steve Levy
Color screen shots taken off the original WPVI master tapes that reside in our archives
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