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“Prolific: The Obituary of Jack O’Brien” – Fiction by Andrew Davie

Papio cynocephalus – Gelber Babuin, 1927

From our Spring 2018 issue, Andrew Davie‘s “Prolific: The Obituary of Jack O’Brien” recounts the adventurous & litigious life of an unorthodox TV producer.

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JACK O’BRIEN, CREATOR OF SOME OF THE MOST PROVOCATIVE SHOWS ON TELEVISION from 1974-1983, died Friday. He was 87. The cause is reported to be complications from diabetes.

Born Hyman Lipshitz, O’Brien started out as a page for Warner Bros. He transitioned to the mailroom before becoming a staff writer and eventually a supervising producer for the hit show Knuckle Sandwich. Former middleweight champion Dwight Franklin played “Slip-Slap” Jenkins, a boxer who moonlights as a short order cook for an orphanage who uses his purse money to provide better meals for the children. (O’Brien later unsuccessfully sued the producers of Nacho Libre, but lost during Writer’s Guild Arbitration — see “Lipshitz v. Hess/Black&White Productions.”)  The show’s theme song “Slip-Slapping Away” broke the top ten on the charts in 1975. (O’Brien was successfully sued by Paul Simon, who claimed the theme song plagiarized “Slip Sliding Away.” O’Brien was unable to argue parody as a defense — see “Slip-Slap-Slide-Same; judge votes in favor of Simon.”)

O’Brien helped develop Marlboro Jones starring T.J. Burnell about a private investigator in an iron lung who solves crimes from his apartment. Former Oakland Raider John “Killer” Katoogan played Marlboro’s partner Dan “Slade” Anderson. A fundamental reworking of Nero Wolfe, Anderson would do field work and report back to Jones who would figure out the culprit while incapacitated from battling the effects of botulism. The episode entitled “Just the Tip of the Spear” would win O’Brien the coveted EGAG that year (an Emmy, Golden Globe, AVN award, and Grammy).

This was followed by a show O’Brien developed, The Shankbone Redemption, about an incarcerated Orthodox Jewish prisoner who must remain observant while trying to negotiate the pitfalls of prison life. A memorable episode involved everybody’s favorite inmate Moshe Horowitz digging a tunnel but being unable to use it until sundown. Another fan favorite included the episode where Moshe made kosher “Pruno” in his toilet. T-shirts with Moshe giving the throat slashing gesture and depicting the words “Give ‘em a Hebrew haircut” were a best-selling item in 1981.

A spinoff of Shankbone followed: A Spoonful of Pruno Makes the Heroin Go Down, a musical about the heroin trade in a maximum security prison. This generated the hit songs “Balloons & Mules,” “Cavity Searches (No Fun for Anyone),” and “ABC, Easy as GED.”

Toward the end of his career, O’Brien found a resurgence with a remake of the British show Spousal Privilege, about hitman Llewelyn Headstrong-Jones who tries to marry a witness who saw him carry out a murder.

In 1982, after suffering from exhaustion and a possible drug addiction – see “O’Brien and O’Caine; substantiated reports of Hollywood drug addiction” — O’Brien joined the French Foreign Legion under the nom de guerre “Ironbar Bassey.” He was later sued for defamation by Gary “Angry” Anderson who played said character in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and for licensing rights by George Miller — see “Anderson/Kennedy Miller Productions v. Lipshitz.”

During this period, O’Brien participated in the Chadian-Libyan conflict for two years before disappearing into the Democratic Republic of Congo. There he released a memoir, Dread Medicine, in which he purported to carry out covert military operations for the CIA; he was later sued by Chuck Barris and settled out of court — see “Chuck Barris Enterprises v. Lipshitz.”  Continue reading “Prolific: The Obituary of Jack O’Brien” – Fiction by Andrew Davie

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