Jim Gardner, Peri Gilpin reflect on Jim O'Brien's life

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November 26, 2013 2:23:01 PM PST
For an entire generation of Philadelphians, September 25th 1983 is a date that won't be forgotten. As the newspaper headlines declared in boldface type, it was the day this city lost a legend, and word of Jim O'Brien's untimely death hit hard.

And word of Jim O'Brien's untimely death hit hard. Viewers looked to Jim Gardner, O'Brien's friend and colleague, to try to make sense of it.

Jim explains, "What we tried to do as best we could was to tell what happened, and to unavoidably convey our feelings. And it was unavoidable, because most of us were crying."

Peri Gilpin, O'Brien's daughter, tells us, "When he passed away it became really clear how popular he was there."

At the time, Peri was living in Texas. She was aware, of course, that her father was famous here, but as she tells us for the very first time, she had no idea just how many lives he'd touched.

"To see a city mourning your dad, you know, it's pretty overwhelming. But what I loved about it was everyone expressed themselves so beautifully," Peri said.

Jim says, "He taught me so many valuable lessons. And he made the kind of impact that comes around once in every couple of generations."

A fitting tribute to a man whose own expressions remain the stuff of legend in this town.

30 years after his death, Jim O'Brien remains a towering figure in this city, in all of television, and in this newsroom.

For years Thanksgiving in Philadelphia meant turkey, football, and yes, the parade with Jim O'Brien as host. But Jim was a man who wore lots of hats. And in each, he was lovable... and he was loved.

From 1976, the year he joined Action News, to 1983, the year he tragically died, Jim O'Brien WAS television. You couldn't turn on the tube in town without seeing his smiling face.

It was a career, though, born behind a different microphone, as Jim first rocked this city on the radio as a DJ with a certain flair.

Peri Gilpin starred as Roz on the hit TV show Frazier. It is not lost on actress Peri Gilpin that her dad's legacy had seeped into her own career.

"His best friend called me and said, 'I can't believe you're sitting in a radio station with earphones on your head! Oh my God!'"

The apple did not fall from the tree.

"I know that everything he did, he did it with gusto. You know? And I know that Philadelphia was so close to his heart," Peri explained.

Peri's' clearest memories of her father take her back to Dallas, and Jim's early days as a radio DJ. His studio was smack in the middle of a drive-in movie theater.

"My mom and my sister and I would go. We'd watch him do his show from a booth right there where people were getting their popcorn. It was so great!"

And as she tells it, he relished the role. Maybe that's when the showman in Jim O'Brien was born... but something else, something deeper, came first.

Peri says, "He started out as a theologian. He was a pastor. I was born when he was at Baylor University and wanted to be a pastor. I think there was something about people that he wanted to connect."

And connect, he did, though his career took a different path.

As Peri says, Jim O'Brien bloomed where he was planted.

"He was inspirational to so many people, and supportive to so many people that go on to talk about him, and that's a successful life."

Like Peri's television character, Jim loved his radio days. But there was something about television that made his star shine even brighter. For a man with broadcasting in his blood, working at Channel 6 was a dream job.

Peri says, "I think he was just one of those guys. It was just on. He loved it. He did find his bliss. He found where he wanted to be, which is wonderful."

Jim famously began his TV career here with Dialing for Dollars, which was produced by Art Moore, who is now Production Manager of Live with Kelly and Michael. A keen eye for talent, Art knew his best friend had it.

Art tells us, "As talented as he was, there's no doubt in my mind he would have continued to grow and develop. And who knows where that potential could have led."

Jim quickly made the move into news here at Channel 6, anchoring at Noon and at 5:00pm. In that role, viewers saw a more serious side of the man, and a clearly sensitive one.

When thousands of people filled Logan Square to watch Pope John Paul II say mass, it was O'Brien who brought it home. And when the Shuttle Columbia launched into space, it was him who beamed us back the pictures, with all the excitement of a would-be astronaut.

All of that made Jim's well-known zany side something to savor.

Weather forecasting was decidedly low tech then, but Jim had his pointer, and his clouds, and sense of humor that made his reports at 6 and 11 each night worthy of your trust.

These days, they might have made him a YouTube sensation.

Yes, on camera was where Jim belonged and spent most of his time. But in the years before his death, his free time was occupied by another passion - skydiving, which he fell in love with while filming a TV segment.

There would be many more, until his 814th jump, the day his chute didn't open.

Suddenly, the man with such enormous presence ... was absent. And no one who first heard the news will forget it.

But before his death, he reflected on his life and the connection he made with viewers that lives on, even 30 years later.

"What I figure is that they trust me, they believe me. 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."


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