By Olivia Tracey
I always thought of myself as high energy. That is, until I met Pat O’Brien. I paid a visit to NBC Studios to catch this famous face in action behind the scenes of "Access Hollywood," the entertainment newsmagazine show of which he is the distinguished male anchor.
Action is indeed the operative word as I ran from office to office, doing my best to keep up with the ginger-haired host as he sped from voiceovers and scripting to research and reviewing, all in what seemed like one smooth tale. While the Irish Tenors crooned soothing Christmas tunes in the background, Pierce Brosnan, Sharon Stone, Robert Downey Jr., and Cameron Diaz were just some of the names that ping-ponged around the room. During this pacey process, Patrick Joseph Vincent James O’Brien managed a string of introductions, a sprinkling of witty tales, concentrated business coordination and a brief but conclusive realization that he had worn the wrong aftershave. As for me, I had worn the wrong shoes, tottering around in my stilettoes when a good pair of Nike’s would have done the trick. Forget the stride in your hide. A pep in your step is the order of this day.
Understandably, it was this intoxicating energy that lured the South Dakota lad from an almost-complete masters degree in economics to a stellar career in television. While a student at Johns Hopkins and working for South Dakota Gov. George McGovern, he got sidetracked by a job offer as production assistant on NBC’s "The Huntley-Brinkley Report." There, the energy and commotion sparked his plugs. He did everything from making the coffee to researching local news events, with producing, writing and editing thrown in. He particularly enjoyed the writing and producing aspects, courting no ambition to go on air.
"They all seemed so full of themselves," he said, adding with a smirk, "now I’m one of them and I can’t imagine why producers are so full of themselves."
News reporter positions followed at WMAQ-TV in Chicago and KNXT-TV (now KCBS-TV) in Los Angeles. In 1981, he joined CBS Sports where he anchored the network’s coverage of the world’s premier sporting events including the Winter Olympics, the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA Finals, and the NCAA Tournament and Final Four. In preparation for the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, he hosted a series of syndicated television specials entitled "The Road to Olympic Gold." And, of course, last fall he returned to Sydney to cover the Olympics for CNBC, marking the first ever complete cable coverage of an Olympic Game.
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His sports commentating also translated into print with a regular sports column in the New York Daily News, monthly columns for Inside Sports and Live! magazines and guest columns for TV Guide. In 1998, Villard Books published his first book, "Talkin’ Sports, A B.S.-er’s Guide," which, incidentally, sits proudly on my shelf, personally signed with "Olivia — Don’t retain any of this." Well, considering that my knowledge of sports begins and ends with a patriotic interest in the Irish World Cup soccer team, I suspect that I will have little trouble complying with Mr. O’Brien’s command.
So, while I try to educate myself on Mickey Mantle, Bruce Jenner and various other sporting greats, Pat O’Brien actually walks his sporting talk, announcing that he loves to play basketball, works out every morning at 5 and pretends to play golf. He considers it important to find time for family and leisure, despite his busy schedule on "Access Hollywood," and his entertainment column for Ego magazine and his position as Gadget Editor for Gear. Summers are spent in Nantucket with his wife, Linda, and their son, Sean, 13. There, he happily nurtures both his family and his Irishness with the Careys, the Kennedys and the annual American Ireland Fund Ball.
He has also spent a vacation in Ireland, and looks forward to a more extensive sequel in the not too distant future. Immensely proud of his Irish heritage, he admits to being tired of the cliched, drunken-Irish jokes, preferring instead to appreciate our innate, creative genius through music, film and especially literature.
"There’s nothing like a real Irish writer," he said, describing Frank McCourt’s "Angela’s Ashes" as "dark, wet and funny."
He distinguishes himself as a rare Irish Lutheran who converted to Catholicism when he married his wife. But most of all, he is a true family man.
Considering this, cooking is, not surprisingly, a great source of joy for him, especially on "Daddy Nights," those treasured Wednesday evenings when he stays at home with his son. The two boys cook, talk and just hang out, while his wife gets to go out with the girls. A mere total of three "Daddy Nights" have been missed in the last 10 years, despite his crazy work schedule. It is a top priority for him to be the father that he feels he never really had, as his own parents divorced when he was a child. He has one older sister, Kathleen, and a younger half brother, David. His father, Joe O’Brien, an electrician of Cork ancestry, died in 1972, at age 74.
As for his mother, Vera, of both Danish and Irish ancestry (Kerry), she was a professional pianist, playing all over the Midwest. Her musical gift was indeed passed on to Pat, who sings, dances and, according to his hairstylist and makeup artist, Joy and Ing, "plays the piano beautifully." He also plays the guitar and the drums, was part of a rock ‘n roll band, Dale Gregory and The Shouters, for nine years and is in the process of putting together a new band. Like his mother, he was never professionally trained in music. It’s just a precious instinctive gift that now lives on through him, since his mother’s death last year, on Aug. 31.
Meanwhile, back in the studio, I sip my perfectly brewed hot tea while the multi-talented Pat continues to give his all, delivering the last of the day’s news in his signature punchy style, with little energy-boosting bouts of tap-dancing between takes. Success hasn’t changed him. It has just given him a fuller life. With his priorities in order and his feet firmly on the ground, it’s clear how Pat O’Brien has earned his prestigious place in Hollywood, living his motto, "Work works."
Once it’s a wrap, we bid our farewells and mutual thank yous, as he takes off at lightening speed for yet another business meeting. And to think it’s only lunchtime. As for me, I’m taking a nap.