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Character actor Vince O'Brien dies at 91

Vince O'Brien, a character actor whose long career included memorable turns as a debauched businessman in the Broadway musical comedy "Promises, Promises" and an earnest hotel doctor in Woody Allen's film classic "Annie Hall," died Saturday. He was 91.

The cause was heart failure, said his son Liam.

O'Brien, of Haworth, N.J., was adept at playing authority figures, a consequence of his balding, mature appearance. "I've seen pictures of him as a young man," his son said, "and he always had that older look."

He had recurring television roles as judges on "Law & Order" in the '90s and the soap operas "Ryan's Hope" in the '70s and "The Edge of Night" in the '60s, and as a sheriff in the cult soap "Dark Shadows," also in the '60s.

He was most recognizable, however, as the Shell Answer Man, in television and print ads for the petroleum company.

O'Brien said in a 1969 interview with The Record that landing the Shell gig "was so much like hitting the state lottery that I didn't even worry." He was appearing at the time in "Promises, Promises," which was based on Billy Wilder's 1960 movie "The Apartment."

Eight years later, O'Brien landed in "Annie Hall."

The second of nine children, O'Brien was reared in New Britain, Conn. He served in the Army during World War II and received a drama degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 1949. He came to New York in 1950, the same year he married his wife, Kate, whom he met at college.

O'Brien immediately began getting stage and TV work. He performed in 23 live dramas on CBS' "Studio One" and received equal billing with Walter Matthau on one show.

In 1953, the O'Briens moved to a 19th century farmhouse in Haworth with their two small children. Their family would grow to 10 children.

"His career was as a New York actor from Day One," Liam O'Brien said. "He was a working actor - the only job he ever had."

O'Brien's stage credits also include the Broadway play "Advise and Consent" in 1960-61.

His final film roles were in "Six Degrees of Separation" and "Quiz Show" in the early '90s. His last stage work was eight years ago in his favorite musical, "The Fantasticks," at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Connecticut.

O'Brien was predeceased by five of his children. In addition to his wife of 60 years, survivors include his daughter Mary O'Brien of Closter, N.J., and sons Vincent of Warwick, N.Y., Conal of Manhattan, Liam of Deerfield, Mass., and Dominic of Closter.

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