Denis O’Brien, who served as George Harrison’s manager for much of the former Beatle’s solo career and with Harrison co-founded the production company that backed such hits as the classic Monty Python’s Life of Brian, has died at age 80.
O’Brien’s daughter, Kristen O’Brien, told The Associated Press that Denis O’Brien died Dec. 3 in Britain at the Great Western Hospital in Swindon after being admitted for severe abdominal pains. She said the exact cause of death had not been determined.
O’Brien was a St. Louis native who moved to Europe after receiving a law degree from Washington University and had a long record of successes, along with setbacks and legal battles. Through the actor Peter Sellers, whose career he had helped revive, he met Harrison in 1973 and quickly formed a personal and professional bond. Harrison hired him as his manager after parting with Allen Klein, who had become The Beatles’ manager in 1969 but eventually fell out with the group, which broke up a year after signing with Klein.
In 1978, Harrison and O’Brien co-founded HandMade Films, a top independent company over the next decade. Their initial project was Life of Brian, Monty Python’s controversial religious parody which they financed after EMI Films dropped out at the last minute. “Life of Brian” is widely regarded as one of the greatest film comedies and Handmade went on to produce Mona Lisa, Withnail and I and Nuns on the Run among others. One notable flop: the 1986 release Shanghai Surprise, which starred Madonna and then-husband Sean Penn in a production marked by tenacious paparazzi, violent outbursts from Penn and an atmosphere so unhappy that Harrison flew in to keep the crew from quitting.
Handmade went out of business in 1991 and the partnership between Harrison and O’Brien ended in court: O’Brien was ordered by a California judge in 1996 to pay Harrison damages of $11 million for alleged mismanagement of the company’s finances. In August 2001, three months before Harrison’s death, a judge rejected the musician’s effort to stop O’Brien from declaring bankruptcy.
Harrison’s close friend Eric Idle would later allege that O’Brien tried to get him fired from Monty Python because he feared that Idle was turning Harrison against him.
O’Brien also had troubles in his family’s business. In 1997, he succeeded his father, Albert O’Brien, as president and CEO of the Union Financial Group Ltd. Two years later, the company’s board forced him out over what one executive called “a difference of opinion on the business strategy.”
According to Kristen O’Brien, he was essentially retired over the past 20 years, “enjoying life with his wife, Phyllida O’Brien.” He was married four times, most recently to Phyllida, who died in 2019. His survivors include a brother, Douglas, and daughters Kristen and Laura.