In Search of the UnknownDavid O’Leary ’02 and His Star-Studded UFO Series

David O’Leary ’02 has long been fascinated by stories about UFOs and other unexplained phenomena. He’s parlayed his passion for the unknown into a new series for the History Channel called Project Blue Book, about a U.S. Air Force project that investigated reports of UFO sightings and related phenomena in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Actor Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones) in a scene from Project Blue Book.

Photo: Courtesy of the History Channel

O’Leary says, “I’ve always had an interest in where science and the paranormal intersect.” He majored in film and cognitive science at Vassar and wrote his senior thesis on an extrasensory perception study that explored whether test subjects could exchange information telepathically in sensory-minimized conditions. He also made several short science fiction films.

Nearly two decades later, he is creator and lead writer of the new series, which he jokes, “fortunately monetizes my UFO obsession.”

The show is scripted, but it’s based on true cases from the real-life Project Blue Book. O’Leary conceived the show after reading hundreds of cases from the Project Blue Book files, as well as books written by Captain Ed J. Ruppelt, the program’s first director, and Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer who acted as Chief Scientific Adviser for Project Blue Book. Hynek, one of the lead characters on the show, is played by actor Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire). Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Contact) is the show’s executive producer.

The show’s creator and lead writer, David O’Leary ’02Photo: Courtesy of the History Channel

O’Leary also tracked down Project Blue Book’s last living director, 98-year-old Lt. Col. Robert Friend. “I was doing a social media search for him when I found a video of him doing a coin toss for a USC football game,” he says. “Before that, I didn’t even know if he was alive. But he was a lovely man who was willing to speak to us at length.” Hynek’s sons, Joel and Paul Hynek, are consultants for the show “to make sure we draw his character accurately,” O’Leary says.

His research and attention to detail seem to have paid off; the show was recently picked up for a second season.

O’Leary’s path from Vassar to Project Blue Book wasn’t a straight line. He moved to Los Angeles after he graduated and was an intern before landing an entry-level job in the entertainment industry, working in the mailroom and as an assistant at Industry Entertainment. This was followed by assistant stints at Warner Bros. Pictures before he became a development executive for the late producer Arnold Kopelson. He also worked for Gale Anne Hurd—who later developed the hit TV series Walking Dead—when Hurd was working in post-production for two Marvel films, The Incredible Hulk and Punisher: War Zone.

While he enjoyed the work, O’Leary says, by this time he was determined to become a writer. He says the seeds for what eventually became Project Blue Book were planted in 2005 when he saw a Peter Jennings ABC News Special on UFOs entitled Seeing Is Believing. “That sparked a deep interest for me in Project Blue Book and in Dr. J. Allen Hynek, and it took off from there,” O’Leary says. He notes that Hynek had been a UFO skeptic who, through Project Blue Book, became a believer as well as a man who was convinced that the U.S. Air Force hides all it knows about UFOs.

O’Leary says the exhaustive research he did to develop the show has done nothing but enhance his lifelong interest in UFOs and the boundary between the known and unknown. “I’ve always had a healthy curiosity about UFOs,” he says, “but this project has added some credence. I’ve read so many documents about these so-called ‘interplanetary vehicles’ and the witnesses who came forward with the same stories even though they didn’t know about each other. These people had nothing to gain by reporting these things.”

O’Leary says he hopes viewers who tune in to Project Blue Book will enjoy watching the mystery unfold as much as he did while creating it. It airs on the History Channel Tuesdays at 10:00 pm Eastern Time and can be purchased on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play. “It’s been an overwhelming experience,” he says. “I started writing in 2015 and sold the project in 2016. Watching it grow into a full-blown project with an executive producer like Robert Zemeckis and an all-star cast has been an amazing journey. It’s a dream come true.”