O'Brien grew up in New Britain, Connecticut and served in the United States Army during World War II. He attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he was awarded a bachelor's degree in 1949 with a major in drama. In 1950 he moved to New York City, where he started his acting career. O'Brien's balding, mature look helped gain him roles as authority figures, with his son recalling that "he always had that older look" even in his early acting days.
In the 1950s, he appeared on 23 episodes of the television series Westinghouse Studio One, including an episode with Walter Matthau. During the 1960s, O'Brien appeared on the soap operas Dark Shadows and The Edge of Night. In the late 1960s and through much of the 1970s, O'Brien appeared on television and print advertisements as the Shell Answer Man, a job that he felt was "like hitting the state lottery". During the 1970s he appeared on Ryan's Hope and played a hotel doctor in Woody Allen's 1977 comedy Annie Hall. In the 1990s he had a recurring role as a judge on Law & Order. His final film appearances were in the movies Quiz Show and Six Degrees of Separation.
A resident of Haworth, New Jersey, O'Brien died at age 91 of heart failure on June 19, 2010. He was survived by his wife Kate (born Delphine Force), a daughter, four sons, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His son Conal O'Brien was a director of the soap opera All My Children from 1987 to 2009, and is now a director for the soap opera The Young and the Restless.
- Levin, Jay. "Character actor Vince O'Brien, 91, of Haworth dies", The Record (Bergen County), June 21, 2010. Accessed June 22, 2010.
- Brown, Emma. "The Daily Goodbye", The Washington Post, June 22, 2010. Accessed June 22, 2010.
- Potter, Beth. "Haworth's Notable Characters", Haworth, New Jersey. Accessed June 22, 2010.