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From the Archives: Robert Sterling, 88; Played Ghost in 1950s TV Sitcom 'Topper'

Times Staff Writer

Robert Sterling, the dashingly handsome actor who co-starred with his wife Anne Jeffreys as a stylish pair of fun-seeking ghosts in the 1950s TV sitcom "Topper," has died. He was 88.

Sterling, who had a decade-long battle with shingles that kept him bedridden the last five years, died Tuesday of natural causes at his home in Brentwood, said his son, Jeffreys Sterling.

A budding star at MGM in the early 1940s who appeared in dozens of films over the years, Sterling achieved his greatest fame on television in "Topper," in which he and Jeffreys played George and Marion Kerby, a married couple who were killed in an avalanche while on a European skiing vacation.

The Kerbys, along with their would-be rescuer -- a brandy-swilling St. Bernard named Neil -- returned as ghosts to their former home, since occupied by dignified banker Cosmo Topper (Leo G. Carroll) and his wife, Henrietta (Lee Patrick).

The situation comedy, which was based on a novel by Thorne Smith and a 1937 film starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, aired on CBS from 1953 to 1955, followed by a year of evening reruns on ABC and NBC.

A onetime clothing salesman who attended the University of Pittsburgh, the black-haired, blue-eyed Sterling was signed by Columbia Pictures in 1939. Two years later, he moved to MGM, where he was groomed as a potential successor to Robert Taylor.

At MGM, Sterling appeared in "Two-Faced Woman," starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas; "Johnny Eager," starring Taylor and Lana Turner; and "Somewhere I'll Find You," starring Clark Gable and Turner.

He also starred in the 1941 romantic drama "I'll Wait for You" and the 1941 crime drama "The Get-Away."

"I was dazzled by his good looks," Ann Rutherford, who co-starred with Sterling in the 1942 romantic comedy "This Time for Keeps," told The Times on Wednesday.

"You just never caught him acting," added Rutherford, a close friend of Sterling and Jeffreys. "He was such a good actor and a delightful person. I was so shocked when I discovered later that he was also a singer. He had it all. He had a beautiful wife and a wonderful family."

During his time at MGM, Sterling appeared as a young boxer in the 1941 film "Ringside Maisie," starring Ann Sothern. They were married in 1943 and had a daughter, actress Tisha Sterling, before divorcing in 1949. Sterling's movie career at MGM was interrupted by World War II, during which he served as an Army Air Forces flight instructor and was stationed in London.

After the war, Sterling resumed his movie career in "Bunco Squad" and the westerns "Roughshod" and "The Sundowners." He was in director George Sidney's 1951 movie version of the Broadway musical "Show Boat."

Sterling was playing the romantic lead in the Broadway play "Gramercy Ghost" at the Morosco Theatre in 1951 when he met Jeffreys, who was starring in the Cole Porter musical "Kiss Me Kate" across the street at the Shubert Theatre.

Show business columnists dubbed the Sterling-Jeffreys pairing "The Romance of Shubert Alley."

They were married the same year and, in addition to their son, Jeffreys, had two other sons, Dana and Tyler.

After "Topper," Sterling and Jeffreys co-starred in the short-lived 1958 sitcom "Love That Jill," in which they played the heads of rival Manhattan model agencies. Sterling also starred in "Ichabod and Me," a situation comedy that ran from 1961 to 1962 in which he played a New York City reporter who buys a small-town newspaper.

After appearing in the movies "Return to Peyton Place" (1961), "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" (1961) and "A Global Affair" (1964), Sterling began winding down his acting career except for occasional TV guest shots through the '70s and '80s; he occasionally appeared with Jeffreys, with whom he also had a successful nightclub act in the '50s.

The son of a professional baseball player, Sterling was born William Sterling Hart on Nov. 13, 1917, in New Castle, Pa. After signing with Columbia Pictures, his name was changed to Robert Sterling to avoid confusion with silent western star William S. Hart.

In the 1970s, Sterling was a vice president and the spokesman for a company that implemented the software for one of the first supermarket barcoding and computer inventory systems. He later launched Sterling & Sons, a Santa Monica company that manufactured custom golf clubs.

In addition to his wife and children, Sterling is survived by six grandchildren.


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