From the Archives: Robert Young, TV Doctor and Father Who Knew Best, Dies
Robert Young, the handsome leading man of films of the 1930s and 1940s who parlayed his considerable charm into television stardom in “Father Knows Best” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” has died. He was 91.
The ideal father for a generation, Young, who said he merely played the dad he yearned to have himself, died Tuesday night at his Westlake Village home. He had earlier undergone heart surgery and died of causes related to old age, according to his physician, Dr. John Horton.
The actor aged gracefully on screen in more than 100 films and on television in two major series and movies stressing problems of the elderly. He matured from a carefree, debonair romantic lead to charming husband to benevolent, understanding parent and doctor to troubled care-giving spouse and grandparent.
It was “Father Knows Best,” in which the actor portrayed kindly insurance man and head-of-the-family Jim Anderson, that gave Young his greatest fame and made him an indelible family icon.
The gentle situation comedy, a successful radio show that began in 1949, debuted on television in 1954 and was going stronger than ever in the ratings when Young, tiring of his role, called it quits in 1963.
Young owned 50% of the show’s 207 episodes, and its success, both on the networks and in syndication, made him a millionaire who had the option of never having to work again.
But he did. After taking a few years off, Young was back before the camera in 1969 with a show that was almost as successful—"Marcus Welby, M.D."—the story of a dedicated general practitioner in an age of medical specialization. Like Jim Anderson, Welby was gentle, kind, decent and more than a little square. The show ran for seven years.
‘Projected Calm and Order’
In citing Jim Anderson as one of the five all-time-great television fathers, Times television columnist Howard Rosenberg wrote in 1994: “His most memorable quality was his relentless geniality. Why was sage Jim always so unruffled? Because he was Robert Young, that’s why. Whether in this series or as the all-knowing physician in ‘Marcus Welby, M.D.,’ Young projected calm and order.”
Robert Young was sort of a non-singing Perry Como who calmed you down. In fact, he may be remembered for, as much as anything, his much-parodied Sanka decaffeinated coffee commercials that ran for five years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The job too much? The bills piling up? Living on the edge? Slow down and have a cup with good ol’ Jim Anderson-Marcus Welby-Robert Young.
Many who met the actor agreed that Young was merely being himself on screen. Or so it seemed.
The real Young was married to but one woman for more than 60 years--a record of sorts for Hollywood—and was a solid, reliable professional.
But in contrast to his contented screen persona, he suffered a life-long struggle with depression and, to a lesser extent, alcoholism. In 1991, he even attempted suicide.
“I look back now through 40 years of pictures,” he once said. “I was always failing, I was always going broke. Metro was always going to cancel my contract. How would I support my family? I’d come home and say, ‘This is it! I’m an outcast. I’m washed up.’ ”
Young’s unhappiness had physical manifestations in the form of migraine headaches. Off-screen, Young admitted, he was too often a nervous wreck. On-screen, in both movies and TV, he was playing a succession of polished, unperturbed husbands.
“It’s upsetting to go counter to the image,” he told The Times in 1971. “To play a steadfast, happy person when you’re not gives you a sense of guilt. But you suddenly feel that’s not a bad idea—being the sort of square person you’re playing.”
In Deep Pain for Years
His work rarely suffered, except for a period in 1966, when touring with Broadway’s hit play “Generation,” he collapsed and was hospitalized. Young then turned to psychiatrists, trying to rid himself of the headaches, depression and alcoholism.
The pain remained deep for years, Young said. “People can say you have everything to live for, not realizing that the person is all too aware of that. Their saying it only makes the pain sharper because the person realizes the lunacy of it. It’s like saying to a psychotic, ‘Why are you screaming?’ You don’t know what he’s seeing.”
Young said the psychiatrists helped, but it was his wife Betty—the high school sweetheart whom he married in 1933 and who died in 1994—who “kept me from jumping off the end of the pier.”
Unlike many aging actors, Young’s problems were not caused by any lack of work. Young always worked. Just out of high school, he played 40 roles at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, where he learned his trade. As an octogenarian in 1987, he portrayed a troubled grandfather in the CBS television movie “Conspiracy of Love” and a husband convicted of murder for taking the life of his terminally ill wife in the NBC television movie “Mercy or Murder.”
“Parts like this don’t come along this often, so when it did I jumped at it,” Young told The Times in 1987, discussing the latter non-Jim Anderson character. “It’s stimulating to play a role that’s bound to cause controversy.”
Five-Year MGM Contract
Robert George Young was born Feb. 22, 1907, in Chicago, one of five children of Thomas Young, a building contractor. The family moved west and young Robert was educated at Los Angeles’ Lincoln High School, where he took part in class plays.
In 1931, while traveling with a stock company, Young was spotted by a talent scout from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and given a screen test. MGM signed him to a five-year contract and loaned him out almost immediately to 20th Century Fox for a role in a minor epic called “The Black Camel,” filmed, for reasons lost in the annals of Hollywood, on location in Honolulu.
MGM must have liked what it saw in “The Black Camel,” for it quickly reclaimed Young and cast him as the romantic lead in four films, one opposite Helen Hayes in “The Sin of Madelon Claudet.” During the next four years Young appeared in 24 pictures, most of them melodramas, though he began to branch out into light comedy.
Many of his films have long since been forgotten, but a dozen or so earned praise. Among Young’s quality films were “The Bride Wore Red” (1937), “Bridal Suite” (1939), “Northwest Passage” (1940) and “Western Union” (1941).
In 1942 alone, the bankable Young, by then one of Hollywood’s most successful leading men, played the title role in “H.M. Pulham, Esq.,” an American reporter during the London blitz in “Journey for Margaret,” and the mechanic hero in “Joe Smith, American.”
His film roles continued with “Claudia,” “The Enchanted Cottage,” “Claudia and David,” “Those Endearing Young Charms,” “They Won’t Believe Me” and “That Forsyte Woman” among others. And then he virtually disappeared from the big screen after the 1954 film “Secret of the Incas,” co-starring Charlton Heston.
It wasn’t so much that Young was unwanted by the studios and producers, but there was plenty of money to be made in radio and television. The production company, Cavalier, which he formed in 1947 with Eugene Rodney, refocused on the airwaves.
Young had appeared on radio between film assignments since 1936, but it wasn’t until 1949 that he hit it big with “Father Knows Best” on NBC, and even bigger when the show moved to television on CBS in 1954.
For 10 years, “Father Knows Best” was the classic wholesome family situation comedy. The show probably had more effect on the collective American psyche than any other prime time television series, coming as it did during the early years of the postwar baby boom. For a time, Robert Young was the father figure to the nation, and psychiatrists talked of the “Father Knows Best syndrome"—the desire by millions of wives and children that their own “Jim Andersons” be just as warm and caring as the one Young portrayed on their living room screens every week and the accompanying disappointment when dad failed to measure up.
With Jane Wyatt as Margaret Anderson and Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray and Lauren Chapin as the children—Betty (Princess), Jim Jr. (Bud) and Kathy (Kitten)—no family problem was insurmountable, thanks to understanding Mom and Dad.
Wyatt on Wednesday remembered Young as “simply one of the very finest people to grace our industry.”
Sitcom an Incredible Success
Unlike many other family sitcoms of the early and mid 1950s, where one or the other of the parents verged on idiocy, Jim and Margaret Anderson were thoughtful, responsible adults and their children were recognizable small people—whose problems could be solved nicely in 30 minutes—working their way through the years to what surely would be responsible adulthood.
Of course, it was all a myth of sorts. Even Young told an interviewer in 1972 that the Andersons’ difficulties seemed inconsequential by the standards of real life in the 1960s—"Bud swiped something, Kathy got the measles and missed the prom,” Young said, summing up a typical episode’s plot line.
After a slow start, “Father” was incredibly successful, dominating the ratings over the years. Young’s production company had deals with all three networks for the show at various times—making Young a multimillionaire, as well as earning him two Emmys.
After “Father Knows Best,” Young worked little in the 1960s.
“Films were already changing,” Young told an interviewer years later. “The kind of role I was supposedly best suited for—light romantic comedy leads—no longer existed. Unlike some of my contemporaries like Henry Fonda and Melvyn Douglas, I was current in TV, but not current in motion pictures. Feature films, you might say, had passed me by.”
His production company tried a series called “Window on Main Street,” which lasted just one year (1961-62) on CBS. “I played the town busybody,” he said later. “Kind of a male Mary Worth. In each episode I stuck my nose into someone else’s business. The show lacked comedy, warmth and drama. I was delighted when it was canceled.”
Young went into a state of semi-retirement, moving to rural Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego, and spending his time reading and playing golf. That lasted until 1969, when he was offered the script for the pilot of “Marcus Welby, M.D.”
“I was psychologically ready to go back to work,” Young said, “work . . . for the sheer enjoyment of it.”
Welby was the biggest hit ABC, long in the ratings cellar, had had up until that time—and continued its dominance almost until it went off the air in 1976.
Kindly Dr. Welby, your neighborhood general practitioner, whose thoroughness and dedication involved him with the lives of all sorts of patients, may have been, if anything, more of a fantasy figure than Jim Anderson, the insurance salesman. Young didn’t think so.
In a 1984 interview, Young said he saw “Welby” as “the cap on my career. It’s a character I purposely try to emulate. People say he’s idealistic and I say he’s not. I modeled him after five doctors I knew. I wanted him to represent the kind of person I admire and try to be.”
Young reprised the role in a 1984 two-hour television movie, “The Return of Marcus Welby, M.D.”
Through the years, the actor remained active in charity work, serving the National Safety Council, the Tuberculosis Assn.'s Christmas Seal campaign, the City of Hope, the March of Dimes and Goodwill Industries, among others.
He is survived by his four daughters, Betty Lou Gleason, Carol Proffitt, Barbara Beebe and Kathy Young; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Times staff writer Myrna Oliver contributed to this article.
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