Classic Movie Travels: Robert Young – Chicago, Seattle, Pasadena, Los Angeles
The 1950s were an era in which television flourished as a competitor to film. Audiences could welcome actors into their living rooms by merely turning on the television and enjoying the latest shows. While many shows were in vogue, Father Knows Best was certainly among them, featuring actor Robert Young.
Robert George Young was born in Chicago, Illinois, on February 22, 1907. His father was Irish immigrant Thomas E. Young, while his mother, Margaret Fyfe, was American. Though he was born in Chicago, by the time he turned three years old, he and his family had moved to Seattle. The family would relocate once again to Pasadena, where young attended Abraham Lincoln High School.
While attending Lincoln High School, he met his future wife Elizabeth “Betty” Henderson. She encouraged a shy Robert into trying acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse after graduation. According to the 1926 yearbook for Lincoln High School, Robert was active in school in multiple extracurricular activities and leadership roles, including Head Yell Leader, Commissioner (Boys’ Sports), Playcrafters, carrying out one of the lead roles in Taming of the Shrew and Pals and Sherwood, as well as performing a leading role in the opera Briar Rose.
Upon his high school graduation, Robert performed at the Pasadena Playhouse. He also worked several odd jobs, including brief stints as a bank clerk and reporter. At the same time, he appeared in silent films, carrying out bit-part roles. While touring with a stock company, Robert was soon discovered by a Metro-Goldwyn Mayer talent scout and was signed to a contract. He made his film debut for MGM in the Charlie Chan film, Black Camel (1931).
Robert soon signed a contract with MGM and appeared mostly in B movies, working on roughly six to eight films per year. Between 1931 and 1952, Robert worked on over 100 films. Moreover, he also worked with alongside several notable actresses, including Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Luise Rainer, and Hedy Lamarr. While Robert took on whatever roles were offered to him to avoid being placed on suspension, one of his most notable roles was as Marvin Myles Ransome in H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941).
During this time, Robert married in 1933, with whom he had four daughters: Carol, Barbara, Kathy, and Betty Lou. He and Betty would remain married for 61 years until her passing in 1994.
Once his contract with MGM came to an end, Robert appeared in a mixture of light comedies and dramas for various studios, including 20th Century Fox, United Artists, and RKO Radio Pictures. However, after 1943, Robert fulfilled roles that were more challenging, often portraying callous characters. As the 1940s continued on, however, Robert’s career began to decline. Because of the disappointing roles, he was receiving as a studio player, he decided to work independently of the studio. He was initially off to a strong start as a freelance actor and found roles as a leading man, but the films in which he appeared continued to be largely mediocre.
While his career on the screen came to an end, Robert focused his efforts on the radio. However, he would find even more success on the small screen: television.
Young is best remembered for his portrayal of Jim Anderson, the family patriarch and insurance salesman in the Father Knows Best Series. The show was a sitcom that chronicled the lives of the fictitious Andersons, a middle-class family living in the Midwestern town of Springfield. The show started off as a radio series, which ran from 1949 to 1954. When the series transitioned to television, Robert continued on in the same role from 1954 to 1960. Robert’s co-star on the show was Jane Wyatt, while Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray, and Lauren Chapin played their children. Both Robert and Jane earned several Emmy awards throughout the duration of the program. At the height of the show’s success, Robert grew tired of the character and left to take on new opportunities.
After Father Knows Best, Robert starred in the comedy series Window on Main Street, which he also created and produced. Unfortunately, the series was short-lived and came to an end within six months. Next, Robert took on his final television series, which was Marcus Welby, M.D., for which he earned an Emmy as the best leading actor in a drama series. Afterward, he spent several years working in television commercials to advertise Sanka coffee.
While Robert portrayed happy and level-headed characters throughout his career, his personal life was quite different. Disappointed and bitter about his mediocre career in the studio system, Robert suffered greatly from depression and alcoholism. Robert was dealing with depression since 1946, and his wife was also depressed. By 1991, he attempted suicide by attaching a hose to the exhaust pipe of his car and intended to have the fumes released in the interior of the vehicle. However, Robert’s car broke down, leading him to call for a tow truck. The tow truck driver noticed the hose and called the police. Robert had been drinking and admitted that he planned to end his life. As a result, he was admitted voluntarily for a 24-hour observation period at Charter Hospital in Thousand Oaks. According to his wife, Robert had tried to form a suicide pact with her, but she did not think he was being serious.
Over the years, Robert spoke openly of his struggles with alcohol and depression. He attributes his negative feelings to the fact that he was portraying characters that were constantly content and positive, while Robert was deeply unhappy inside.
Robert passed away from respiratory failure on July 21, 1998, in his Westlake Village, California, home.
Because Robert and his family moved quite a bit during his early years, there are places of relevance to him both in his home state and beyond. According to the 1910 census, Robert and his family were living at 4730 19th Ave. NE in Seattle, Washington, when he was three years old. Here a picture of the property today:
By 1920, Robert and his family had moved to 26 S Michigan Ave. in Pasadena, California. This is what the property looks like currently:
Robert’s alma mater, Abraham Lincoln High School, continues to operate as a high school. It is located at 3501 N Broadway in Los Angeles, California.
The Pasadena Playhouse, where Robert participated in live theater, continues to operate as a theater today, producing cultural and artistic events, professional shows, and also hosting community engagements. It is located at 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena, California.
While many places of relevance to Robert are focused in California, his home state of Illinois does possess one building that recognizes his work towards the passage of the 708 Illinois Tax Referendum. The Referendum established a property tax in order to support mental health programs in the state of Illinois. The Robert Young Community Mental Health Center is named after Young in honor of his work. It was started in Rock Island, Illinois, but has since opened additional locations in Iowa and Illinois, as part of the Quad-City Metro Area. The original location is at 2200 3rd Ave. in Rock Island, Illinois.
Though Robert’s life had its ups and downs, it is comforting to know that the staff at the Robert Young Community Mental Health Centers continue to assist individuals with similar struggles and provide them with the help they need.
–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub
Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.