Robert Young had a great career in both film and television. He was born in 1907 in Chicago. In the 1930’s and 40’s he made such movies as “Secret Agent” for Alfed Hitchcock, “H.M. Pulham Esdq” and “The Enchanted Cotage”. Teh in the 1950’s he had a major success on television in “Father Knows Best” and then in the 1970’s had another very popular TV series “Marcus Welby M.D.”. He died in 1998 at the age of 91,.
An affable, forthright lead with prototypical “average guy” good looks, Robert Young entered films in 1931 and for 25 years embodied the easygoing but eminently sensible US male. Headlining many programmers and medium-sized “A” productions, he made films in every genre, and was often cast as an agreeable consort to more dominant star actresses. Like the star whose career and image most parallels his, Fred MacMurray, Young moved smoothly in middle age to TV, producing and starring in the landmark family sitcom, “Father Knows Best” (CBS and NBC, 1954-1960). It was only one step from paternal ideal to the avuncular, and Young later enjoyed another popular series with the similarly soothing medical drama, “Marcus Welby, M.D.” (ABC, 1969-1976). Not as big in films as MacMurray, Young was never as edgy or whimsical as James Stewart, or as earnest and striving as Henry Fonda. His TV success was greater than that of any other Golden Era Hollywood Everyman, though, because, regardless of his real talent as an actor, he was relaxed and unthreatening.
Born in Chicago but raised in California, Young began acting at the Pasadena Playhouse and made his film debut in Fox’s “The Black Camel” (1931). That same year, he was signed by MGM, where his first major role came as Helen Hayes’ son in the mother-love weeper, “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” (1931). Young soon played similarly boyish roles in support of Norma Shearer in “Strange Interlude” (1932) and Marie Dressler in “Tugboat Annie” (1933). He also began playing leads in programmers and “B” pictures, which, over the course of his 14-year stint at Metro included “Lazy River” (1934), “Calm Yourself” (1935), “Miracles for Sale” (1939) and “Joe Smith, American” (1942). Young also vied for the hand of such estimable female stars as Joan Crawford (in several films including Dorothy Arzner’s striking “The Bride Wore Red,” 1937), Margaret Sullavan (the moving “Three Comrades,” 1938) and Jeanette MacDonald (“Cairo,” 1942).
A reliable property who brought likability and an offhand intelligence to his lightweight playboy roles, he was also frequently loaned out to other studios. Young tried to win the favor of Ann Harding (“The Right to Romance,” 1933) and Barbara Stanwyck (“The Bride Walks Out,” 1936) at RKO and Claudette Colbert at Paramount (“The Bride Comes Home,” 1936). A sure rule of thumb determined whether or not Young would prevail: if a bigger male co-star was also in the running, Young was the inevitable good-hearted loser; if not, he was generally deemed a decent catch.
Like MacMurray, Young enjoyed some of his best roles when his “nice guy” demeanor slipped from the casual to the careless, or proved a mere front for villainy. He enjoyed just such a change-of-pace role as a spy in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Secret Agent” (1936), was compelling as a Nazi in “The Mortal Storm” (1940), and enjoyed a hit as a ne’er-do-well in “Those Endearing Young Charms” (1945). Best of all was his opportunist in the striking noir “They Won’t Believe Me” (1947), toying around with Jane Greer, Susan Hayward and Rita Johnson before the richly ironic plot caught up with him. On more sympathetic fronts, his glib, recklessly drunken partygoer parried deliciously with Constance Cummings in James Whale’s cult classic “Remember Last Night?” (1935) and Young was very touching in both “H.M. Pulham, Esq.” (1941), as a stuffy Bostonian, and “The Enchanted Cottage” (1945), as an embittered war veteran.
Although Young acted on multiple occasions with such gifted actresses as Dorothy McGuire, Ruth Hussey and Maureen O’Sullivan, he never became part of a romantic team until TV beckoned. In the late 40s and early 50s, he still appeared in popular films, but his pipe-smoking detective was less riveting than Robert Ryan’s anti-Semitic psycho in “Crossfire” (1947) and he also played second fiddle to Clifton Webb’s prissy babysitter in “Sitting Pretty” (1948). The latter film, with Young as an ordinary breadwinner, pointed toward his popular success on radio with “Father Knows Best” beginning in 1949. By 1954, Young gave up on features altogether when he successfully transplanted insurance manager Jim Anderson and his all-American family to the small screen. An unabashed ode to a patriarchal nuclear family that not only never was but also never could be, “Father Knows Best” won Young two Emmys and compensated for its idealized and conservative coziness with doses of warmth, wit and the chemistry Young evoked with ideal co-star Jane Wyatt and their clean-scrubbed kids.
After Young ended the show’s run, he tried another series with the reflective small-town saga, “Window on Main Street” (CBS, 1961-62), but it didn’t last. The 60s were a lean period for the actor, but when he rebounded as Marcus Welby, the handsomely white-haired Young won a third Emmy with another winning formula, complete with younger sidekick, wisecracking support staff and nostalgic guest stars. Dr. Welby was as reassuring to the 70s as Jim Anderson had been 20 years earlier and Young continued into the 80s with several “Father Knows Best” and “Marcus Welby” TV-movie reunions, another series attempt (“Little Women,” NBC, 1979), and the occasional departure role (as mercy killer Roswell Gilbert in “Mercy or Murder?” NBC, 1987). Young also dominated the small screen in a wide range of TV commercials; having sold his genuine talent and likably ordinary persona for 50 years, the move was inevitable.