YOUNG, ROBERT

U.S. Actor

Robert Young came to television out of film and radio, and for nearly 30 years he was revered as television's quintessential father-figure. With his roles as Jim Anderson in the domestic melodrama Father Knows Best, and as the title character in the long-running medical drama, Marcus Welby, M.D. he was admired as a strict, but benevolent patriarch. Gentle, moralistic, and highly interventionist, Young's television character corrected and guided errant behavior initially in a family setting, then as an omnipotent doctor, and perhaps most self-consciously, when he portrayed "himself" in a decade-long series of decaffeinated coffee commercials. With a simple raised eyebrow and a tilt of the head, Young's character convinced even the most hedonistic of co-stars to relinquish their selfish ways for a greater noble purpose.

Young began his career as a second lead in Hollywood films. Displaying a generally unrecognized versatility, Young portrayed villains, best buddies and victims with equal aplomb, and performed for many of Hollywood's finest directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Borzage, and Edward Dmytryk. Frustrated with his secondary status (he described his parts as those refused by Robert Montgomery), Young ventured into radio, in 1949, where with his good friend and business partner, Eugene Rodney, he co-produced and starred in a family comedy, Father Knows Best? Running for five years, the program was a soft-hearted look at a family in which the benevolent head of the family was regarded with love but skepticism and in which mother generally supplied the wisdom. At the time, most family comedies were characterized by wise-cracking moms and inept fathers. Young took the role on the condition that the father, in his words, not be "an idiot. Just make it so he's unaware. He's not running the ship, but he thinks he is."

In 1954, Young and Rodney were approached by Screen Gems to bring the program to television. While Young was hesitant at first, a promise of joint ownership in the program convinced him to make the move. Upon network insistence, the question mark was dropped (they thought it demeaning) and Father Knows Best premiered on CBS, under the sponsorship of Kent cigarettes. Because of advertising and network time-franchises, the program was placed too late in the evening to attract a family audience, and quickly died in the ratings. A fan-letter campaign and the personal intervention of Thomas McCabe, president of the Scott Paper Company, resurrected the program where it was to become an NBC staple for the next five years.

The television series was quite different from the radio version. Most significantly, radio's ambivalence about Father's wisdom was removed and replaced by an emphatic belief that Jim Anderson was the sole possessor of knowledge and child-rearing acumen. Although the original head writer, Roswell Rogers, remained with the program, most of the radio scripts had to be re-written or completely scrapped for the visual television medium. With the exception of Robert Young, the Anderson family was completely re-cast, with Jane Wyatt signing on after a year-long search. Many of the episodes were based on the real-life exploits of Young's daughter Kathy, while Wyatt was described as an amalgamation of the wives of Young, Rodney, and Roger.

The program was heralded by the popular press and audiences alike as a refreshing change from "dumb Dad" shows. With near-irritating consistency, Jim Anderson resolved his family's dilemmas through a pattern of psychic intimidation, guilt and manipulation, causing the errant family member to recant his or her selfish desires, and put the good of the community, family and society ahead of personal pleasure. The wife and the three children, played by Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray, and Laurin Chapin, were lectured with equal severity by the highly exalted father, whose virtues were often the focus for episodic tribute.

The program won numerous awards, and spawned a host of domestic melodramas that were to dominate the television schedule (including The Donna Reed Show, and Leave it to Beaver). So popular was the program and so powerful its verisimilitude that viewers came to believe the Anderson family really existed. Women wrote to star Jane Wyatt with questions about cooking and advice about home decorating or child-rearing. Young was named Mt. Sinai "father of the year," and gathered similar honors throughout the series' run. In one of the stranger blends of fact and fiction, the producers were approached to do a U.S. Savings Bond benefit for the American Federation of Labor and the Treasury Department. "24 Hours in Tyrant Land" depicted the Anderson's fictional Springfield community caught in the clutches of a tyrannical despot. Never aired on television, the episode toured the country's town halls and churches.

By 1960, the personal difficulties of both Young and the teenage cast members, and the creative fatigue of Rogers prompted the producers to cease first-run production, although re-runs continued to air in prime time on ABC for two more years.

Despite a couple of television films, Young's career was basically dormant during the 1960s until the highly acclaimed television movie, Marcus Welby, M.D. The pilot film, revolving around the heroic efforts of a kindly general practitioner and his "anti-establishment" young assistant (played by James Brolin), became a hit television series that was to air on ABC for the next seven years. Each phenomenally slow-moving episode, featured Welby, his partner Dr. Steven Kiley, and the friendly, (but usually confused) nurse, Consuella, treating a single patient whose disease functioned as some sort of personal or familial catastrophe. Even for the 1970s, the program was anachronistic--Welby practiced out of his well-appointed Brentwood home, and both he and Kiley made housecalls. Significantly, the show did try to bring public attention to current health crises or recent medical discoveries. Thus, episodes dealt with Tay-Sach's disease, amniocenteses, abortion rights (when abortion was still illegal). With kindly didacticism, Welby would lecture the guest-star (and the television viewer) on the importance of consistent medical care, early detection, immunization and the like.

By the mid-1970s, Young grew weary of the program, and this, coupled with Brolin's career ambitions, and a post-Watergate viewership hostile toward elderly male authority figures, contributed to the program's demise. With the end of the program, Young continued to work in television, starring in a couple of Welby movies, a Father Knows Best reunion, and garnering critical acclaim in a television film dealing with Alzheimer's disease and euthanasia. His bitterness towards Hollywood casting practices never diminished however, and in the early 1990s Young attempted suicide, revealing a vulnerability and despair totally at odds with his carefully constructed patriarchal persona.

-Nina Leibman

 

ROBERT (GEORGE) YOUNG. Born in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., 22 February 1907. Attended Lincoln High School, Los Angeles. Married: Elizabeth Louise Henderson, 1933; children: Carol Anne, Barbara Queen, Elizabeth Louise, and Kathleen Joy. Earned living as clerk, salesman, reporter, and loan company collector during four years of studies and acting with the Pasadena Playhouse; toured with stock company production The Ship, 1931; contract with MGM, 1931-45; on radio program Good News of 1938, and on Maxwell House Coffee Time, 1944; co-founder, with Eugene Rodney, of Cavalier Productions, 1947; star of radio series Father Knows Best?, 1949-54; star of television version of same, 1954-61; star of Marcus Welby, M.D., 1969-76. Recipient: Emmy Awards 1956, 1957. Address: c/o Herb Tobias, 1901 Avenue of the Stars, Suite 840, Los Angeles, CA 90067.

TELEVISION SERIES

1954-61 Father Knows Best
1961-62 The Window On Main Street
1969-76 Marcus Welby, M.D.
1979 Little Women

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1969 Marcus Welby, M.D.: A Matter of Humanities
1971 Vanished
1972 All My Darling Daughters
1973 My Darling Daughters' Anniversary
1977 The Father Knows Best Reunion [possibly a special] 1978 Little Women
1984 The Return of Marcus Welby, M.D.
1987 Mercy or Murder?
1989 Conspiracy of Love

FILMS

The Black Camel, 1931; The Sin, 1931; The Guilty Generation, 1931; The Wet Parade, 1931; New Morals for Old, 1932; Unashamed, 1932; Strange Interlude, 1932; The Kid from Spain, 1932; Men Must Fight, 1933; Today We Live, 1933; Hell Below, 1933; Tugboat Annie, 1933; Saturday's Children, 1933; The Right to Romance, 1933; La Ciudad de Carton, 1933; Carolina, 1934; Spitfire, 1934; The House of Rothschild, 1934; Lazy River, 1934; Hollywood Party, 1934; Whom the Gods Destroy, 1934; Paris Interlude, 1934; Death On the Diamond, 1934; The Band Plays On, 1934; West Point of the Air, 1935; Vagabond Lady, 1935; Calm Yourself, 1935; Red Salute, 1935; Remember Last Night, 1935; The Bride Comes Home, 1935; Three Wise Guys, 1936; It's Love Again, 1936; The Bride Walks Out, 1936; Secret Agent, 1936; Sworn Enemy, 1936; The Longest Night, 1936; Stowaway, 1936; Dangerous Number, 1937; I Met Him in Paris, 1937; Married Before Breakfast, 1937; The Emperor's Candlesticks, 1937; The Bride Wore Red, 1937; Navy Blue and Gold, 1937; Paradise For Three, 1938; Josette, 1938; The Toy Wife, 1938; Three Comrades, 1938; Rich Man--Poor Girl, 1938; The Shining Hour, 1938; Honolulu, 1939; Bridal Suite, 1939; Miracles For Sale, 1939; Maisie, 1939; Northwest Passage, 1940; Florian, 1940; The Mortal Storm, 1940; Sporting Blood, 1940; Dr. Kildare's Crisis, 1940; The Trial of Mary Dugan, 1941; Lady Be Good, 1941; Unmarried Bachelor, 1941; H.M.Pulham, Esq., 1941; Joe Smith--American, 1942; Cairo, 1942; Journey For Margaret, 1942; Slightly Dangerous, 1943; Claudia, 1943; Sweet Rosie O'Grady, 1943; The Canterville Ghost, 1944; The Enchanted Cottage, 1945; Those Endearing Young Charms, 1945; Lady Luck, 1946; The Searching Wind, 1946; Claudia and David, 1946; They Won't Believe Me, 1947; Crossfire, 1947; Relentless, 1948; Sitting Pretty, 1948; Adventure In Baltimore, 1949; Bride for Sale, 1949; That Forsyte Woman, 1949; And Baby Makes Three, 1949; The Second Woman, 1951; Goodbye, My Fancy, 1951; The Half Breed, 1952; Secret of the Incas, 1954.

RADIO

Good News of 1938; Father Knows Best?, 1949-53

PUBLICATION

"How I Won the War of the Sexes By Losing Every Battle." Good Housekeeping (New York), January 1962.

FURTHER READING

Parish, James Robert, and Gregory W. Mank. The Hollywood Reliables. Wesport, Connecticut: Arlington House, 1980.

 

See also Father Knows Best; Marcus Welby, M.D.