Ed Weiner is a Philadelphia based freelance writer.
Source: TV Guide, August 8, 1998
Some actors play a character in a series only to be identified with that role forever. Just a handful of actors have been able to make a new character loved as thoroughly by viewers as the first.Robert Young went one better. In two series he transcended just playing
memorable parts-he created lasting American Icons. He didn’t portray, he defined. As Jim Anderson in Father Knows Best
, and remains after all these years, the
American Dad. In Marcus Welby, M.D
., he was
, and two decades later still is
, the quintessential knowing, caring practitioner. The father we all wanted at the dinner table (especially if we’d done something wrong); the doctor we all wished to get an appointment with (especially if we had something bad).Born February 22, 1907, in Chicago, Young spent his early years as a shy bookworm. But he traded textbook for script in his high school’s theater group, where he also met Betty Henderson, who would be mother to their four daughters and his wife for 61 years until her death in 1994.After graduation Young trained at the famed Pasadena Community Playhouse at night while working at a bank by day. Soon he was making movies, more than 100 in all, starting in 1931 with “The Black Camel” (with Bela Lugosi) and “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” (he played Helen Hayes’s son). What he brought to film is what he would project to TV audiences later: masculinity without machismo, good looks without Hollywood perfection, an honesty that felt genuine and an acting style and personality that never wore out their welcome.He worked with top directors in some enduring screen classics: “The Secret Agent” for Hitchcock, “Northwest Passage” for King Vidor, “Western Union” for Fritz Lang. He starred opposite Katherine Hepburn, Charles Laughton, Loretta Young, Clark Gable and other screen legends of the ’30s and ’40s. He played romantic leads, costume-drama fops, screwball-comedy funnymen, action heroes, criminals and cops. He could break hearts in three-hankie weepers like “The Enchanted Cottage” or “Journey for Margaret,” and then give brilliant, tough portrayals against type in such films as the crime thriller “They Won’t Believe Me” or the groundbreaking, socially conscious murder mystery “Crossfire”. He even sang, in “Lady Be Good.” He was reliable and versatile, and actor’s actor.When the film roles started to dry up, Young jumped at the chance in 1949 to create and star in a family-oriented radio comedy “Father Knows Best.” But when TV called, Young resisted. “I feel myself being drawn to television,” he remarked, “like a man in a canoe heading for Niagara Falls.” Some disaster. Starting in 1954, Father Knows Best
would film 203 episodes (canceled in its first season, the show was saved by a massive write-in campaign by adoring fans), and Young would become more famous than ever and win two Emmys in the bargain. And he deserved them; he brought to his portrayal of Jim Anderson the sense that, despite the responsibilities of adulthood, he probably been a pretty rambunctious kid himself and loved that his kids were spirited. Parents saw themselves in him, while their children felt that Jim Anderson was OK-not exactly hip but not exactly square, either.At the height of the show’s popularity, Young called it quits. Nine years later, Marcus Welby, M.D.
, beckoned. Good-bye, Jim Anderson; hello Father Diagnoses Best. Soon he won another Best Actor Emmy (the only actor besides Carroll O’Connor to win the award for both comedy and drama).After Welby’s
long run, and for the next six years, Young became the even-keeled pitchman for a series of coffee commercials, extolling decaffeinated calm. He earned more working 10 days a year doing the ads than he made in a season of Welby
. Typically, he put the money into scholarships for his grandchildren.
It’s no coincidence that Homer Simpson, TV’s ultimate Father Knows Least and his family live in Springfield, the same name as the town where the Anderson family dwelled. Or that in an episode of ER, kindly Dr. Mark Greene could be seen watching a Marcus Welby rerun. No Wonder. Bud, Kitten and Princess, Dr. Kiley and Consuelo-and the rest of us-were lucky to have had Young take care of us.