Father figure for all of us Appreciation: Robert Young created TV characters so authoritative and likable that they are still being imitated, on the screen and in real life.

July 23, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

PASADENA, Calif. -- Robert Young was television's seminal father figure.

But that only starts to describe the lasting importance of his two beloved and long-running TV characters, Jim Anderson of "Father Knows Best" and Dr. Marcus Welby of "Marcus Welby, M.D." They are television archetypes of authority and masculinity that are still being imitated today in media and our lives.

The actor, 91, died Tuesday night of natural causes at his Southern California home in Westlake Village.

"He just stopped breathing, basically," his physician, Dr. John Horton, told the Associated Press. "It was basically related to age, and his heart was not so good."

While he created a confident, all-knowing, white-collar persona in his two famous television roles, Young's life was in some ways at odds with the image. He suffered bouts of depression and alcoholism, and attempted suicide in 1991.

Born in Chicago, he was one of five children in a family headed by an Irish immigrant construction worker. The family moved to Los Angeles when Young was 10.

Young started acting in high school, he said, because the makeup he wore onstage helped him overcome his shyness. After graduation, he went to work as a bank clerk, but his passion for acting led him to enroll in the Pasadena Community Playhouse.

His work at the playhouse earned him a screen test and a contract with MGM in 1930. His first of many films was "Black Camel" in 1931. That undistinguished Charlie Chan mystery would launch a 20-year career in the movies in which Young swung gracefully between romantic lead and supporting roles.

Young may not have had the star-power of such MGM colleagues as Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery, but his affable, handsome persona fit right in with the studio's debonair image.

David Thomson, in his "Biographical Dictionary of Film," quoted the director King Vidor as saying of Young that he was "a director's dream. Popular regard, which sets its idols aside in the awe-enthralling class, sometimes demands a quality of neuroticism which Bob healthily doesn't possess."

Young made nearly 100 movies, most of them forgettable. ("I've never hit the heights," he said once, "but then I've never plumbed the depths -- just nice and steady.") But Young -- the epitome of unflappable, slightly bemused likability -- appeared in more than a few good films, and some that were at least respectable examples of their genre.

Although he was best-known for his amiable whimsy in such light fare as "The Bride Wore Red" (1937), with Joan Crawford, and "Sitting Pretty" (1948), the first of the "Mr. Belvedere" comedies with Clifton Webb, he also showed he had the mettle for more serious movies.

In 1940, he co-starred with Spencer Tracy in the highly acclaimed historical adventure "Northwest Passage." As a disfigured veteran who finds love with Dorothy Maguire in "The Enchanted Cottage" (1945), Young brought needed understatement to what might have been a teary melodrama. And he held his own with Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan in "Crossfire" (1947), a dark thriller -- and one of the first Hollywood films to confront anti- Semitism -- in which they played soldiers suspected of a murder.

But even at their most popular, Young's movies never came close to reaching the audience of "Father Knows Best."

The role of Jim Anderson started in 1949 on radio, where the series was titled "Father Knows Best?" Young wanted to erase the question mark, a feat accomplished through his authoritative portrayal of Anderson by the time the series moved to TV in 1954.

As he told the producer who hired him, "I'd like to be the father, but not a boob."

And that was one of several firsts connected with the character of Jim Anderson and the series: He was the first TV father whose authority was not undermined by the family, the workplace or his own stupidity -- as in such series as "Life of Riley."

As manager of the General Insurance Company, Anderson was also one of the first and certainly the most popular white-collar, professional characters in series television. Up until then, the fathers had been mainly blue-collar.

"What we were trying to do was represent what we thought a typical American, middle-class family would be like -- if there were such a thing," Young said of the series.

"Father Knows Best" also led the sitcom from urban settings -- such as that of "The Goldbergs" in the Bronx -- to the promised land of white-picket-fence suburbia.

And, with the move to 607 South Maple St. in Springfield, U.S.A., came entrance into the middle class and a loss of the ethnic identity that most earlier sitcoms featured.

It was landmark television that paved the way for a long, straight line of sitcoms stretching from "Leave It to Beaver" to "The Cosby Show" and "Home Improvement."

The politics and sociology of "Father Knows Best" and the Anderson clan -- Jim, Margaret, Bud, Betty and Kathy -- are stunning.

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