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The Tragic Life & Death of Robert Taylor

Robert Taylor was one of the most famous and successful leading men of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was admired for his strapping good looks and his reputation for being a reliable, clean-cut actor. He was perhaps best known as ‘The Man with the Perfect Profile’.

But behind that illustrious veneer, Taylor’s life story was far perfect. For one thing, his death was a long-drawn-out affair that was full of suffering and heartbreak.

Robert Taylor died of lung cancer at St. Johns Hospital in Santa Monica, California on June 8, 1969. He was 57 years old. In October of 1968, Taylor went in to have surgery to remove a portion of his right lung after doctors informed him that he had likely contracted a fungal infection called Coccidioidomycosis – otherwise known as Valley fever.

During the operation, Taylor’s doctors discovered that he had lung cancer. Taylor smoked three packs of cigarettes a day since he was essentially a child. He quit smoking shortly before undergoing surgery that didn’t spare his life. During the final months of his life, he was hospitalized another seven times due to infections and complications related to his diagnosis.

After his death, a funeral was held at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. At his service, Taylor’s long-time friend, Ronald Reagan, who was then the governor of California, gave his eulogy. Others In attendance who paid their respects at Taylor’s funeral were stars like Robert Slack, Eva Marie Saint, Mickey Rooney, Audrey Totter, and his ex-wife Barbara Stanwyck, among others.

While Robert Taylor certainly met a regrettable end, the rest of his life was also replete with struggles and adversity. Let’s take a look back on his life story and see just what kind of struggles this man had to go through while chasing his dreams.

The Making Of A Star

Robert Taylor was born Spangler Arlington Brugh in Filley, Nebraska on August 5, 1911. His father, Spangler Andrew Brugh, was a grain farmer who later on his life studied medicine and eventually became a doctor. He did so to treat his wife who had a rare illness that she had since she was a little girl. With his newfound medical knowledge, Brugh was actually able to successfully cure her of her disease.

Taylor’s family moved several times before settling in Beatrice, Nebraska where Robert attended High School. He was an exceptionally intelligent young man and was one of the most gifted athletes on his school’s track team.

Taylor played cello in the school orchestra and for two years beginning in 1929, he attended Doane College in Crete, Nebraska where he was a member of the Doane String Quartet. Around that time, Taylor joined the theater group, The Doane Players, and made his first stage appearance in a production of the play ‘Helena Boys’ in 1929.

Music was Taylors first true love and in 1931 he moved to Claremont, California where he enrolled at Pomona College to study the cello. But as time went on, he became more and more interested in theater. It seemed as if the stage was calling his name.

While he was at Pomona College, Taylor performed in a handful of plays such as ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ and ‘Camille’. While he was in a college production in 1932, an MGM talent scout was in attendance and after the show, he offered Taylor a screen test.

After graduating in 1934, Taylor signed a seven-year with MGM for 35 dollars a week, which incidentally made him the lowest-paid actor in recorded history. It was after signing with MGM that he officially changed his name to Robert Taylor. And just like that, a star was born.

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And don’t go anywhere just yet. Stick around to see how starring in a controversial film in 1944 made him one of the most despised individuals in Hollywood. 

Taylor’s Budding Film Career

Taylor made his film debut late in 1934 while he was on loan to 20th Century Fox in a supporting role in the film ‘Handy Andy’ alongside actor Will Rogers. After doing a few more films including ‘Buried Loot’ in 1935 and MGM’s popular ‘Crime Does Not Pay’ series, Taylor landed his first leading role in a Universal Pictures film called ‘Magnificent Obsession’ which hit theaters in 1935 and featured actress Irene Dunne as his co-star. Suddenly Robert Taylor was seen as a romantic actor.

After co-starring with Greta Garbo in the 1935 film adaptation of ‘Camille’, he became one of the most sought-after stars of his time with a fan-mail base that even Clark Gable couldn’t compete with.

Throughout the remainder of the 30s, Taylor appeared as a leading man in a handful of films in various genres, such as the musicals Broadway Melody of 1936′ and “Broadway Melody of 1938′. Taylor also appeared in the comedy film ‘A Yank at Oxford’ which was filmed in England in 1938 and co-starred Vivian Leigh. A couple of years later, Taylor starred alongside Leigh once again in Mervyn LeRoy’s ‘Waterloo Bridge’.

In the early 1940s, Taylor began to change his clean-cut image by appearing in darker, grittier film roles. In 1941, he portrayed the titular character in the film ‘Billy the Kid’ and just a year later he played a ruthless gangster in the film ‘Johnny Eager’ alongside Lana Turner. He also proved that he could be an effective comedic performer by appearing in films like ‘When Ladies Meet’ in 1941 and ‘Her Cardboard Lover’ in 1942.

Taylor Served In The U.S Naval Air Corps

After America was dragged into World War II, Taylor appeared in two critically-acclaimed war films ‘Stand By For Action’ in 1942 and ‘Bataan’ in 1942. Shortly after production wrapped up on the latter, Taylor enlisted into the U.S. Naval Air Corps as a lieutenant. The military ended up classing him as too old for active duty, so he became a flight instructor for three years from 1943 to 1946.

During these years, Taylor both starred in and directed several instructional films and in 1944, he narrated the propaganda film ‘The Fighting Lady’ which was all about life aboard an aircraft carrier during wartime. Also that year, he appeared in another propaganda film, albeit rather reluctantly, called ‘Song of Russia’, in which he portrayed an American classical conductor who fell in love with a Russian woman. That film would cause him many problems years later but we’ll get to that in just a moment.

After the war ended, Taylor returned to MGM where he continued to develop his darker image. In 1946, he starred in the noir film ‘Undercurrent’ with Katherine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum. A year later, he played a suspected killer in the film ‘High Wall’.

Robert Taylor Turned On His Communist Colleagues

The House Committee on Un-American Activities was a special investigative committee formed in 1938 to investigate any person or organization suspected of having Communist ties or sympathies. In 1947 Taylor was called before the committee to testify about communism in Hollywood. They grilled him on his performance in ‘Song of Russia’ and he expressed his belief that it was most definitely Communist propaganda and added that he didn’t want to do it in the first place. He later retracted his statement and told the committee’s chairman, John Parnell Thomas, that he was in no way coerced to do the film.

Taylor handed over the names of actors Howard Da Silva and Karen Morley as well as Song of Russia’s screenwriter, Lester Cole, over to the committee. Their careers were badly tarnished by the hearings and Cole was given a stiff prison sentence and was told that he could never write again under his own name. These three people were all members of the Communist party and were all also identified by other witnesses, but Taylor was the first to actually ‘name names’ as it were. As a result, his reputation was severely damaged. The fallout from this episode continued to haunt him for years. There were several attempts to ban his films in France and in Hungary and Czechoslovakia his movies were actually banned.

Taylor’s Career Took A Downturn After The War

Robert Taylor continued to draw crowds to theaters for quite some time, but as he aged his appeal began to diminish, as did the quality of the movies he appeared in. That being said, his portrayal of General Marcus Vinicius in 1950s ‘Que Vadis’ was exceptionally well received. He followed that film up by appearing in 1951s ‘Ivanhoe’, and ‘Knights of the Round Table’ and ‘The Adventures of Quentin Durward’ in 1953. All of these films were popular, but none fared quite as well as ‘Quo Vadis’.

Throughout his career, Taylor was often accused of just being a pretty face and not necessarily a great actor. In the 1950s, he intended on combating that criticism by taking on more challenging roles, but despite his best efforts, he wasn’t quite able to fully shake his reputation. During the second half of the 1950s, he appeared in a handful of Westerns including ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ in 1955, ‘The Law and Jake Wade’ in 1958, and ‘The Hangman’ in 1959.

Also in 1959, Taylor appeared on TV for the first time in the series ‘The Detectives’ as the lead Captain Matt Holbrook. The series did well in the ratings and ran for three years.

Taylor’s film career began to wind down in the 1960s, but he still managed to appear in several moderately successful films such as ‘Cattle King’ in 1963 and ‘Return of the Gunfighter’ in 1963. Taylor’s last role was on the television series ‘Death Valley Days’. He took over the role of narrator when his friend, Ronald Reagan, took off to pursue his political career. Taylor remained with the series until he died in 1969.

A Failed Marriage And One That Stuck 

Robert Taylor was married twice. His first wife was actress Barbara Stanwyck whom he married in 1939. Taylor and Stanwyck had been dating since 1936 when they co-starred together in the film ‘His Brother’s Wife’. When they started living together, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, convinced them to legally marry to avoid bad press and gossip. Taylor and Stanwyck ended up having no children together and their marriage ended in a bitter divorce in 1951 after Taylor cheated on his wife with an Italian starlet while he was in Rome filming ‘Que Vadis’. After the divorce was finalized, Stanwyck spitefully auctioned off their house in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles along with all of its contents and proceeded to collect 15% of Taylor’s earnings up until his death.

Taylors second wife was Ursula Thiess, a German-born actress whom he was wed to in 1954. Ursula gave up her career to raise a family with Taylor. They ended up having two children together, one boy and one daughter. Taylor also became stepdad to two of Ursula’s children from a previous marriage.

Taylor and Thiess lived a humble life out of the spotlight in a large ranch in Brentwood, Los Angeles up until his death.

Well, that’s about all the time we’ve got left for this video, but before you go, take a moment to let us know in the comments section what your favorite memory of Robert Taylor was.

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