Gig Young (1913-1978) (born Byron Elsworth Barr) is best known in classic movie circles as the “other guy” in so many 1950s movies. Young often played the dapper, likable second banana to the major stars of the time. He took the name “Gig Young” from a character he played in the 1942 film The Gay Sisters, a Barbara Stanwyck film. I fondly recall his role in Desk Set alongside Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, as well as Young at Heart, Teacher’s Pet, and ThatTouch of Mink. But to me, he’ll always be Martin Sloan, the harried businessman who yearns for his lost childhood in the haunting Twilight Zone episode, “Walking Distance.” Young’s durability as a character actor ensured that he would continue working into the 1960s and 70s. He would win the Best Supporting Oscar in 1969’s They Shoot Horses…Don’t They? Young would also appear as the bored sadist in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, where Young’s character took the name Fred C. Dobbs, in a joking reference to John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Gig Young was a great actor. His early roles showed that he had an effortless charm, a sort of everyday “suave guy next door”, if there even is such a thing. Young always played the other guy who graciously gave up the leading lady and seemed so damned affable doing it. Later, after he earned his well-deserved Oscar, his career turned towards darker, sinister roles. Young himself had a dim view of success, as he said in 1951: "So many people who have been nominated for an Oscar have had bad luck afterwards."
Young was married to Elizabeth Montgomery from 1956-63, a marriage that strained Elizabeth's relationship with her father, Robert Montgomery, who opposed the union. Young’s alcoholism continued to spiral out of control, and hastened the end of this already-abusive marriage. Young married five times and fathered a daughter in 1964, though he denied paternity until a five-year court case proved otherwise. Remember, no DNA testing then.
On October 19, 1978, Young shot and killed Kim Schmidt, his 31-year-old wife of three weeks. Young then turned the gun on himself. He was sixty four. In his will, he left his Oscar to his agent, but virtually nothing to his teenaged daughter.
What a jerk.
I’ve said before how I hate to discover that my favorite performers were miserable and Young is no exception. His performance in the Twilight Zone is one of my favorite TV roles ever and he brought such a tragic sadness to the Martin Sloan character. Young was an actor who got better as time went on, "getting gritty" with the changing times, reminding me all over again that stars of the 40s and 50s were merely projecting a convincing illusion which they no longer had to maintain with the death of the Hayes Office.
Sadly it would be Young's personal problems--not his self-fulfilling prophecy about Oscar nominees--that doomed him. His career was steady after his Oscar win, but it was Young’s drinking that did him in. He was fired from Blazing Saddles—he was to play The Waco Kid, later to become Gene Wilder’s role-- when he collapsed on set after an attack of the DTs (the story is here). Despite the horrors I’ve relayed here, I still choose to remember Gig Young as a quality character actor who only got better with age, though how he left this life is burned into my memory…how could it not be?
Watch Gig's performance in The Twilight Zone episode "Walking Distance" here.