Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Tragedy of Gig Young


I’m afraid it’s time for another entry in the Miserable Sod series.

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 That Touch 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.


A Broken Man: A dissipated Gig Young

23 comments:

  1. My favortie performance from Young was in the excellent They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" Nice post to an actor you don't hear about too much today.

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  2. Agree with John. He was so grim and real in They Shoot Horses . .. so often Hollywod gives us happy drunks, or hysterical, dramatic drunks. Not here. Not with Mr. Young playing at least a part of himself. Here we have one of Hollywood's few broken, quiet drunks, drinking away life in a dirty, fevered back room.

    Agree with John again - great post! -- Mykal

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  3. That's exactly how I feel about Gig Young-- I halfway manage to forget about his life when he's onscreen, but sometimes those moments just creep up where you remember. It's so incredibly sad.

    I don't think I've seen that Twilight Zone episode yet, I'll have to go watch it now!

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  4. So many Hollywood actors had violence and alcoholism in their lives, but this one is a real shocker. How tragic. I've also been impressed to see what stars from the studio age have been able to do post-code. It's nice to see how versatile someone like Young could be. The studios may have molded these actors, but so many of them could stand alone on the basis of their talent.

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  5. C.K., glad you mentioned that "Twilight Zone" episode in your fine post. Many consider it the best single episode of the series. Anyone with a strong streak of nostalgia will be deeply moved by it and by his performance. He makes the desperate sense of yearning for the lost past of the character he plays--and his reluctant acceptance at the end that you can't go home again--palpable.

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  6. :-(

    The story if his life always makes me so sad!

    I too think he's a great character actor. I was just watching one of my favorite's the other day: Teacher's Pet. Gig is so hilarious he practically steals the whole movie!

    I have seen that episode of the Twilight Zone before! It's so really sad (but well-acted)!

    Great post!

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  7. Thanks for a great post on an actor I hadn't heard of before! And it's always right to focus on the actor's/actress's good sides - we all have bad sides, and they're not so interesting to focus on, right?

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  8. Great post, CK. I agree Young was excellent in 'They Shoot Horses, Don't They?'. He was also very good in a little-known Warner film from the late 1950s, 'Come Fill the Cup', where he is the "other guy" to Cagney (though on this occasion Young gets the girl). He plays a drunk in this one too, going through every mood from ebullient to suicidal. This movie used to be on Youtube but sadly has been removed, even though it isn't available on DVD. Judy

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  9. Excellent post. My favorite Gig Young roles were waaay back before he was considered pathetic. The 1940's at Warners. He was great in OLD ACQUAINTANCE and THE WOMAN IN WHITE among others. Rupert

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  10. Just realised I made a mistake in my comment - 'Come Fill the Cup' was early 50s, ie 1951, not late...

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  11. He's also in 1963's A Touch Of Mink, isn't he, where he is slapped repeatedly, thrown down a flight of stairs, and called Hitler? He and Audrey Meadows make that movie watchable, IMO. I very much consider myself to be a Gig Young fan.

    Love your blog, by the way. I am blogrolling you over at A Touch Of Tuesday Weld as soon as I finish typing this.

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  12. Glad EM got away from this guy in 61

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  13. That Twilight Zone episode has been my very favorite for decades. And, to this day it still brings tears to my eyes. Perhaps it was fitting Gig Young play that particular role with the episode's hero's profound longing for internal peace in an adult world as he reconnects with his child, and Young's equally searing internal angst in his own personal and private Hell. I, like you, will always remember him as Martin Sloane, but the role will have even a deeper sadness for me. Thank you for the remembrance.

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  14. I'm amazed at how many google searches for Gig Young lead to this post. It's among this blog's most-read entries. I'd like to do a happier follow up by covering some of Young's 1940s-'50s roles but I've yet to own those movies on DVD.

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  15. No you are not alone ;) I found the story of Gig on your blog, thanks for posting it. I fell in love with The Osborne, the amazing apartment building on W. 57th street catty corner from the Carnegie Hall amongst other fabulous landmarks on that block.
    It was on Wiki where when researching this lovely building I found the list of VIPs who have and do reside there. I was not expecting so many of them in this seemingly local resident building and the news about Gig was a bit of a turn off, for it was there that he did his last performance of "mad man". Too bad. I am sure he regrets it to this day.

    I was surprised to see that poor Elizabeth forced herself to endure such nonsense but then the heart picks who it loves, doesn't it. Glad she finally moved on and got a healthier mate.

    I will view your fav TZ episode now.

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  16. Remember Gig's public service spot about safe driving with James Dean, just a short time prior to Dean's tragic accident. My father graduated from the same Indiana high school as Dean and regularly took him motorcycle riding on his 1940 Indian Chief when Jim was between nine and twelve years old. Ironically, I recently learned that my dad's motorcycle had been in a fatal accident with its previous owner. Monte

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  17. Just walked Gig Young in the Twilight Zone- Walking Distance' and then read about his tragic life. Very profound and thought provoking. You can't go home again. Too bad that Gig never put down the bottle and found Jesus.

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  18. You are entitled to your opinion, and the facts of his life seem to bear this out, but reducing a complex and tragic being like Gig Young to just "a jerk" seems like oversimplification. We've all been jerks, Gig Young and myself included, but there was plenty of darkness the world will never know about swirling inside the affable, handsome man who also happened to be an alcoholic who apparently never sought treatment. I feel sorry for Gig Young, and even sorrier for his young last wife, who he murdered before doing the same to himself. We can never know what happened between those two that brought about this tragedy, but let the dead bury the dead. If this doesn't seem too sharp a turn from the profound to the trivial, I absolutely adored his unheralded performance in "That Touch of Mink." His was a pitch-perfect performance as an idiot savant economist and a classic Camelot-era urban neurotic with which early 60s sex comedies seem to abound. apparently any reference to seeing an analyst was a guaranteed punchline in those days; just like later in the decade, when all you had to do to get a laugh was end any sentence with the words "Ronald Reagan." My, how times change!

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  19. I don't think he was a jerk, I think he was a very ill soul to go out like that and take someone else with you ... RIP for them both ...

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    1. Yes he was obviously very mentally ill and not at all right in the head. He was his own worst enemy but its too bad he abused others as well.

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  20. I'd just like to echo the sentiments that condemned the simple dismissal of Gig Young as 'a jerk'. You didn't know him personally. You don't know what it was like to be him. None of us do. So, therefore, none of us are in a position to judge him with any validity.

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  21. They didn't seem to know much about mental illness in those days, but clearly he had one, depression, alcoholism, who knows what else. He must have been tortured but it doesn't make me feel sorry for him. Depression is no excuse to abuse others.

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  22. Well, maybe. all of you carrying on about how great this poor depressed man was. I liked him too. But is there a thought here for his wife? But why do these self-centered bastards have to kill someone else first? Just kill yourself, and let others live.

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Please leave a comment. I have to know I'm not alone over here...;)