Film

A Tale of Two Ill-Fated Hollywood Stars

Gig Young

As Hollywood hopefuls Gig Young and Inger Stevens would learn, Hollywood is a dream factory; but it produces nightmares, as well.

Funny. How many memories you connect with a place. I always thought if I ever came back here—it’d probably be all changed. But it’s just as if I’d left yesterday. Just as if I’d been away over night.

-- from "Walking Distance", The Twilight Zone

There are nearly as many stories in Hollywood as there are stars and galaxies in the night sky. Hollywood is a dream factory; but it produces nightmares, as well. Still, the town draws new dreamers. And the ones who make it there and taste success sometimes awake to find themselves walking alone. The best faces: the ones that pass over film and television screens, leave a trail and a ghostly image. Their eyes ask viewers for a single favor: remember me.

Gig Young and Inger Stevens have been gone for over 30 years. What remains of their lives is their work, their performances, and the questions surrounding their deaths. Whether the root of their destruction was home or Hollywood, there are still photos, and films, and mysteries, to consider.

Gig Young died on 19 October 1978. Young’s body now resides at the Green Hill Cemetery in Waynesville, North Carolina, under the Barr Family plot. There lies his mother, Emma Clements Dingman Barr, his father, John E. Barr and his older brother, Donald Earl Barr, who died in 1949, beating Young to the grave by 29 years.

Byron Elsworth Barr became Gig Young after the war, to avoid being mistaken for the other Byron Barr (Double Indemnity) working in Tinsel Town at the time. Though he was born in St. Cloud, Minnesota, his youth was spent in Waynesville; so when he died, his sister Genevieve returned him to the family on Green Hill. These parts of Young’s history were uncovered by Alan Parker, while gathering research for his Nosey Parker article, "The Bizarre Death and Mysterious Burial of a Hollywood Oscar Winner" (March 2011). Parker took a road trip down South to write travelogues, along the way he found out where Young was buried, and why.

In the summer of 1978, Young joined the cast of Nobody Loves an Albatross. It was a summer stock production of Ronald Alexander’s Broadway play; there would be a brief run in Canada, and the possibility of more stage work for Young. This was his second time working on Albatross. In 1970 Young played the lead, an unscrupulous television writer with three ex-wives, and no new ideas. By September of 1978 he was back in New York and newly wed. On 20 October 1978, The Reading Eagle reported that authorities had found Young’s open diary by his bedside. The entry, dated 27 September, read: “We got married today.”

Young’s life ended at the barrel of a revolver; and beside him lay the Oscar he won for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), along with his fifth wife from a marriage only three weeks old, Ruth Hannelore Schmidt. Young last appeared in Bruce Lee’s final film Game of Death (1978): he met Schmidt while working on Spectre (1977), she was an extra in the film and a script girl by trade. In marginally better times Mel Brooks cast Young as the Waco Kid, Gene Wilder’s starmaking role in 1974's Blazing Saddles. Young was replaced by Wilder after he suffered an alcoholic fit on the first day of filming. It was near 9AM when the DT’s took hold of Young. According to an account from the set, Brooks and the crew were horrified by the episode:

We draped Gig Young’s legs over and hung him upside down. And he started to talk and he started shaking… And then it got serious, because the shaking never stopped, and green stuff started spewing out of his mouth and nose, and he started screaming. And, I said, ‘That’s the last time I’ll ever cast anybody who really is that person.'

Young’s strength as an actor was the naturalness of his performance. He became a “face” in pictures after he shined as the third star billed behind Spencer Tracy (as Richard Sumner) and Katharine Hepburn, in 1957’s Desk Set. Desk Set followed Tracy as he tried to convince Bunny Watson (Hepburn), that an IBM could do things for the network no human researcher could do; and that he could do things for her, emotionally, that Mike Cutler (Young), could never do. EMERAC, the supercomputer, didn’t replace the network’s research department, but Sumner did win out over Cutler in the end. Right before the credits, Young walked out of the frame alone as Sumner and Watson embraced. He gave the flowers he’d brought for Bunny to Sumner, so that he could give them to her. And as he walked away, silently, he placed his hat on the computer’s console. Young performed that small gesture with great commitment.

Journalist Thomas P. Mackin compiled interviews and profiles of celebrities, he’d spoken with over his 60-some years in the field, for the novel Brief Encounters: From Einstein to Elvis. Mackin encountered Gig Young around 1971, when he was the promoting the NBC television movie The Neon Ceiling. Again, Young was starring as a morose, misunderstood man, haunted by drink and the past. This time, he was the leading man and love interest of both Lee Grant (who played a wandering housewife) and Denise Nickerson (the housewife’s teenage daughter). Inside the roadside diner where Young’s character lived alone, he painted a mural on the ceiling, piece by piece. Young told Mackin how he readied himself for each role:

I always step on the set with the same problem:how to achieve perfection. There is always the knowledge that there is somebody better. Is it hard work? Only when the work turns out lousy. How do you survive? You inhale and you exhale. If you forget one or the other, you’re in big trouble.

Young often played a “man of convenience”, the second banana: never the one that stirred the leading lady’s imagination, he was always that steady, stable guy she’d pass time with, until her leading man arrived.

Warner Bros. Presents premiered in September of 1955, Young was chosen to host the program. Each week, a different episode of Casablanca, Cheyenne, or King’s Row would fill the time slot. It was a “wheel show”, designed to court the growing television market. Instead of fighting television’s ascendance, Jack Warner brought the Warner Brothers experience straight to American homes.

The last segment usually featured tours of the backlot, vignettes, screen tests, and interviews. A few weeks before his fatal accident on Route 466, James Dean filmed a segment with Young on the importance of auto safety. While Young was hosting the program, Elizabeth Montgomery was shooting The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955). It was Montgomery’s first feature film and her marriage to Young would be her second. She was 22 at the time, but she didn’t let the 20-year gap between her and Young slow their courtship.

He was one marriage ahead of her as well; his previous wife Sophie Rosenstein died of cervical cancer in 1952. Rosenstein was an acting coach, she trained Young when they were both under contract at Warner Brothers. Rosenstein was the older woman in that relationship. Montgomery had the misfortune of starting up with Young soon after Rosenstein’s death, and his brief engagement to Elaine Stritch. Stritch and Rosenstein were arguably, two of Young’s great loves. Stritch was a giant on Broadway, but she was also well-known for her drinking. Stritch and Young drank and fought with equal passion, numbing the hours and loss Young faced without Rosenstein, with debauchery. What could a starlet do to measure up to the women Young had had before her?

Today, Montgomery is remembered for twitching her nose and riding her broomstick into countless American living rooms, and hearts as Samantha in the television series, Bewitched. Her first big role for ABC was Iris Hecate, the Devil’s secretary in the Alcoa Premiere teleplay “Mr. Lucifer”. Fred Astaire played Lucifer. Her father was television producer Robert Montgomery. Some of Elizabeth’s friends noted the similarities between her father and the new man in her life, he so despised. Ironically enough, Young and Montgomery first met when he costarred on an episode of Robert Montgomery Presents entitled “The Sunday Punch”( 19 October 1953). When his daughter married Young in December 1956, Robert Montgomery did not attend the ceremony. Montgomery’s opinion of Young hadn’t changed, he couldn’t see the value in marrying someone: “almost as old and not one quarter as successful as I am.”

Young’s only child, Jennifer Young, was considered a miracle by some and a fluke by her father. As reported by The Pittsburgh Press on 23 February 1971, Young filed a counter-suit against his fourth wife, Elaine Williams, contesting the child support judgment she’d received to care for their daughter, who was six at the time. Young contested the ruling on the basis of paternity. Before he served in the Coast Guard as a pharmacist’s mate during WWII, Young got a vasectomy in 1938 at age 25, to address an undisclosed medical issue. The case was dismissed.

Young still had to pay but in his own way, he’d have the last laugh several years later. Jennifer Young’s name came up again in the press when the Heidi Fleiss scandal broke. For a time in the mid-'90s, Young had roomed with Fleiss. There is no concrete evidence that Young worked for the prostitution ring, but the association with Fleiss was less than favorable. When he died, Gig Young left behind a $200,000.00 estate. Jennifer Young received $10 from this estate, as stipulated by her father’s will.

George Eells wrote the only complete biography of Gig Young that exists today, Final Gig: The Man Behind the Murder (Harcourt, 1991). Young told Eells his birth was the result of what his father called, “a leak in the safe”. Although this was disguised and repeated as a joke by John Earl Barr, the thought stayed with Young through his adolescence, affecting him enough that he shared it with a stranger. If he viewed himself as an accident, just the sum of a broken condom and unintended consequences; his decision to get a vasectomy warrants closer examination.

Like a good biographer, Eells showed the depth of Young’s relationship with his father. Their closeness was a necessity brought on by his mother’s illness, which came early in Young’s life. This forced John Earl to employ a number of nannies and nurses to help raise the children. The absence of his mother and the “uncertainty” of his own parentage, rationalizes the man Gig Young became. As to why he drank the way he did, those who knew him, wondered about that, too. From Twitch Upon a Star: The Bewitched Life and Career of Elizabeth Montgomery (Taylor Trade, 2012):

And that was always a mystery to me how that horrible, horrible thing happened with him later. I (Sally Kemp) was never around him that much and I never knew him that well. So I never saw that side of him. But anyone who drinks like that has to have major demons.

Imagine the terror Young experienced when booze began to eat up his home and working life. Better yet watch his portrayal of lawyer Edgar Holt in “Jacob and the Angel”, a teleplay from the CBS anthology Climax! Holt was a defense attorney with a spotless record and a clear conscience. He never failed a client: regardless of their guilt or innocence with Holt behind them, they always went free. Holt enjoyed personal success too, as he was engaged to marry Irene Mitchell, the daughter of a powerful circuit court judge. Holt was the ideal, functional alcoholic. Drink finally snared Holt when it lost its pleasure; he no longer got drunk off the stuff, but his body began needing it, to maintain balance.

“Jacob and the Angel” showed more of the physical reality of withdrawal than They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. Pink elephants didn’t appear when Holt declined; each time his psychosis started, the screen filled with the sound of ringing bells, and an image of a paper kaleidoscope. The lens fogged, representing the distance between Holt and his desk, his tumbler, the jury and the judge. Holt’s trouble didn’t come while he was drinking, it came when his body was drained of the alcohol it needed to function. “Jacob and the Angel” let viewers see what a drunk sees, through a wet, misfiring brain. It was unclear whether Holt was closer to God or Hell, when he bottomed out while lecturing the jury about “The Sermon on the Mount”. The judge thanked Holt for repeating “sermon on the mount” no less than five times, but Holt couldn’t hear him. His hearing was gone, and so was the floor beneath his feet.

It’s called perseveration, and it’s what a brain does when the body loses hydration. Even before your heart pounds from a lack of fluids, the brain spirals as it repeats words and phrases until they become meaningless. Flailing for an anchor, the mind fights for it’s physiological balance. Like a clock’s mechanism with all gears and wheels running dry: eventually those wheels seize.

“Jacob and the Angel” raised an important question: how can a man imprisoned by his own mind, free a man imprisoned by society? Remember how Dean Martin spoke of his once proud gunfighter’s-hands in Rio Bravo (1959), when they shook and could no longer shoot straight. “What can a man do with hands like these?” The answer was appeals court for the man Holt failed, and disbarment for Holt, once he admitted his wrongdoing.

“Jacob and the Angel” meditates on the state of alcoholism, as a second childhood. Was drink Gig Young’s albatross, or was there something else, that slowed his growth and breathing? Alcohol and its fast, warming effect, is sometimes compared to a blanket by the people it catches. A warming blanket, which provides assurance and certainty, against the chill of aging and time. In 1963's A Ticklish Affair, Young won the love of a Navy widow played by Shirley Jones (The Partridge Family, Carousel). Jones had three children in the film, and her six-year-old son sent the distress signal that attracted Young (Commander Key Weedon). The family lived by a San Diego dock. Young was given the choice of loving this widow, and the children she already had. Red Buttons played Uncle Simon: he was the one that gave the kids that toy signal lamp. Buttons was a personal friend of Young, and had this to say about him: “Down under that light-hearted sophistication, Gig’s a big baby, and needs an arm around him. He needs a lot of loving.”

“Walking Distance” was the fifth episode of The Twilight Zone’s first season. It aired one day before Halloween, in 1959. Young played Martin Sloan, an advertising executive from New York. It opened with Sloan turning off a dirt road into a service station. The state Sloan had driven through was not mentioned, only the name of the town he grew up in, “Homewood”. Sloan told the station attendant that he’d left Homewood 20 or 25 years prior; he couldn’t recall when, with any accuracy. Like many of the other male leads Rod Serling wrote, Sloan was 36 years old. He was out of cigarettes, so he bought a new pack, and set off for Homewood on foot. His car needed servicing which would take an hour and a half, but he had time and Homewood was only a mile and a half down the road. As he left the station, his reflection passed over the mirror on the cigarette machine. Young walked into the distance, growing smaller as the camera tracked his movement, by shooting the mirror tightly until its edges filled the frame.

At each point in his journey, he saw fragments of himself. He saw himself at age 11, scratching his name into a gazebo post in the park from his childhood. At his childhood home, he saw himself in the driveway beside his first car, a 1934 Ford Roadster fresh out of Detroit and “the first of its kind”, at age 16. The carousel at his childhood park took him back further still, to age eight; as the carousel turned, he chased himself, injuring the boy he once was. The pain the boy felt shot out from the past and Young felt it too, as it coursed up his leg and brought him to his knees.

Sloan spoke to his father three times. The second time his father warned him to stay away, but the third time, his father showed him the way to move forward:

Robert Sloan: Martin. Is it so bad, where you’re from?

Martin Sloan: I thought so Pop. I’ve been living at a dead run, and I was tired. Then one day I knew I had to come back here. I had to come back here, and get on the merry-go-round, and eat cotton candy and listen to… band concerts. I had to stop… and breath, and close my eyes, and smell… and listen.

Robert Sloan: I guess we all want that. Maybe when you go back Martin… you’ll find that there are merry-go-rounds, and band concerts where you are. Maybe you haven’t been looking in the right place. You’ve been looking behind you Martin. Try looking ahead.

Martin Sloan: Maybe.

Robert Sloan: Goodbye, son.

Martin Sloan: Goodbye, Pop.

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