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Young At 79: On A Good 'Role'

January 10, 1987|RODERICK MANN

Next month Robert Young turns 80. Time, you'd suppose, for slippers by the fire and a good book. But wait. Don't rush him. He's not ready yet.

As proof, Sunday sees him starring in NBC TV's "Mercy or Murder?" a true story of a man who took the life of his incurably ill wife, was tried for murder and is now serving a life sentence in Florida. (A review of the TV film is on Page 10.)

Most actors, lucky enough to make it to the 80s, consider themselves fortunate to get cameo roles in pictures. This is a major role and Young, not surprisingly, is jubilant.

"Parts like this don't come along often," he said this week sitting back in his Westlake Village home. "So when it did I jumped at it".

He has not met the man he plays, Roswell Gilbert whose wife suffered from Alzheimer's disease. But they talked on the telephone.

"He's 77 now and I got the impression he's removed from it all," said Young. "But I was glad I talked to him. And it's stimulating to play a role that's bound to cause controversy."

Young looks good, silver haired and straight backed. He does nothing to deserve his good health, he says. No exercise, no diet, nothing.

"There are all those poor souls out there beating their brains out with exercise and here I am doing nothing, never walking when I can sit and certainly never running. I'm lucky."

Millions of people grew up with this man. There he was, a blithe young charmer, making movies at Metro back in the '30s and '40s. Then came his TV fame--"Father Knows Best" in the '50s, "Marcus Welby, M.D." in the '60s and '70s.

A good career, by any standards. But if you're one of those people with fading memories of plush seats and pretty usherettes and a need to waffle on about the good old days, count him out.

"I guess it's human nature to paint a glowing picture of the past," he said. "Me, I remember that we never had chairs on the set--we had to sit on boxes. And at Metro it was always implied that you weren't there by the grace of God but by the grace of Louis B. Mayer.

"I always felt I was just one step ahead of disaster. I'd come home and tell my wife Betty, "I'm finished.' And I honestly believed it.

"We were always made to feel insecure. They'd play one actor against another. I was the poor man's Robert Montgomery. They held me as a threat over his head. If he didn't behave I'd get the role. That was the inference. They did it with Gable, Tracy, everyone."

He went to Metro in 1931 when he was 24 and was so glad to land a contract that he initially gave his agent 50% of his $150-a-week salary.

"To me that was a fortune," he said, "and 50% of something was a lot better than 100% of nothing so I gladly paid it. But later the studio forced my agent to take the usual commission (10%)."

But throughout his time at the studio he was, he says, always worried and insecure, certain that he was about to be fired.

"I had no stability at all," he said. "If it hadn't been for my wife Betty I don't know what I'd have done. I always say she didn't have four children; she had five. Our four daughters and me."

On screen, in more than 100 movies, he played polished, urbane characters, witty and sophisticated.

"I invented that man you saw on screen," he said. "The moment I put on makeup and costume I became a different person. But he was never me. And the moment the makeup came off, there was that old jerk-me-back again."

He laughs now at the memory. He didn't laugh much in those days.

"I had no sense of humor, none at all. It was Betty who taught me to laugh. And it wasn't easy for her. For 30 years I fought a long battle with depression."

Then, 20 years ago, he was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown. They discovered he had a chemical imbalance. This was treated and his recovery began.

"But it went on for years, that depression. Often I was close to despair. There I was playing this ideal father in 'Father Knows Best' and then going home, totally screwed up."

For many, he was the kind of father they dreamed of having. Hence the show's success. Robert Young now confesses that he too yearned to have a father like that.

"My own was a rather remote, austere man," he said. "He was a building contractor and sometimes he'd be away for months. So when he did come home he was something of a stranger. So in that series I was playing the kind of father I'd also liked to have had."

But if the mail for that show seemed large, it was nothing to the avalanche of letters that came in for "Marcus Welby, M.D."

"We used to get hundreds of letters a week asking for medical advice," he said. "Of course we'd have to write back saying we weren't competent to give it. But I made a lot of doctor friends through that show. I remember one saying that I'd made his life impossible. 'Now all my patients ask: Why aren't you like Dr. Welby?' he said. 'Well,' I say, 'Why aren't you?' "

Relaxed and, finally, confident, Robert Young says he now enjoys acting more than ever before. But now he can live without it. And the roles have to be very good indeed to lure him out.

"I used to have to act," he said, "because that was the only way I could become the person I wanted to be. But now I am that person. Now everything's fine. . . . "

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