Originally created 07/23/98

Perfect dad, ideal doc, Robert Young dies at 91



LOS ANGELES -- Always patient, understanding and sage, Robert Young steered us through adolescence in "Father Knows Best" and helped heal others with his warm bedside manner in "Marcus Welby M.D."

TV's perfect father and compassionate doctor represented an idealized world that doesn't exist anymore, and in some respects never really did -- not even for Young, who privately suffered from depression and alcoholism.

The actor died Tuesday at 91 at his home in Westlake Village, 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles. He had a bad heart and was recovering from surgery.

Young "always treated his on-screen family with the same affection and courtesy he showed his loved ones in his private life," said his TV wife on "Father Knows Best," Jane Wyatt. "I shall treasure those memories with Bob Young because he was simply one of the finest people to grace our industry."

Elinor Donahue, who played daughter Betty "Princess" Anderson on "Father Knows Best," said: "During filming of the show, he was a real father to me."

Before the Generation Gap, before the women's liberation movement, the Summer of Love, Vietnam, AIDS and HMOs, there was Young's Jim Anderson, insurance salesman, loving husband and father of three, who lived in a house with a white picket fence in the Midwestern community of Springfield.

The world of "Father Knows Best" may have been as black-and-white as the screen image of the show, which ran from 1954 to 1963 on CBS, NBC and ABC, but in the Eisenhower years this suited America just fine.

Every week, America watched Young come home from a day at General Insurance Co., take off his business jacket, put on a sensible sweater and with wife Margaret solve life's little problems.

Whether it was son Bud's travails with a new paper route or daughter Betty's struggle over which college to attend, Young was there, kindly dishing out advice, listening carefully, neatly wrapping things up before the half-hour was through.

It was a role that Young, a former MGM movie actor, originated on radio for NBC, and it established him as a leading member of the fraternity of TV fathers, whose brethren include Ozzie Nelson and, more recently, Bill Cosby.

After playing the role for more than a decade, Young hung up his briefcase after the 1959-60 season, though the show continued in reruns, so popular that the repeats aired in prime-time for three years.

During its run, the show ignored the social problems of the time, glossing over Cold War anxiety.

"Granted, it was ideal," he said in 1983. "There was criticism of that and I understood, because I know there are many sides to life -- including the seamy side, the dark underside. But this program was not about that. ... Impossible? Maybe you're right. I'd say, `The show is basically entertainment, don't you understand that? What gave you the idea it was supposed to be real?"'

Young went on to star in "Marcus Welby M.D." from 1969 to 1976. Playing a general practitioner in a Santa Monica hospital, Young was the doctor who could cure physical ailments and emotional pains, showing a level of compassion often missing in this era of co-payments, managed care and malpractice litigation.

"He's understanding and dedicated," Young once said of his character. "These are words that for some reason have fallen into disuse. I knew from the start that I had to come back to play this man."

At the time, "Marcus Welby" was the biggest hit ABC ever had. It was the highest-rated show in the 1970-71 season -- the first ABC show to be so rated -- and was in the top 15 shows for four seasons, 1969 to 1973.

Young won two Emmys for "Father Knows Best" and a third for "Marcus Welby."

His "Marcus Welby" co-star was Dr. Steven Kiley, played by a young James Brolin, whose by-the-medical-book approach contrasted with Welby's more unorthodox, whole-patient orientation. Brolin, in a statement, offered his "heartfelt condolences to Mr. Young's family for their loss."

While Young, publicly, was the image of contentment, he was intimately aware of the dark side of life. In 1966, while appearing in a stage play in Chicago, he suffered an emotional breakdown, reported at the time as "nervous exhaustion."

He would later reveal that during the run of "Father Knows Best" he tried to cope with decades of depression, self-doubt and fear by drinking, just to get through the day.

After the breakdown, Young confronted his problems and, with his wife, began the healing, he said in 1985, by "just talking." But the demons never left him. In 1980 he was hospitalized for depression, and in 1991, he attempted suicide.

After "Marcus Welby," his TV work included a "Father Knows Best" Christmas reunion movie; "All My Darling Daughters," in which he was the father of the brides; and that TV movie's sequel, in which he got married.

His television work followed a prolific and often-overlooked career in films, where Young appeared in such movies as "Sitting Pretty," "Northwest Passage" and "Journey for Margaret."

Young was born in 1907 in Chicago, the fourth of five children of an Irish immigrant building contractor. The family moved to Los Angeles when he was 10, and he appeared in plays in high school and community college.

A screen test brought his first Hollywood role, in "The Black Camel."

His movie co-stars included Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Katharine Hepburn, Greer Garson, Norma Shearer and Jean Harlow.

"I am a plodder," Young once said. "My career never had any great peaks. But producers and directors knew I was reliable. So when they couldn't get the really big stars, they'd say, `Let's get Bob.' As a result, I always kept working, each time climbing a little higher."

Young is survived by four daughters, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His wife of more than 60 years, the former Betty Henderson, his high school sweetheart, died in 1994.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.