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Gig Young Photo

Gig Young
November 4, 1913—October 19, 1978

Content warning: this article contains references to death, alcoholism, drug use, mental health issues, delicate medical issues, abuse, divorce, gun violence, the ultimate self-harm, and homicide. Please use your best judgment as to whether you wish to read this content. Language is PG-13.

Gig Young was born Byron Elsworth Barr on November 4, 1913, in St. Cloud, Minnesota, to John and Emma Barr. He was the youngest of several children. During his youth, he lived with his family in St. Cloud; Washington, DC; and western North Carolina. There’s some debate about whether he spent more time living in DC or NC, and where he was living when he graduated from high school.

While attending whatever high school he attended, Young (then Barr) performed in the requisite school plays. After graduation he was a used car salesman by day and a drama student/stage actor by night. (It could be argued that they’re similar lines of work.) Talented, tall (6’1”/1.8 m), congenial, considered handsome by many, and with what some deemed to be a “distinctive” voice, Barr seemed ripe for stardom.

Seemingly on a whim, Young (then Barr) moved to Los Angeles, California, where he proceeded to recreate his east coast schedule of working, studying, and performing in amateur theater productions. In 1940, give or take a year, he married fellow Pasadena Playhouse student Sheila Stapler.

Although Young proved not to be an overnight success, he continued to grind away at this routine even after he was signed by Warner Brothers Studio in 1941. (Allegedly, he and future television Superman star George Reeves were spotted by a Warner Brothers talent scout while acting in a play together, and both were offered contracts.) That year he appeared in eight movies, although most of the roles seem to be uncredited, “face in the crowd” parts. He did portray “Abbott—Guinea Pig 2 Experiment 32” in the film Dive Bomber.

In 1942, Young (still Barr) was cast in a movie called The Gay Sisters (with Barbara Stanwyck and Geraldine Fitzgerald), playing the role of character Gig Young. The studio decided that the name some random writer had created for a fictional character was better for him than the name his parents had chosen for him with love and deliberation, and thus Byron Elsworth Barr became Gig Young. There was actually a second Hollywood movie actor at the time* named Byron Barr, so the name change probably helped to clear up confusion in that department.

*While it’s true that the other Byron Barr didn’t score his first screen credit until 1944’s mega-hit film Double Indemnity (affiliate link), who knows how long he had been in Hollywood making the audition rounds before getting his “big break?”

Around the same time as his name change, Young (now Young in the eyes of the public but still Barr in the eyes of the government) enlisted in the US Coast Guard. This move might have been prompted by the fact that the US government kept passing legislation that upped the odds of Young getting drafted. (Enlisting was beneficial because enlistees could choose the branch of the military in which they would serve; draftees had no such luxury.) Judging by his acting credits, his service ran from as early as late 1941 to as late as early 1947. Supposedly, he was a pharmacist’s mate serving in a combat zone in the Pacific, which was most likely a years-long series of harrowing and traumatizing experiences. No one can say for sure if this contributed to his serious mental health issues that were so apparent later in his life.

Partially because of—or perhaps in spite of—their years-long separation, he and his wife divorced not long after his return. His burgeoning inability to keep his drinking under control probably also was a contributing factor.

Young’s career began to pick up after his return from the war; he started getting larger supporting roles. Although he studio-jumped and tried free agency for quite a while—both considered bad career choices at the time—he still managed to get a steady string of acting jobs. He wasn’t happy with his perpetual “second lead” status, but at least he didn’t have to hawk used cars or pump gas any more to make ends meet. (Both of those are important jobs—and definitely more necessary than acting—but not quite as glamorous, lucrative, or ego-boosting as being an A-list celebrity.)

Around this time, Young acted in Wake of the Red Witch (it’s a ship) alongside John Wayne, The Desperate Hours alongside Humphrey Bogart, Only the Valiant alongside Gregory Peck, and The Three Musketeers alongside Angela Lansbury. In 1952 he earned his first major award nomination, in the Academy Awards’ Best Actor in a Supporting Role category, for portraying Boyd S. Copeland in Come Fill the Cup, which starred James Cagney. In true “art imitates life” fashion, Young’s character was an alcoholic. Young’s was the only Oscar nod of the entire production, but he lost out to Karl Malden, who won for his performance as Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Young’s mother, who had been in ill health for a long time, passed away in 1944 at the age of 64. His brother, Donald Earl Barr, died in 1949 at the age of 42; his cause of death is not readily available to the public.

Young’s first foray into the world of television occurred in 1950, when he appeared in an episode of The Silver Theater. From then on, he bounced between the big screen, small screen, and stage (both on Broadway and with touring companies) for the rest of his career.

1950 also saw Young’s second foray into marriage, this time to Sophie Rosenstein, who has been said to have been the true love of his life. Shortly after the wedding, Rosenstein was diagnosed with cancer and died about two months short of their second anniversary. Sometime between this marriage and the next, Young was reportedly engaged to actress Elaine Stritch, who has been said to have been the other true love of his life. Seems like a strange combo to me, but reportedly Stritch had her own battles with the bottle, so maybe it makes sense.

In the summer of 1955, at the behest of the National Safety Council, Young made a “drive safely, everyone!” public service announcement with actor James Dean. Young is the boring interviewer, while Dean, Hollywood’s flavor of the month at that moment, responds to Young’s questions in an aloof and mildly flippant manner. Dean is wearing a cowboy costume from the movie he was working on at the time, Giant (affiliate link), but the outfit made him look less like a character and more like a caricature. When asked about his highway driving habits, Dean promises that he’s always a good boy behind the wheel because you can never trust the other drivers on the road. At the end of the announcement, Dean’s scripted line was, “The life you save may be your own.” What he chose to say instead was, “The life you save might be mine.” Apparently, the PSA never aired because of Dean’s death in a horrendous car crash on the highway just a few weeks later, the fault of which has never been satisfactorily determined.

In 1956, Young walked down the aisle again, this time with Elizabeth Montgomery (who went on to achieve celebrity immortality by playing Samantha Stevens in the 1960’s situation comedy Bewitched). She was almost 20 years his junior. (Now, she’s the type of person I’d expect Young to have been interested in.) The best guess is that they met on set while Young was working on “The Sunday Punch,” a 1953 episode of Montgomery’s father’s television series, aptly named Robert Montgomery Presents. If Mr. Montgomery had known then what he later found out, I’m sure he would have done his best to keep Ms. Montgomery far, far away from the set while Young was anywhere near it. (Mr. Montgomery declined to attend his daughter’s wedding.)

In 1958, Young appeared in the film Teacher’s Pet, portraying yet another drinker. His co-stars were Clark Gable and Doris Day. Both Young and Gable were nominated for Golden Globes (Best Supporting Actor/Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical, respectively) and Laurel Awards* (both in the Top Male Comedy Performance category) for their performances, but Young alone got an Oscar nod (Best Supporting Actor). Neither man won any trophies. Also in 1958, Young appeared in The Tunnel of Love, also with Doris Day, and he was also nominated for a Top Male Supporting Performance Laurel Award for his part. This time he won it. In another 1958 performance (a Studio One in Hollywood episode titled, “A Dead Ringer,” which also featured his then-wife, Elizabeth Montgomery), Young’s last line is reportedly, “Do I look like a man that would murder his own wife?” Umm…yes?

*If you’ve never before heard of the Laurel Awards (I hadn’t), they were yet another award system set up to congratulate members of the show business community. They were created in 1951 by Motion Picture Exhibitor magazine (I’d never heard of that before, either) and were awarded through 1971 (except for some reason, 1969 was skipped.) It seems they were viewer-voted awards, and there were no ceremonies associated with the yearly contests. The winners were announced in—you guessed it— Motion Picture Exhibitor magazine.

Although Young was never satisfied with his B-lister position in Hollywood, someone thought enough of his career in 1960 to award him his very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s at 6821 Hollywood Boulevard, if you want to step on him. (If you don’t want to now, you might change your mind by the end of the article.)

In 1962, Young was nominated for his third and last Top-Male-Supporting-Performance Laurel Award, this time for the movie That Touch of Mink, again with Doris Day. He won this Laurel as well. Doris Day must have been his Laurel good luck charm.

Young kept plugging along without much change in his life besides his inevitable divorce from Montgomery, which came about in early 1963. She had put up with his drinking for six years, but had finally had enough. Apparently Young was quite the bully when drunk. In September 1963, he married realtor Elaine Williams. She gave birth to Young’s only child, Jennifer, the following year.

Although Young swore he never took prescription medication (for fear of “getting hooked,” he claimed), many reports state that Young developed a dependence on Valium. Some say he kicked it eventually, others say not. None are clear as to when it started (if it did) or ended (if it did).

Despite his personal demons, for the next several years Young’s career remained steady. He starred in a 1964-1965 television series, The Rogues (his co-Rogues were charmers Charles Boyer and David Niven). He also did quite a few stage performances, as well as a few other roles for television and film (including one in a movie titled The Shuttered Room, which sounds a lot better than it is, if online ratings are to be believed).

Sometime around 1966, Young’s fourth marriage fell apart. During the ensuing legal wrangling, Young pulled the classic stunt of denying that his daughter was his biological child. (One source states that he claimed to have undergone a common sterilization procedure in 1938.) After five years of fighting, he lost that battle. It’s hard to know what to believe—people lie, procedures fail. Those were the days long before DNA paternity testing, so there was no way the truth could be determined conclusively. I doubt anyone involved and still living is interested in pursuing the matter.

In 1969, Martin “Marty” Baum, Young’s former agent, was the head honcho at ABC Pictures. He strongly encouraged director Sidney Pollack to find Young a gig (sorry). Pollack reluctantly came up with the role of dance marathon emcee Rocky in the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (affiliate link). To the chagrin of Pollack and others—including movie co-star Jane Fonda—not only did Young remain in the role, he scored an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his efforts. Young’s the only reason why the movie’s publicists can tout it as an Oscar winner. His performance also scored him Best Supporting Actor awards from both the Golden Globes and the Kansas City Film Critics Circle (KCFCC), as well as nominations for the same from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC). Young called the Oscar win the greatest moment of his life, but he also fretted that the win would “curse” his career, as it seemed to have done for many winners before him. Considering the fact that after his win he complained that he’d only had five decent roles in his 30-year career, it doesn’t sound like it would have been possible for the award to do too much damage.

In the end, the Oscar win didn’t seem to help or hurt Young career-wise, as he continued getting second-string work both in movies and television. He still yearned for that breakout starring role in a blockbuster film people would think of as “a Gig Young movie.” Never happened.

In what would be his final major award nomination, he was on the short list for a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for his work in 1971’s The Neon Ceiling. [Long side note: Young lost to George C. Scott, who won for his performance as Victor Franz in Hallmark Hall of Fame’s airing of the ITV Sunday Night Theatre episode “The Price.” Scott snubbed the award-givers and the ceremony, and asked colleague and fellow nominee Jack Cassidy to, as they say, accept the award on his behalf. This was less than a month after Scott turned down the Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Patton in Patton—although I bet he didn’t turn down the estimated $3,500,000 he earned for the job ($600,000 plus 5% of the movie’s gross).]

In what could have been Young’s superstar role (though the film would probably never had been labeled “a Gig Young movie”), he was hired by director Mel Brooks to play the lead role of The Waco Kid in 1974’s iconic Blazing Saddles (affiliate link). On the very first day of filming, at the very start of filming for the day, Young, hanging upside down as per the script, started vomiting and having convulsions, not as per the script. Brooks thought, “We aren’t shooting The Exorcist, are we? I think something’s wrong here.”1 Young later said it was because of an epileptic episode, but most others attributed it to alcohol, either the consumption of it or the withdrawal from it. Mel Brooks must have believed one of the latter explanations, because while Young was being carted away by ambulance, Brooks was firing him. He replaced Young with Gene Wilder before anyone could say, “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”

The following quote is attributed to Mel Brooks regarding the unpleasant episode: “We draped Gig Young’s legs over and hung him upside down. And he started to talk and he started shaking. I said, ‘This guy’s giving me a lot. He is giving plenty. He’s giving me the old alky shake. Great.’ 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.’ If you want an alcoholic, don’t cast an alcoholic… Anyway, poor Gig Young, it was the first shot on Friday, nine in the morning, and an ambulance came and took him away. I had no movie.”2 Brooks called upon his old friend Wilder, who flew cross-country over the weekend and started filming that Monday.

Many sources say Young later sued the film’s studio, Warner Brothers, for breach of contract. No reports on whether the lawsuit, if real, was successful.

Around the same time Young’s Blazing Saddles job bit the dust, Young’s television talk show appearances dried up too. From the mid-1950’s to the mid-1970’s, he appeared dozens of times on talk shows, including the “biggies” of the day: The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and The Dick Cavett Show (notice a trend here?). He also appeared on The Tonight Show, during both the Jack Parr and Johnny Carson eras. He even showed up a few times as a game show panelist, most notably on What’s My Line?, To Tell the Truth, and The Hollywood Squares. After early 1974, however, he only made two more of these national television appearances—one on Dinah Shore’s talk show, Dinah!, in 1976, and one as an audience member at the AFI Life Achievement Awards’s tribute to Henry Fonda, which aired on March 15, 1978. Spoiler alert: also in the audience that night was the next (and last) Mrs. Young, Kim Schmidt.

1975 saw the death of Young’s father at age 97. The two had had a complicated relationship, to say the least. On one hand, they were reportedly close; on the other hand, the elder Barr often called his youngest child a little dumbbell, and one of his favorite jokes was about how Young’s conception had been an “accident.” Funny.

In 1976 he was hired to fill the role of Charlie in the television series Charlie’s Angels. He had one job: talk. Didn’t have to deal with hair, makeup, and wardrobe. Didn’t have to go to the studio. Didn’t even have to memorize his lines; since the never-seen character was only a disembodied voice over a speakerphone, Young simply could have read the script “with feeling.” Even so, Young couldn’t handle the role. Producer Aaron Spelling convinced John Forsythe to take on the job at the very last minute, and the rest was titillating TV history.

Surprisingly, Young managed to land a lead role in another 1976 television series, Gibbsville. He reprised the role of Ray Whitehead, which he had originated in the 1975 television movie The Turning Point of Jim Malloy. The show lasted for 13 episodes, which was generally the bare minimum for shows back then. (These days if ratings are bad from the start, some shows don’t make it past episode one.)

In the summer of 1978, Young toured the US and Canada in a supporting role in the play “Nobody Loves an Albatross.” The name alone probably struck too close to home for Young’s comfort, but the fact that less than a decade earlier he had toured as the lead in the same play likely wreaked havoc on his already bottomed-out self-esteem.

Even though Young’s mental health had been on shaky ground for a long time, and he was reportedly having physical health issues as well (skin cancer), he was still willing to go for the brass ring because he married for a fifth time. On September 27, 1978, he wed a woman less than half his age. German-born Ruth Hannalore “Kim” Schmidt was an actress and script girl who had the misfortune of meeting Young either while they were both working on the 1977 Gene Roddenberry television movie Spectre—or possibly in Hong Kong while they were both working on the ironically titled Game of Death. (Spectre had aired first, but Game of Death obviously had a longer production schedule, as the original scenes for the film had been shot before star Bruce Lee’s death in 1973.) The couple set up house in The Osborne apartment building, a stately old structure on West 57th Street, New York, New York.

The newly-wed Youngs celebrated their three-week anniversary on October 18. On the morning of October 19, Young taped a segment for Joe Franklin’s New York television talk show, went home, and, shortly after, shot his wife in the head before turning the gun on himself. They were both found dead in their apartment later that day. Police determined that they had been dead approximately five hours. They also determined that Young’s actions were not premeditated, although nothing published about the events indicates how they came to that conclusion. I saw one uncorroborated source that suggested the two had made a suicide pact, and that might have been the case, but there is no public information available to support that theory. The Joe Franklin Show episode never aired, by the way.

Young’s funeral was held in Beverly Hills, and he is interred in his family’s section at Green Hill Cemetery, Waynesville, North Carolina. Don’t bother looking there for a stone marked Gig Young; his grave marker bears his birth name, Byron E. Barr.

Schmidt is buried in Eildon Weir Cemetery, Eildon Weir, Murrindindi Shire, Victoria, Australia. Seems like her loved ones wanted her about as far away from Young as possible, although surprisingly the name they chose to put on her tombstone was Ruth Schmidt Young.

Young’s estate comprised of $200,000 (about $840,000 in 2021 dollars) and his Academy Award, which they found by his side (the award, not the $200,000) after his death. He left the award to Marty Baum, the man who got him the role that earned it. For someone who whined so much about an Oscar win being “bad luck,” Young certainly seemed attached to the thing. It’s not clear to whom he left the rest of his estate (possibly Mr. Baum as well), but some reports say he left his daughter $10. Classy guy ‘til the end. [Although he treated his daughter abysmally, she still wanted to possess the statuette that her father obviously held in high regard. Baum and his wife agreed that it would be given to her upon Mr. Baum’s eventual demise, which came about in 2010.]

1 David Fear, “Mel Brooks: Why ‘Blazing Saddles’ Is the ‘Funniest Movie Ever Made,’” www.rollingstone.com, Rolling Stone Magazine, August 31, 2016, https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/mel-brooks-why-blazing-saddles-is-the-funniest-movie-ever-made-252004/.

2 Martha Ross, “Gene Wilder wasn’t Mel Brooks’ first choice for ‘Blazing Saddles’ Waco Kid,” www.mercurynews.com, Bay Area News Group, September 5, 2016, https://www.mercurynews.com/2016/08/29/gene-wilder-wasnt-mel-brooks-first-choice-for-blazing-saddles-waco-kid/.

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