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America's Father Figure

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Robert Young Young knew best how to soothe an anxious nation. (File Photo)
On television, Robert Young was more than an actor, more than a star, more even than a father figure. He was a reassurance man. The ideal dad he played on "Father Knows Best" and the warmly compassionate doctor he later portrayed on "Marcus Welby, M.D.," helped comfort the audience at home and ease the anxieties of life in the atomic age.

When TV became more realistic in the late '70s and '80s, when entertainment shows starting airing social issues, juggling political hot potatoes and presenting characters with flaws and failings, pharmacology fortunately came up with drugs like Zoloft and Prozac to perform somewhat the same function that escapist TV had done in the '50s. Or perhaps it was just a coincidence.

"Father Knows Best" and "Marcus Welby" were shams, but they were comforting shams, sometimes moving and inspiring, and all the more so because of Young, who wore both roles like comfy cardigan sweaters. He had an easygoing charm that was perfect for the intimate medium of TV, but he also brought enough ingratiating authority to the parts he played to make them seem credible and genuine – even if the fictitious "Springfield" in which the Andersons lived was as all-white and homogenized as a gallon of milk.

Young died late Tuesday in his Los Angeles home at the age of 91, four years after losing his wife, Betty. Their marriage had lasted six decades, a true rarity by Hollywood standards, or by contemporary American standards generally. Their union may not have been as carefree and harmonious as that of Jim and Margaret Anderson, the couple Young and Jane Wyatt played on "Father Knows Best," but its longevity speaks for itself.

The marriage survived, among other crises, years in which Young suffered from alcoholism and depression, even as he was playing Papa Perfect on TV. He attempted suicide in 1991, four years after appearing in "Murder or Mercy?," a TV movie in which he played a man who helped his terminally ill wife end her own life. Robert Young, Jim Anderson and Marcus Welby were not the same man, but when we watched Young play the roles on TV, he seemed naturally suited and completely at home.

We wanted to believe and we did believe, and his skills as an actor had much to do with that. He was the fellow next door as you'd like him to be. He was a keeper of promises.

In Jeff Kisseloff's 1995 classic book "The Box," a fascinating oral history of broadcasting that features remarkably candid interviews with talent from TV's first generation, some of the cast members of "Father Knows Best," including Young, talk about the show, which he originally created with partner Gene Rodney as a radio program in 1947.

"I wasn't Jim Anderson," Young says in the book, "but it was hard for the public to accept that, and it got to be a pain in the ass. . . . The Andersons came out of my conversations with Gene about what we thought would be representative of a middle-class American family, if there was such a thing. There probably isn't, but that was what we were looking for. . . .

"People did perceive it as real life. I know that. I don't know if people compared themselves unfavorably to us, but maybe it helped with the realization that a family can exist without killing each other."

Billy Gray, who played adolescent son Bud on the show, remained bitter for years afterward about what he considered the essential dishonesty of the program. "It was as if we were in a vacuum or some kind of enchanted forest," he told Kisseloff. "It wasn't taking into account the reality of the world. It was an advertiser's vision of what the world should be."

But in the context of its times, "Father Knows Best" was actually one of the gentlest and most humane family sitcoms. Both Young and Rodney wanted their program to be a cut above the usual sappy, wacky fare: "I said, 'Gene, I'd like to do a family show. I'd like to be the father, but not a boob. I don't want to do William Bendix on 'The Life of Riley.' Out of that came 'Father Knows Best.' "

Father figures on such other sitcoms of the time as "The Stu Erwin Show," "Make Room for Daddy," "My Little Margie" and "Life With Father" tended to be broadly hapless buffoons. Jim Anderson was far more complex and had much more dignity. Audiences responded, and the show was a solid hit from 1954 through 1960. After that, as everyone knows, all hell broke loose, and television would never again be quite the glowing hearth of its early years.

Young's original title for the series included a question mark. It was to be "Father Knows Best?" because Young thought that amusingly ironic and said everyone knew mothers were the real heads of households anyway. But the sponsor, Kent cigarettes, refused – apparently finding the suggestion of doubt in the title to be potentially subversive – and the deal would have fallen through if Young hadn't capitulated and agreed to drop the offending punctuation. Thus was Jim Anderson granted omniscience.

He was, as Young played him, a wonderful parent – understanding, supportive, tolerant, involved, forgiving. Frequently the story lines had him doing his best to spare his children embarrassment, help them deal with peer pressure, solve sibling squabbles or, with his wife's help, dry the inevitable tears. Jim Anderson called his youngest daughter (played by Lauren Chapin) "Kitten" and his older daughter (Elinor Donahue) "Princess." Everyone of a certain generation knows those nicknames well.

In one memorable episode, the entire family joined forces to rescue an injured bird found in the family's yard, and the program ends with all of them at the window releasing the bird and hoping it had regained the strength to fly away home. It did.

An Emmy-winning installment, "A Medal for Margaret," had apron-wearing housewife Margaret Anderson determined to show her family that she could score a triumph that had nothing to do with domestic concerns. She enters a fly-fishing contest and stands a good chance of winning until she breaks her arm. Under Jim's guidance, the rest of the family rescues her from depression by staging their own version of another '50s television staple, "This Is Your Life."

One by one family members come forward to recall how Mom had saved the day for them during one crisis or another. Such episodes may not pass litmus tests for cultural correctness now, but in their time, they seemed touching and heartfelt. And purely as a piece of commercial craftsmanship, "Father Knows Best," thanks to the attention Young and Rodney gave it, was as shiny and handsome as it was hopeful.

As the eponymous hero of "Marcus Welby, M.D." (1969-76), which co-starred then-newcomer (now Mr. Barbra Streisand) James Brolin, Young was back in the reassurance business, imparting wisdom, comfort and hope to Welby's patients and consequently to viewers at home. Maybe both programs, the doctor show and the daddy show, were glossy and simplistic, but Young gave them stature and veracity, and for that he became immensely popular and widely loved.

Whether he was the greatest actor in the world was irrelevant. He certainly didn't set the world on fire during his years at MGM in the '30s and '40s. The important thing was that as a television presence, Robert Young was bound to leave you in a better frame of mind than he found you. He was good company.

If he'd lived another 91 years, Robert Young could never have met all the people whose lives he'd touched and whose spirits he'd lifted – people who felt they knew him and will always be grateful for the experience.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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