Happy 100th Birthday to Gig Young

gigopenerGig Young’s vocal coach once asked him about his ailments. “Where does it hurt anyway, Gig? “Everywhere,” he replied. “It hurts everywhere.”

George Eells recounts this sad exchange in Final Gig, which is perhaps the only full-length biography of Gig Young, which reveals—or rather exposes—the actor’s tragic life. Between his father who belittled him because his conception was an accident and his mother who withdrew into neurosis, Young experienced insecurity on all fronts. According to Eels’s bio, he spent a lifetime searching for love and approval; his fans, Academy Award, and five wives were not enough. Nothing was ever enough. In some ways, his life seems at odds with his suave, sophisticated star image, but in other ways, it fits.

This afternoon, TCM is airing eight films starring Gig Young in celebration of his 100th birthday. The films are from his earliest career, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, when he was a supporting character and his star image was evolving into the affable gent with a debonair smile.

YOUNG AFTER WINNING THE OSCAR FOR 'THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY'

YOUNG AFTER WINNING THE OSCAR FOR ‘THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY’

In romantic comedies and dramas, Young excelled at playing handsome gentlemen who were charming, cultured, and witty—in other words, the perfect man. But, that was the problem, he was too perfect. Often, the leading lady preferred the other guy—the one with all the faults. Or, she discovered that the perfect man was more stuck on himself than he was on her. Because his characters did not get the girl, some writers have described his star image as that of a loser. But Gig Young’s characters were never losers. Wendell Corey or Ralph Bellamy played losers, because they were so plain, naïve, or dull they never stood a chance at winning the girl, even if their characters were engaged to them in the beginning. On the other hand, Young was attractive and desirable—a catch for any girl. In rejecting Young, the leading lady was indeed giving up a dreamboat in favor of a more down-to-earth fellow. Having gone for the dreamboats most of the time in my life, I understand their powerful appeal. But, the leading ladies were smarter than me, because they selected the guy who was more suitable for the long haul of marriage, and a good marriage was key in the days when the Production Code influenced perceptions of romance. Oddly, the fact that Young’s characters lose the girl—and the implied home and family that goes with the package—echoes his lonely life in the all-too-real world.

During the Film School Generation, Young won an Oscar for playing the slick, sleazy emcee of a Depression-era dance marathon in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Afterward, Young turned toward darker, sinister character parts that subverted his earlier star image. I was surprised to discover that he appeared in two Sam Peckinpah films, The Killer Elite and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, as well as the Renee Taylor/Joseph Bologna hit Lovers and Other Strangers. Sadly, this career boost did not remedy his lingering personal troubles—a crippling insecurity and the alcoholism that went with it. In 1973, he was fired from the role of the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, supposedly because he collapsed from an attack of delirium tremors. By the end of his life, he was reduced to playing in stock theater with an occasional part as a cardboard villain in a genre flick. His last role was in a Bruce Lee movie, The Game of Death. In the fall of 1978, Young married 31-year-old Kim Schmidt. Three weeks later he shot and killed her, then put the gun to his mouth and pulled the trigger.

AS ROCKY GRAVO

AS ROCKY GRAVO

But, that is not the Gig Young that I fancy, nor is he the one that should be remembered. To complement the eight films that TCM is airing today from his early days in Hollywood, I offer my list of Gig Young’s best performances from the peak of his career.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They?. In 1969, director Sidney Pollock stole the thunder from John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), and Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) with this bitter story set in the Depression. Gig Young costarred as smooth-talking but dissipated emcee Rocky Gravo, who presides over a dance marathon, in which broke, starved, and despondent contestants compete for desperately needed prize money. Pollock originally wanted Lionel Stander for the role, and star Jane Fonda openly objected to Young’s casting. Given Young’s star image, both worried that he would be too lightweight as Rocky. Young himself had doubts about departing from his suave persona, which had been reworked for the television series The Rogues from 1964-1965. But, he connected with Rocky Gravo, who was smooth and glib on the outside but a hardened realist inside. His performance surprised many, including Fonda, who apologized for having objected to his casting.

DR. HUGO PINE WAS AN EXPERT IN ALL THINGS, INCLUDING THE BONGOS

DR. HUGO PINE WAS AN EXPERT IN ALL THINGS, INCLUDING THE BONGOS

Teacher’s Pet.  At the beginning of this romantic comedy, Young’s character, Dr. Hugo Pine, is an impressive intellectual who is engaged to Doris Day. Day plays an idealistic journalism professor who teaches adults at night school. She doesn’t realize that old-school newspaperman Clark Gable is in her class pretending to be a student. Gruff, working-stiff Gable and handsome, highbrow Young vie for Day’s affections. Young and Gable are as opposite in their star images as their characters are in personality, a good casting strategy for a romantic comedy with a love triangle. Yet, Young steals the film by playing one of those characters whose flawlessness drives the girl into the arms of his rival. For his efforts, he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Desk Set.  This is my favorite Tracy-Hepburn film, because it is an early depiction of a computer in the movies. Unlike the glorification of technology in today’s movies, the room-size computer in Desk Set cannot compete with the ingenuity of humans. That ingenuity is in the form of a group of formidable female fact-checkers led by Hepburn who are employed at a television network.  Of course, the outcome of this film is foretold by the casting of Tracy and Hepburn. No matter the romantic set-up, Tracy’s and Hepburn’s characters will end up together. Young, who plays her handsome, charming boyfriend, is destined to be cast aside. Young’s character is also self-absorbed; he keeps Hepburn on a string by placating her with flowers whenever he cancels a date because of work, or whenever he needs help with his reports. However, the character is not a cad or villain, largely because Young plays into his charming star image. Young accepted the relatively small role for the chance to work with Tracy and Hepburn, and their chemistry together is apparent in the scene in which he discovers Tracy in a bathrobe at Hepburn’s apartment. The clever script by Phoebe and Henry Ephron reveals how dull and dumb today’s romantic comedies have become.

FROM 'DESK SET.' YOUNG ISN'T IN THIS SHOT, BUT DIG THAT CRAZY ROOM-SIZE COMPUTER.

FROM ‘DESK SET.’ YOUNG ISN’T IN THIS SHOT, BUT DIG THAT CRAZY ROOM-SIZE COMPUTER.

Young at Heart. This 1954 musical remake of Four Daughters represents the epitome of Young’s star image as the too-perfect man who never gets the girl.  Young was never more appealing than in his role as Alex Burke, a likable and successful composer who comes into the lives of the Tuttles, a family with three blonde daughters. All three daughters fall in love with the charming, talented Alex, but by the end of the film, they have all married someone else! Early on, he proposes to Doris Day, but she ends up with a gloomy, morose Frank Sinatra, while Dorothy Malone finally chooses chunky Alan Hale, and Elisabeth Fraser marries a plumber!  A plumber over Gig Young!

YOUNG TRIES TO LIVE IN THE PAST IN 'WALKING DISTANCE.'

YOUNG TRIES TO LIVE IN THE PAST IN ‘WALKING DISTANCE.’

The Twilight Zone, “Walking Distance.” One of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone, “Walking Distance” stars Young as overworked ad executive Martin Sloan, a victim of the rat race that defines the modern world. While driving the back roads of small-town America, Martin stops to have his car serviced within walking distance of his hometown. He strolls into town toward the drug store, where he finds that nothing has changed since he was a boy. He walks through the park, feeling the joy of re-discovering his life from back in the day. He is astonished when he actually runs into himself as a boy. Following the boy home, Martin meets his parents as they were when he was a child. He is saddened because they refuse to believe that he is their adult son. Later, his father tracks down Martin at the park. He advises his son that this is no longer his time, and the happiness and satisfaction he seeks lies in the future—not the past.

Perhaps you have to be from a small-town during a time before video games, computers, play dates, and helicopter parents to understand the pleasure in the pain that derives from revisiting a childhood like the one in “Walking Distance.”  It was all about freedom: The freedom to roam the entire neighborhood or town from dawn to dusk; the lure of the woods or parks; the freedom from structure and responsibility. This episode of The Twilight Zone is more than nostalgia; it serves up a sense of loss without the hope of replacement or renewal. “Walking Distance” captures that feeling of permanent loss, and Young plays Martin Sloan with a vulnerability that is heartbreaking. Apparently, the town and park were based on Binghamton, N.Y., where Rod Serling grew up.  If you watch this episode, notice how Serling’s voice almost chokes up as he makes his closing remarks.

Celebrate Gig Young’s birthday today by watching TCM all afternoon, then track down any of the movies above. You will be glad you did.

14 Responses Happy 100th Birthday to Gig Young
Posted By swac44 : November 4, 2013 5:07 pm

Watched Walking Distance for the first time recently, after getting the first season of Twilight Zone on BD, and found it really touching, especially given what we know about Young all these years later, and also because of losing my own father a few years ago. It certainly wouldn’t have had the same impact if I’d seen it as a kid, like other episodes, and I’m glad I didn’t get around to it until now.

Posted By Moira Finnie : November 4, 2013 5:24 pm

It’s good to read your nuanced assessment of Gig Young’s career and lingering appeal–even though inevitably, it is tinged with his real life tragic end.

In addition to the films you spotlighted, I was recently able to write about a seemingly forgotten, deeply felt performance by Young in COME FILL THE CUP (1951), which starred James Cagney as a reformed alcoholic trying to help Young’s character overcome his own addiction. Frankly, Gig Young’s anguished intensity in certain scenes was unbearably real, perhaps in part because of the pressure he felt from Warner Brothers when management was rumored to be considering replacing him. Reportedly, Cagney tried to reassure him, as well as inspiring him to step up his game when working with him. Ultimately, Young received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his work in this movie, but, as Cagney later reflected, the role may have been almost too close to the bone for his co-star’s own good.

The episode of The Twilight Zone so poignantly enacted by Gig Young that you mentioned was particularly meaningful to Rod Serling, as his daughter, Anne Serling described in her recent memoir, “As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling.” She recalled how her father would return by himself once a year to Binghamton, just to see the place where he left his youth before WWII once again.

Thanks for reminding me that Young is being featured on TCM today.

Posted By Heidi : November 4, 2013 5:25 pm

I love Gig Young, and thanks so much for mentioning Desk Set! My favorite Hepburn and Tracy movie that is largely ignored. I must say I didn’t know about Young’s difficulties, he was certainly a bright spot in the movies I saw him in. Young at Heart is another one that is good. I usually can’t see past Sinatra when I watch it, but that is just me. I am going to have to have my hubby set the dvr to record some of these for me!

Posted By LD : November 4, 2013 6:00 pm

Elaine Stritch in her one woman show “Stritch at Liberty” speaks poignantly about her relationship with Gig Young and their mutual battle with alcohol.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 4, 2013 6:05 pm

Moira: Thanks for mentioning Anne Serling’s book. I did not know she had written one. I am a Twilight Zone fanatic and will pick one up.

Heidi: Us DESK SET fans will have to stick together! I am thinking about writing a post about the early depiction of computers in movies, and I will definitely reference it again.

Posted By Gig Young was too drunk to play a drunk in Blazing Saddles : November 4, 2013 8:20 pm

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Posted By Vienna : November 4, 2013 9:56 pm

An actor I’ve always liked. One of my favorites of Gig’s is The City That Never Sleeps .
He and Doris Day made such an attractive couple in Young At Heart.

Posted By B Piper : November 5, 2013 2:17 am

This will win me no friends among Gig Young’s fans but I can’t quite bring myself to overlook the fact that he was, to put it bluntly, a murderer. Had he not killed himself after shooting his young wife, had he lived to go to trial, like the O. J. Simpson’s and Phil Specters and others accused of similar crimes, I wonder if he’d be remembered quite so fondly.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 5, 2013 2:28 am

B. Piper: You are right. He committed a heinous crime, and no matter how much fans appreciate his star image, that is part of his real-life story. There are some stars/directors that I can’t stomach because of their real-life antics, though often I am able to separate the person from their contribution to our culture. Having studied art history and learned about the crimes and distasteful antics of some of the world’s best artists, I have learned to separate the art from the person.

Posted By B Piper : November 5, 2013 2:13 pm

Your point is certainly valid. I merely felt that amid all the adulation a little perspective was in order.

Posted By george : November 8, 2013 2:13 am

“Walking Distance” has my favorite Gig Young performance. I watched it the other night for the umpteenth time, and it still holds up.

Posted By missrhea : November 8, 2013 3:35 am

I’ve always liked Gig Young and I love Desk Set, in particular. My favorite scene is where he says to Bunny “I’ve been thinking…” and she replies, “And did you enjoy it?” Of course, she’s well on her way to being soused but I laugh every time. (I wound up working for IBM for 14 years so that’s probably some of the attraction for me.)

I could never figure out why Doris Day would prefer Frank Sinatra’s character over Gig Young’s in Young at Heart. sigh.

“Walking Distance” is a favorite, too, but probably since I lived in Binghamton NY as a child and have lived about 30 miles west of there most of my life.

This was a great article, Susan.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 8, 2013 4:51 pm

George: “Walking Distance” gets me every time.

Miss Rhea: Thanks for taking the time to read my article, and for the compliment. I really appreciate my readers.

Posted By robbushblog : November 11, 2013 5:49 pm

I get wistful every time I watch “Walking Distance”. Oh how I miss those carefree days of childhood. It is one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, and my enjoyment of it grows more and more each time I watch it. Gig was spectacular in it.

My earliest memories of Gig are from my numerous viewings of Kid Galahad. He played the owner and manager of a boxing camp in upstate New York. The admiration of his workers, his sister and his girlfriend all seem to transfer to Elvis through the course of the movie so, in a sense, he is the cast aside man yet again. But by the end, he ends up happy. But of course, everyone ends up happy in an Elvis movie. I just wish that Gig had ended up that way in his real life.

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