On Robert Walker, Pere et Fils

I’ve never been able to unsee Robert Walker (1918-1951) as a big creep after first seeing him in Strangers on a Train (1951). It was his penultimate film, though. Theoretically he’s the boy-next-door in his earlier films, but seeing them all later than Strangers on a Train (now his most famous performance), and knowing something of his biography, it’s virtually impossible not to add a psychotic subtext to whatever he did.

In the lion’s share of his movies, Walker was either a soldier or a sailor: Bataan (1943), See Here Private Hargrove (1943), Since You Went Away (1944), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), The Clock (1945), What Next Private Hargrove (1945), The Sailor Takes a Wife (1945), The Beginning or the End (1947), and The Skipper Surprised His Wife (1950). He’s also known for a couple of westerns: The Sea of Grass (1947) with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and Vengeance Valley (1951) with Burt Lancaster and Joanne Dru, as well as the Jerome Kern bio-pic Til the Clouds Roll By (1946), the comedy One Touch of Venus (1948), and Leo McCarey’s anti-communist anomaly My Son John (1952).

Walker was a Utah Mormon who’d studied at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he met and married fellow student Phyllis Isley. The two moved to Hollywood in the late ’30s where they struggled for a time, with Walker getting bit parts in movies and acting on radio, while Isley cared for their two young children. In the early ’40s she decided to give acting a try again, and this is when she was discovered by discovered by David O. Selznick, romanced by him, renamed Jennifer Jones, and turned into a star. Walker and Jones divorced in 1945. Selznick and Jones married in 1949.

This understandably threw Walker for a loop. Mormons HATE divorce. Walker’s own parents had divorced, and on top of all that there is something downright sinister about a couple being broken up by someone of power and influence corrupting one of the spouses and breaking up the family. (C’mon, what is what happened but that?) So Walker took to drinking and had a crack-up. He was even hospitalized for a time. In 1948 he married Barbara Ford, John Ford’s daughter, but they were divorced within the year. In 1949 he married Hungarian-American actress Hanna Landy (Hanna Hertelendy).

So Hitchcock saw something in those wide, unblinking Robert Walker eyes, and saw an intensity in his personality that was perfect for the maladjusted and manipulative young murderer in Strangers on a Train. He was a raw nerve. And his history of playing all-American boys also echoed Joseph Cotten’s character in Shadow of a Doubt.

Given what is known of Walker’s pyschological history, the form which his tragic end took is somewhat suprising. He didn’t commit suicide, or cause his own fatal accident. His psychiatrist gave him a sedative when he already had alcohol in his system. The combination proved lethal. He was only 32.

Then there arrived…his doppelganger.

Robert Walker Jr was born in 1940, before his parents had become movie stars. Endowed with even larger pale blue eyes than his father’s, it was easy to match the two guys up even if you didn’t already know they were related. I first knew of him from a 1966 Star Trek episode called “Charlie X”, in which he plays a teenager with the power of a god but who has never socialized with humans. His portrayal, in a word, is “cray” and it’s a definite case of “like father, like son”.

Junior’s heyday was the ’60s, and he had a pretty good stretch, playing the title character in Ensign Pulver (1964, recreating the Jack Lemmon role in a Joshua Logan vehicle that also included Burl Ives, Walter Matthau, Millie Perkins, Larry Hagman, Kay Medford, Peter Marshall, and Jack Nicholson!), The Happening (1967, with Anthony Quinn and George Maharis), The War Wagon (1967 with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas), AIP’s The Savage Seven (1968), Eve (1968, with Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, and Fred Clark), Killer Three (1968, with Dick Clark), Easy Rider (1969, his second movie with Jack Nicholson and also fellow second generation Hollywood actor Peter Fonda), Young Billy Young (1969) with Robert Mitchum, Larry Hagman’s Beware! The Blob (1972), The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe (1974, impeccably cast as the title character), Gone with the West (1974, with James Caan and Sammy Davis Jr), The Passover Plot (1976), Evil Town (1977), The Devonville Terror (1983, with Donald Pleasance), Hambone and Hillie (1983 with Lillian Gish and Candy Clark), among others, along with episodes of such shows as Columbo, Cannon, The Streets of San Francisco, The Six Million Dollar Man, Charlie’s Angels, Murder She Wrote, etc.

Robert Walker Jr died in late 2019 — I contemplated doing an obit on him at the time, but it made more sense to me to bundle him together in a post with his dad, for added perspective. He really was a chip off the old block.