When Gig Young Got Old

On October 19, 1978, Hollywood actor Gig Young (Byron Ellsworth Barr, 1913-1978) was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his Manhattan apartment, the body of his newlywed wife Kim Schmidt (his fifth) lying next to him. There was no suicide note, leaving confounded observers, then and now, to speculate. After all, Young had won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). Not too shabby!

Yet that was just it. A middling success at best, Young had hoped, perhaps even assumed, that the award would lead to a stardom status he had never quite attained. Instead, it continued pretty much as before. There were some setbacks. He had been fired from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) on the first day of shooting for alcohol related reasons and replaced with Gene Wilder. (A double irony — Young was suffering from alcohol withdrawal — he’d actually QUIT drinking to take the part. And the character he was to play, the Waco Kid, was actually an alcoholic, an inside joke about Young’s well-known booze problems even as it seems an echo of Dean Martin’s character in Rio Bravo). The film went on to be a smash hit, which must have hurt. And more recently he had co-starred in a series called Gibbsville (1976-77) which had been cancelled after 13 episodes. He has a small, almost anonymous part in the tv movie Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976) starring Roger Moore and Patrick MacNee. He’s almost unrecognizable at this stage (when I saw the film, I recognized his voice, but not his face). And he had roles in Bring Me the Head of Alfred Garcia (1974), The Killer Elite (1975) and The Hindenburg (1975). He is fifth-billed in the latter; I’m sure he felt he deserved to be the star.

Young had started out in bit parts in 1940 using variations on his given his name for scren credit. “Gig Young” was the character he played in The Gay Sisters (1942) with Barbara Stanwyck and Geraldine Fitzgerald. Dashingly handsome with a pencil thin mustache, he got loads of fan mail addressed to his character’s name, so he took it for his own. His films of the studio years included The Woman in White (1948), The Three Musketeers (1948), The Desperate Hours (1955), Desk Set (1957), That Touch of Mink (1962), Kid Gallahad (1962) and The Shuttered Room (1967). On TV, he had hosted Warner Brothers Presents (1955-56), and guested on such things as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and McCloud. His middle wife (third of five, between the years of 1956 and 1963) had been Elizabeth Montgomery.

Born in St Cloud, Minnesota, Young was raised in Waynesville, North Carolina, and Washington DC. At the time of his suicide, he had been under the psychiatric care of Dr. Eugene Landy, the Hollywood Svengali most famous for his exploitation of Brian Wilson.