Robert Taylor was born in Filley, Nebraska, on August 5, 1911, with the birth name of Spangler Arlington Brugh. His father, Spangler Andrew Brugh, was a grain farmer who, late in life, studied medicine and became a doctor, in order to treat and, eventually successfully cure his wife of a rare illness which she had had since childhood.
After several moves the family settled at Beatrice, Nebraska where Taylor attended High School. He was a gifted young man and stood out at track athletics, as well as playing the cello in the school orchestra. For two years from 1929 he attended Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, where he was a member of the Doane String Quartet. He joined the dramatics group The Doane Players and his first appearance on stage was in 1929 in the play “Helena Boys”.
Music was his first love and in 1931 he moved to Claremont, California and enrolled at Pomona College to study the cello. He became more and more drawn to the stage and he performed in numerous college plays such as “The Importance of Being Ernest” and “Camille”. While appearing in a college production in late 1932 he was seen by an MGM talent scout and offered a screen test. When he graduated in February, 1934 he signed a seven year contract with MGM for $35.00 a week (the lowest-paid actor in record) and his name was changed to Robert Taylor. A major new Hollywood name had been created.
Taylor made his screen debut late in 1934 on loan to 20th Century Fox, with a supporting role in ‘Handy Andy’ starring Will Rogers. After a few more minor roles, including ‘Buried Loot’ in 1935 in MGM’s “Crime Does Not Pay” series, he was given his first lead role, again on loan, this time to Universal.The movie was ‘Magnificent Obsession’ in 1935 co-starring Irene Dunne and it made Robert Taylor a romantic star. After co-starring with Greta Garbo in ‘Camille’ in 1936 he became one of the most popular box-office stars of the time with a fan-mail base that exceeded even that of the “King” Clark Gable.
Throughout the rest of the 1930’s, Taylor appeared as a leading man in a variety of films in different genres, such as the musicals ‘Broadway Melody of 1936’ and ‘Broadway Melody of 1938’, and the comedy ‘A Yank at Oxford’, made in England in 1938 and co-starring Vivien Leigh. In 1940, he starred again with Leigh in Mervyn LeRoy’s tragic love story ‘Waterloo Bridge’.
From the start of the 1940’s Taylor began to change his clean cut image by appearing in more gritty roles. In 1941 he played the title role in ‘Billy the Kid’ and the following year he played the ruthless gangster, the eponymous hero of ‘Johnny Eager’ with Lana Turner. He also showed himself to have comedic skill in movies such as ‘When Ladies Meet’ in 1941 and ‘Her Cardboard Lover’ with Joan Crawford and Greer Garson the following year.
After America’s entrance into WWII, Taylor made two well-received war movies: ‘Stand by for Action’ in 1942 and the following year he played a tough NCO in ‘Bataan’, after which he signed up for the real war. He joined the U.S. Naval Air Corps as a lieutenant, and, classed as too old for active duty, became a flying instructor for three years from 1943 to 1946. During this time he also starred in as well as directed many instructional films and narrated the 1944 propoganda movie ‘The Fighting Lady’ about life aboard an aircraft carrier in wartime. In 1944 he also reluctantly appeared in another propoganda film, ‘Song of Russia’, in which he played an American classical conductor who falls in love with a Russian girl. The movie was to cause him many problems later.
After the war he returned to MGM and continued to develop his darker image, appearing in 1946 in the noirish ‘Undercurrent’ with Katharine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum and ‘High Wall’ in 1947 as a suspected killer.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was an investigative committee created in 1938 to investigate any citizen or organisation suspected of having Communist ties. In 1947, Taylor was called to testify before the Committee regarding Communism in Hollywood. He was pressed about his appearance in ‘Song of Moscow’ three years earlier, and he asserted that he had thought it was definitely Communist propaganda, and had not wanted to do it. Later, under some pressure from both HUAC and MGM, he retracted this and declared to HUAC’s chairman John Parnell Thomas that he was not forced to do the picture.
Taylor gave the names of actors Howard Da Silva and Karen Morley and screenwriter Lester Cole to the Committee. Their careers were badly affected by the hearings and Cole was sent to prison, never able to write again under his own name. All three were mambers of the Communist party and all were also named by other witnesses, but Taylor was the first witness to “name names” and it did his reputation considerable harm. There were attempts to have his films banned in France and in Hungary and Czechoslovakia his movies were actually banned.
Post war Decline
Taylor remained a top box-office draw but as he aged his appeal gradually began to lessen, as did the quality of his films. The exception was in 1950 when he played General Marcus Vinicius in ‘Quo Vadis’, co-starring Deborah Kerr. The epic film was a major hit and led to a string of extravagant costume dramas such as ‘Ivanhoe’ in 1951, followed in 1953 by ‘Knights of the Round Table’ and ‘The Adventures of Quentin Durward’, all of which were filmed in England. He also starred in ‘Valley of the Kings’ in Egypt in 1954. All of the movies were popular, but none achieved the success of ‘Quo Vadis’.
Throughout most of his career, Taylor suffered criticism that he was just a pretty face and not a genuine actor. During the 1950’s he sought to extend his acting skills with more challenging roles. In 1950 he played an American Indian, complete with dark-stained skin, in ‘Devil’s Doorway’ which contained many surprisingly thought-provoking scenes dealing with the social plight of the Native American.
Taylor gave several noteworthy performances in otherwise routine pictures during the decade including ‘Westward the Women’ in 1951, ‘Rogue Cop’ in 1954, ‘ The Last Hunt’ in 1956 and ‘Party Girl’ in 1958. During the late 1950’s he appeared in a number of Westerns including the comedy ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ with Eleanor Parker in 1955, ‘The Law and Jake Wade’ in 1958, ‘The Hangman’ in 1959, and ‘Cattle King’ in 1963, leading many critics to feel that this was his most favorable genre.
In 1959, as his movie career began to wind down, Taylor appeared on television for the first time in the series ‘The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor’ as Captain Matt Holbrook. The series was a ratings hit and ran for three years. When it ended in 1962, Taylor appeared again on television in two episodes of ‘Hondo’.
His movie career continued with some average productions including the Westerns ‘Cattle King’ in 1963 and ‘Return of the Gunfighter’ in 1967. He also joined the television series ‘Death Valley Days’ in 1966 and when his friend, Ronald Reagan, left to pursue a political career, Taylor took over the role of narrator and remained with the series until his death in 1969.
Taylor was married twice, each time to actresses, and he was known as something of a lady’s man with his name linked romantically to a number of actresses including Ava Gardner, Eleanor Parker, Virginia Bruce and Irene Hervey.
His first wife was actress Barbara Stanwyck whom he married in 1939. The couple had been dating since appearing together in ‘His Brother’s Wife’ in 1936. When they began living together they were persuaded to legally marry by Louis B. Mayer, in order to avoid gossip and costly bad publicity. The couple had no children and the marriage ended in divorce in 1951 after Taylor had an affair with an Italian starlet in Rome whilst filming ‘Quo Vadis’. After their divorce, a very bitter Barbara Stanwyck auctioned off their home in the Bel-Air area of Los Angeles, and all its contents, and collected 15 percent of Taylor’s earnings until his death.
These Robert Taylor Western roles include starring, supporting and cameo appearances.
Dir. by Sam Wood (1950), starring Robert Taylor, Arlene Dahl & Jean Hagen
Billy the Kid
Dir. by Frank Borzage and David Miller (1941), starring Robert Taylor, Gene Lockhart & Brian Donlevy
Dir. by Tay Garnett (1963), starring Robert Taylor
Dir. by Anthony Mann (1950), starring Robert Taylor, nm0129894 & Paula Raymond
Many Rivers to Cross
Dir. by Roy Rowland (1955), starring Eleanor Parker, Robert Taylor & James Arness
Return of the Gunfighter
Dir. by James Neilson (1967), starring Robert Taylor and Chad Everett
Dir. by John Farrow (1953), starring Ava Gardner, Anthony Quinn & Robert Taylor
Saddle the Wind
Dir. by Robert Parrish (1958), starring John Cassavetes, Robert Taylor & Julie London
Stand Up and Fight
Dir. by W. S. Van Dyke (1939), starring Robert Taylor and Wallace Beery
Dir. by Michael Curtiz (1959), starring Tina Louise, Robert Taylor & Fess Parker
The Last Hunt
Dir. by Richard Brooks (1956), starring Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger & Debra Paget
Westward the Women
Dir. by William A. Wellman (1951), starring Robert Taylor, John McIntire & Denise Darcel