Robert Taylor’s Thoughts about Television
Taylor Talks Turkey
TV Guide October 10-16, 1959
A movie idol calmly explains he is going into TV without illusions.
I have no illusions whatever,” said Robert Taylor, lighting a cigaret and eying a cup of black coffee that sat on a table at his elbow, “of contributing anything ‘artistic’ to the medium. Quite frankly, I am going into television largely because of the money involved. If this series is a success—and I’m certainly not kidding myself that it will be—I stand to come out of it nicely in a financial way.
I don’t even think about it’s being a success. Disappointments come a lot easier if they haven’t been preceded by a big build-up, and success is a lot nicer if it comes as a surprise.”
Did he consider television as a challenge?
“Oh, nuts,” Taylor said. Having thus dismissed all consideration of himself as what might be called a dedicated actor, Taylor edged into a halting description of his brand-new TV series, The Detectives which starts on ABC Oct. 16.
The series was dreamed up by the successful trio of TV newcomers—Arthur Gardner, Jules Levy and Arnold Laven—who last year put together The Rifleman for Chuck Connors. It was presented to Taylor by Abe Lastfogel, head of the William Morris Agency, and not by Dick Powell of Four Star Films. Four Star is a partner in the project, and one of the happy but quite untrue stories had gentleman-farmer Powell selling his across-the-road neighbor, gentleman-farmer Taylor, on the idea of coming into TV.
Taylor’s initial contract, drawn to accommodate a man given to hunting, fishing and just plain loafing (“I am very good at loafing”), specifies that he will have a minimum of seven consecutive months of free time each year. During this period he will presumably make a movie or two and hunt, fish, fly and loaf.
In the five months he has put himself at the disposal of television, he will film 32 half hour episodes, starring in roughly one-third of them and appearing briefly (about one day’s shooting time) in the remainder.
The format has been set up to make Taylor a big-city police captain, who works closely with three lieutenants—actors Lee Farr, Tige Andrews and Russ Thorson. Farr will play Lt. Jim Conway of Homicide, a youngster given to sports cars, duck-billed caps and a nice way with the opposite sex. As Lt. Johnny Russo of Burglary, Andrews will be the cigar-smoking tough guy to whom all crooks are so many insects to be squashed underfoot. Thorson’s role is that of Lt. Otto Lindstrom of the Bunco Squad, the old-timer who knows every safe-cracker and confidence man in town, and, much more important, where to find them and how much their information is worth in taxpayers’ dollars.
Getting back to Taylor, the one-time pretty-boy of MGM, now 48, still has his own black hair (complete with widow’s peak), appears a touch shorter than he does on the screen, and speaks in a deep, resonant voice. While hardly a gold mine on the subject of TV, he has some definite opinions as to his participation in the medium.
I’ll do the best job I can,” he says. “I like to walk onto a set, do my job as best I know how and go home. Personal appearances? Not on your life. I’d feel I was perjuring myself. I have no act and I have nothing to say. What would they want to see me for?
For a movie star who was under what might be called protective custody of MGM for 24 years, the longest stretch of time ever put in by a star at one studio (February 1934 to May 1958), Taylor is amazingly frank in talking about himself and his work. (When speaking about others, he turns the polite diplomat.)
I recently made my first independent picture, The Hangman at Paramount,” he says quite unemotionally. “It’s terrible. I haven’t seen it and have no intention of seeing it. In fact, I haven’t seen any of my last three pictures. I haven’t even seen the first film of the TV series.”
And for a man who has epitomized the leading-man glamor of Hollywood, up to and including a 12-year marriage to one of the town’s most glamorous leading ladies, Barbara Stanwyck, Taylor is extraordinarily far removed from any of the usual and varied patterns of Hollywood living.
I haven’t been to a Hollywood premiere in 10 years,” he says, just barely succeeding in keeping a note of kindly contempt out of his voice. “Why should I? Who wants to see me? Oh, I suppose if I came up with a big hit picture and they insisted that I show up, I’d go. I just don’t think they’re important, that’s all.”
(Taylor admits to having a 16 mm projector “somewhere around the house, I really don’t know exactly where it is—bought it 20 years ago.” He’s one of the few top stars whose house lacks both a 35mm projection room and a color TV set.)
During the course of making some 70 pictures since 1934 (all but seven of them for MGM), Taylor has traveled extensively and found himself on every social level from royalty to Nebraska farm boy. If any of all this has rubbed off on him, however it shows only in his flawless manners.
“It seems incredible,” a long-time associate says of him, “that a guy could be a star in this town for as long as Bob has and still be almost completely divorced from what we call ‘Hollywood,’ but it’s a fact. He put up with all that ‘pretty-boy’ publicity simply because that’s what the studio seemed to think best, but nobody ever seems to pay much attention to the fact that Taylor is a good shot, a fine fisherman, a licensed pilot and is working toward the day when he can be a full-time cattle rancher.”
Born in Filley, Neb., with the unlikely name of Spangler Arlington Brugh, Taylor’s initial aims in life were to be a cellist and a doctor. He enrolled at Pomona College in Claremont, Cal. To study under a music professor whom he had known at Nebraska’s Doane College and who had transferred to the West Coast. During his senior year, for reasons he isn’t sure of until this day, he joined the college dramatic club and played the lead in Journey’s End,at that time considered one of the most moving World War I plays ever written. He was spotted by an MGM scout, and soon after, February 1934, was signed by the studio to a $35-a-week contract. His first picture—a quite inconspicuous role with Will Rogers in Handy Andy billed him far down in the credits as Robert Taylor.
In 1935 MGM loaned him to Universal for Magnificent Obsession, in which he played the male lead opposite Irene Dunne. And one year later, at just 25, he played opposite Greta Garbo in Camille From that point on, he was pretty-boy Robert Taylor and a star of the first dimension.
It was strictly Garbo’s picture,” he says today of Camille.I was scared to death the first few days of shooting, but after that everything settled down. I never worked with her or even saw her again. One day last year she had lunch at the MGM commissary, but I didn’t even go over to speak to her. Why should I? She wouldn’t remember me.
Divorced from Barbara Stanwyck early in 1951, Taylor married German actress Ursula Thiess in May 1954, taking over the care of her two children by a previous marriage, Manuela and Michael Thiess. The Taylors now have two children of their own, Terrance, 4, and daughter Tessa, born this summer. Home is a 113-acre ranch in Mandeville Canyon, 25 minutes’ driving time from Hollywood. He also keeps a small cabin in Wyoming for hunting and fishing purposes.
Asked to sum Taylor up in a sentence, another long-time friend says, “I get the feeling that Bob is consistently under oath to himself.” Which probably explains why MGM so seldom turned him loose on the press. It also explains an ABC publicist’s admiring remark: “If this series starts shaping up as a dud, the sponsors will be the first to hear about it—and the guy who’ll tell ’em will be Taylor.”
The many faces of Captain Matt Holbrook:
The woman in several photos is Ursula Thiess, Mrs. Robert Taylor. The producers wanted Capt. Holbrook to have a love interest and Mr. Taylor disagreed. He wanted to put his great lover days behind him. They compromised by hiring Ms. Thiess to be the lady friend for what turned out to be one season. She preferred to stay home and care for her family.