Modern Screen, March 1969
The Faith That Is Helping Me Conquer Cancer
Robert Taylor and His Wife Tell of the Greatest Battle of His Life
by Frank Dunne
(The first photo is original to the article. I added the rest.)
A harsh sob caught in the woman’s throat as she fought to control her emotions. Then she regained her composure…and a noticeable burst of pride banished any threat of tears.
“My husband is giving a beautiful performance…the greatest of his lifetime,” said lovely Ursula Thiess. Then the German-born actress, wife of Robert Taylor, described the greatest one man performance Hollywood has seen for many years.
You see, Ursula’s tough and courageous husband is starring in a horrible real-life drama. That drama is his own personal battle against cancer. He has chosen to play this role with an amazing display of bravado, guts and courage.
“He’s putting on a brave front for me and the children,” his wife explained. “He’s just not the kind of man to cry the blues. Then, as if to prove that I was hearing was not just a terrible nightmare, Robert Taylor, the hero of fifty  movies, showed just what a real-life hero was truly like.
“Oh, sure,” he told me in a quiet and even voice, “it’s cancer all right, lung cancer.” The words dropped like a bombshell. Until then, his agent, manager and doctor had told the world that Taylor had gone to the hospital to be treated for a disease commonly known as “valley fever.” It is a fungal infection which can be treated surgically…and thus the story was plausible.
Robert Taylor was admitted to the hospital last October 8. His doctors performed a massive operation which resulted in the removal of his right lung. At that time, the real nature of his illness was still kept secret from the general public. Of course, there was the usual speculation that follows any major surgery. But his agents persisted in saying: no trace of cancer. He went back into the hospital after slight complications, but soon after that he was discharged. I had my suspicions, and decided to speak to Robert himself this time.
Robert Taylor told me—and the outside world—for the first time that he was battling the dread disease of cancer. His tone was unbelievably light. He spoke the same way someone would talk about battling the common cold.
“I don’t think there’s any use in keeping it a secret,” Robert told me. “Anyway one thing’s for sure, it wasn’t valley fever—it was cancer. I was listening to the same quiet voice that won millions of film fans, speaking nonchalantly about the fight against this terrible killer. Yes, it was the same Robert Taylor, with the same classic good looks, widow’s peak and good-natured smile. Yet he was a different man. The disease had taken its toll.
“I’m pretty weak, I must confess,” Bob said. But his face, which showed no trace of a frown, and his spirits revealed only the greatest kind of strength and faith. “Boy is my weight low,” he threw in. “I’ve lost about thirty pounds. But I guess that sort of thing is to be expected. Anyway, I think I’ve got it beaten. Then he added, as if not to tempt fate, “Of course, you can never tell with these things.
After Modern Screen’s reporter first revealed that the famous star was fighting lung cancer, newspapers all over the world splashed the story with an urgency usually accorded presidents and prime ministers. Reporters from Australia, England and South America were ordered to follow up the story.
“Gee, I really can’t see what the fuss is all about,”Taylor said in his genuinely unassuming manner. “People really have been wonderful, and I appreciate everyone’s concern. But you have to be very philosophical about this thing. Anyway, tell everyone I’m very happy about my progress and I’m optimistic.”
The optimism was in his voice when I spoke with him. Bravely he conceded, “Yeah, sure I feel pretty awful. This has knocked the heck out of me. I have to take it real easy. I putter around the house, get a lot of sleep and take in the sunshine.”
The one thing that has gone out of his life is cigarettes. “You bet,” he said. “I used to smoke 60 a day…but never again! However I can have an occasional drink if I want—hard stuff, that is,” added with laugh. “I never did go in much for soft drinks anyway.”
Reminded that John “Duke” Wayne has successfully beaten cancer after his left lung was removed, Taylor’s voice became enthusiastic. “It’s the one John Wayne role nobody wants,” he jibed. “I guess this thing I have is something like John’s. I sure hope I can make as good a recovery as he did.”
What does a man do when he is told that he is face to face with cancer? This was Robert Taylor’s first reaction when he heard that ugly, frightening word: “Naturally, I was pretty shocked. You can imagine how I felt. Just the word is enough to send shivers down your spine. You know, it actually sounds terrible. But then I just placed myself in the hands of the doctors. I had a lot of faith in them. I have faith in my wife, too. That’s why the first thing I did after the doctor told me the bad news was to tell her. We have a great partnership. I have leaned heavily on her through this awful ordeal and she has been just great.”
When reminded that he sounded almost offhand about the long ordeal he had ahead of him, Taylor seemed puzzled. “That’s the way I am. Why, am I supposed to sound as if I am on my last legs?” A less cheerful Ursula added quietly, “He’s a very strong, a very brave man.”
The ailing-56-year-old  star is awkward about being the center of attention. And yet since 1935, when Bob hit it really big in the picture Jackpot [???What the heck—Mr. Taylor never made any such picture.), he has constantly been in the limelight. In 1937 he made headlines time and time again by becoming a steady duo with the glamorous Barbara Stanwyck—his co-star of two pictures. In 1939, their romance culminated in marriage. Then, in 1951, after twelve years of marriage, the Taylor-Stanwyck marriage ended in divorce.
Bob’s second marriage, to German-born actress Ursula Thiess, took place on May 24, 1954. It has been a difficult marriage in many respects, one that has been trouble-ridden. However, the Taylors themselves have been very happy together.
Bob is a totally unselfish man and has a given a lot to his second marriage to insure his family’s well-being. Nevertheless, both his stepdaughter, Manuela, and his stepson, Michael, who were born to Ursula in Germany during her first marriage, have given the soft-spoken star a lot of grief. Manuela, a tempestuous beauty, gave Taylor one trying time after another while she was growing out of her teens into womanhood. And Michael, also, has given him—as well as his own father—many heartaches.
Both Michael and Manuela now have grown up and seem to be on the road to maturity and success. But no sooner has the family been relieved of one problem than tragedy has struck again. Taylor, the man who so doggedly fought the problems and battles of his family, has now been stricken with this terrifying problem of his own.
True to the form of the quiet hero he has played in so many movies, Taylor would rather be concerned about the problems of others rather than his own. “Today the young actors have a tremendous problem,” he said. “The industry is now so unprofessional. It’s not fair to the young actors of today the way some productions, particularly those on television, are slapped together. And it’s not fair to the paying public.”
This kind of criticism comes from a man who truly knows what he’s talking about—for Robert Taylor rose to stardom during the golden age of Hollywood. He was at the peak of his career when actors and actresses were “the beautiful people”…and Hollywood was their own private kingdom. One could not help but be flooded with nostalgia as Taylor talked of a golden, lost era.
“I wasn’t a very good actor,” he said.“Frankly, it’s possible I was one of the worst. [I hate it when he says stuff like this.] But I was professional…and so was the entire industry. Working opposite Greta Garbo was a tremendous thrill. Do you think she’d ever be late for work? Never. She was a real pro. Hollywood today has been sadly deglamorized. When elegantly dressed and groomed actresses like Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Vivien Leigh stepped out, you knew you were looking at real stars. Today in comparison some members of the acting fraternity look like bums.
Robert Taylor is the essence of the “old Hollywood.” He is a handsome, romantic, dignified actor. He is the man who won millions of fans in beautiful films like Camille, Magnificent Obsession, A Yank at Oxford and Waterloo Bridge. Taylor, one of the all-time greatest screen lovers, recalled with a laugh how 30,000 women nearly rioted when he arrived in London to film A Yank at Oxford. It was good to hear him reminisce about the romantic Hollywood of old. Then one remembered with a cold chill why we were talking to Taylor. Unselfish to a fault, he had made us forget about his problem. “Yes,” he said, “those were the days…but nothing is forever.”
“Bob is a calm guy,” reflected a friend of his from his old Hollywood days. “While the rest of us were biting our nails worrying about movie parts, Bob would just play a quiet waiting game.” Today, he is still playing the same waiting game. But this time it is to see if he’s beaten cancer—he’s waiting to see if he has been given a reprieve on his life.
Face-to-face with a touch and go future, Robert Taylor’s courage, faith and dignity are not an act. Talking about the future, Taylor said, “First of all I’m going to beat this thing that has knocked me out. It’s a darn nuisance not being able to go out hunting and fishing, but I just have to take things slowly. After it’s over,” he continued, “I’d like to go back to work—in television. And I would like to make at least one good picture.”
Ursula had the last word: “We are not a deeply religious family, but an optimistic one led by a wonderful man. A man who has the courage and strength to beat this thing.”
No matter how long it has been since he died, reading of Robert Taylor’s courage in the manner he was able to conduct himself in those final months, is heartfelt. The quality of the man, in an industry where self usually took precedence over all, was again evident in an interview given in the most gravest of circumstances. Is it any wonder that those who still cherish his memory have admired the character of this man beyond the film actor they see on screen. He was lost to so many, far too soon, but thanks to you Judith, these posts continue to keep his name alive and in the public domain.
I did, like everyone, meet Mr. Taylor in his films. I don’t think I would have liked him so much for so long if it hadn’t been for his character. One of his directors said that a lot of actors weren’t nice people but Robert Taylor was and it came through no matter what character he was playing. I remember Ursula saying in her book that her husband only broke down once when he was ill–when he realized he could no longer care for his family. It’s good to hear from you again.
I remember buying the Modern Screen magazine from which you are quoting & think I may still have a copy of it in my attic. I first learned of Mr. Taylor’s cancer diagnosis in December 1968. I started praying for him immediately, including sometimes stopping in the Episcopal cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh on lunch hours, because although I was a Presbyterian at the time, I wanted to be able to kneel & had (& still have) a lot of negative feelings about the Catholic Church even though I admire Pope Francis. My father was an ex-Catholic, & all my prayers for him 5 years earlier didn’t save him from cancer (stomach) either. He had become a very religious & active Presbyterian (elder, trustee & adult Sunday school teacher) and died with his faith intact at age 58. It always surprised me that Robert Taylor was not more religious considering the way he was raised. He probably felt he had no right to ask God for any favors. However, Ronald & Nancy Reagan chose the Taylors to be godparents of their son Ron, & Ursula said in her book that the Reagans were Tessa’s godparents, so I guess there was some faith in the Taylor family even though they were very infrequent churchgoers. In the pictures of the 100th Robert Taylor birthday events Linda Alexander emailed to me in 2011 (I could not attend as I was between chemo treatments 1 & 2 for my ovarian cancer which still seems to be in remission), Tessa is wearing a cross around her neck in all the pictures of her, so I hope she has found some peace & happiness from her faith.
I remember when I read Ursula’s book that it was a shame that she didn’t have the support of a religious faith–after her horrible life in Germany it may not have seemed possible. I do know that in a letter Mr.Taylor mentions taking the kids to Sunday school. The Reagan’s choice of the Taylors to be godparents is significant. I hope he had faith without being a churchgoer. The public might not have left him alone if he did go to church. I seem to remember that Mr. Reagan mentioned that as a reason for not going. My parents weren’t churchgoers although my father would accompany me on the major Christian holidays. Thanks for your thoughts.
All I can say is that I love Robert Taylor even more than I ever have , after reading this article.
a wonderful actor , and even better human being . NOT just quantity , but Quality ! I started watching his movies , when I was around ten years old , now I’m fifty. I love them even more now, and I always will ! Thank you so much for all the wonderful movies…
It’s true. The more I learn about Mr. Taylor, the more I like him. Thank you for writing.
Followed the link from your latest post “Mrs Taylor’s expecting” and re-read your blog. I am now 80 and cannot remember when when I was not anxiously waiting for the next Robert Taylor film to come out, or in later years waiting for his films to appear on TV or DVD. Reading this again brings back the impact his early passing had on his wife and family.
His courage would have seen him win the fight against many an adversary, but not this one.
Made me sad for for his children and although Manuela appears happy in her relationship.Tessa appears more reserved with her dogs and photography filling her life. I wonder if she would have been different if her father had lived longer.
June, I think that Tessa was angry with him for many years for deserting her at such a young age. Something I read suggests that she is only now watching all of his films. I do so wish that Robert Taylor had paid attention to the people who warned him about his smoking, including doctors and Ursula, who was, I believe, a nonsmoker. I used to skip school and take the bus into Boston with my best friend to watch his movies on the big screen at a second run theater. I could sit there all day and just watch “Ivanhoe” or “Knights of the Round Table” over and over. We eventually got caught getting off the bus when we should have been coming out of school by my mother. But it was great while it lasted. Best wishes, Judith.
I always thought him great on screen , and I loved him on the tv show The Detectives, but he had some anti-semitism in him that to me put a dark cloud over him. Not all of us are Leftists or Communists. Not all of us like the cheap control freaks that ran the studios. I love this country as he did!
Zola, I’ve never heard of any anti-Semitism with Mr. Taylor. He was extremely loyal to Louis B. Mayer after his downfall. Please send me any more information you have about this. thanks, Judith
Robert Taylor and his first wife Barbara Stanwyck were 2 of my favorite actors to watch on TV in what my older family members called “old movies”. They however were classics like Taylor in Quo Vadis and Stanwyck in “Ball of Fire”. I am almost 70 years old and I never tire of watching their movies. I was very pleased to learn that Taylor was a Christian and very active and verbal regarding Christ. Well it’s good to know that he is in heaven with Jesus and that all Christians will see him in heaven and we can talk about his faith in God and movies for all eternity. W. Galloway
Thank you for this comment. I am 78 and a big fan of “old movies,” especially those with Robert Taylor. Judith
I also loved the tv series The Detectives!