Why did they kill Robert Taylor’s show before you had a chance to see it? What will this disaster mean to a man who, after thirty years as a star, is as broke as ever.
by Cindy Adams
I have been reliably informed that this article comes from TV Radio Mirror magazine, December 1963.
Robert Taylor, age 52, is about the last of that Hollywood dynasty that spawned kings like Gable and Cooper. Back in the stone age, when Mr. Taylor crunched Greta Garbo to his chest in Camille, children screamed, teenagers fainted and women abandoned their husbands….Today a full three decades after he first began his reign, he is as broke as when he started.
This was the year he figured he’d finally catch the brass ring financially. This was the year he was to star in a new TV series based on the files of a federal agency, Washington’s Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The deal was signed, sealed and in production. It was killed by a chronic ailment, the pre-season shakes.
These are the facts. From there on, however, the situation is a blur. The truth depends on which side you listen to. Only three things are crystal clear as of this writing. One) For assorted reasons, NBC axed the show. Two) For obvious reasons Four star (Bob’s partner in the show’s ownership) then sued NBC. No matter who wins what, the loser is Taylor.
And he can’t afford it. Not professionally. Not financially.
“Nobody likes to lose an opportunity to be before the public,” he’d said to me when we discussed this, “but for me it’s even more difficult for me because I’m not financially independent. If I were, I wouldn’t mind a setback, but I’m not in that position. Most definitely not.”
Assuming that an all-time king of the jungle like Robert Taylor earned a fortune back in the day when taxes were still negligible, I asked so how come he didn’t have a bundle stashed away?
“Because I have every known expenditure,” he sighed, “I support two sets of mothers, There’s my wife’s mother and mine. There are also other relatives who haven’t done badly with my help. Besides that, we have our own two children, Terrence, who’s seven and, Tessa, who’s four. In addition to that, there’s Ursula’s two children by her first marriage.”
After gently touching on what I knew was a sore point, he continued on quickly. “And don’t forget, when I began working in ’32, my salary was 50 bucks a week. Not until taxes began their slow, upward trend, did I start making any real money.”
The hungry years
And then, of course, there were those hungry years in the 50s when, for a long while, it looked as though Bob’s career had taken the count. Barring time out for a world war, he’d been under contract to MGM steadily from 1938 to 1958. However, toward the end, nothing exciting was coming out of Hollywood in general or his studio in particular. Everything was in the doldrums, including Metro’s tall, dark and blue-eyed pin-up boy. Everybody was worried. Especially Taylor.
“It’s pretty dismal when that unemployment fear starts eating at you,” he said. “In fact, you get damned scared. The truth is, I know I became plenty difficult to live with during those years when I wasn’t working much. Things were pretty grim, and whatever pictures I made were pretty bad. It was my 1960 series on television, “The Detectives,” that saved me. It not only brought me back to the limelight, but that weekly paycheck helped plenty.”
“Our farm can also be considered another nice little drain,” added his Frau, German-born actress Ursula Thiess, who sat curled up on the couch fiddling with her plain, little gold wedding band which matched her plain, little gold earrings which constituted the only fripperies she wore.
“Not only isn’t it making me a dime,” groaned the farmer-in-chief, ” but it’s costing me a bundle. See, I’m sinking in all my dough, hoping someday I can retire to hunt, fish and have a ball. Right now, I keep horses and I keep chickens and I hope eventually that these horses and chickens will keep me. I want to whip that ranch into a paying proposition so I never have to worry about acting jobs again. But right now—-wow!”
Taylor’s anxiety to realize some security was evidenced in the deal he made with that first TV series. Rather than take all cash as his salary, he took much of it in Four Star stock. Like Joseph in Egypt, he wanted to store it up during the good years of plenty so he’d have it again in the lean years of famine. That’s why this cancellation is more than just a blow to his pride.
We were sitting in the Taylors’ hotel suite when they passed through New York recently.
As he pattered inside to answer the bedroom phone, I asked Ursula how she handled him when things were black. “Well, like any wife handles any husband. You just keep on soothing. What else can you do?”
“Fortunately,” she continued, “I’m not the type who needs flashy jewels or expensive clothes. Bob buys much of my wardrobe, and if he brings back three outfits for me, I almost automatically pick the cheapest. And simplest. I don’t even look at cocktail things any more because we seldom go out. We haven’t been to a night club in years.”
The Taylors live a simple, unHollywoodish, unsophisticated existence. Home is their 113 acre ranch, six minutes from the neon of Sunset Boulevard. The usual evening’s festivity is TV. Or playing with the kids. Bob beds down early. Ursula stays up reading.
Bob Taylor is a man’s man. His kick isn’t pub crawling. His red-hot enjoyment is squatting in a duck blind, waist-high in mud and sludge and ooze–waiting for a bead on a duck. And, if Bob digs this, so does she. As Bob goes, so goes Ursula.
For a real swinging night is when the Taylors crowd the fireplace with few close chums like the Ronny Reagans. From then until it’s for Robert to hit the sack or the ducks, his guest laze around popping some edible corn, throwing some conversational corn and the piece-de-resistance is maybe devouring a home-cooked Bob Taylor pie.
“So you can see,” she smiled, “I don’t spend money on wardrobe. My outfits consist mainly of jeans.”
From a quickie, 60 minute insight into their lives, it was obvious this is a 14-karat-gold love affair. Sweetened by much of the bitterness they’ve shared together, it’s not the type that’s souped up for company, either. Even when discussing their other troubles–such as Ursula’s two children by her first marriage—-it was obvious they’re together as one against the world.
Not one of us seemed anxious to push the discussion toward those bizarre newspaper headlines which recently told the difficulties with Ursula’s 21-year-old Manuela. The latest newspaper dispatches out of Hollywood had screamed that Manuela was hospitalized again. As a reporter I wanted to ask the real story. But as a human being, I couldn’t.
The strain, visibly etched on the faces of these two people, was too touching. Although her eyes glistened with unshed tears, they both voluntarily unfolded the story. It was as if they’d been bottled up and almost wanted to spill it out…even to a total stranger.
A hopeless case
“It’s odd,” started Bob softly, “but both children came to America together. The boy accepted everything given to him. The girl rejected everything. But where she developed a resentment for what we represented, Ursula’ son had a different attitude. His was, ‘Well the heck with it all. My parents can straighten out everything. They’re rich. Famous. They can do anything. Nothing’s too tough for them.’ He’s not as badly off as she, but I definitely must face the fact that he’s not completely adjusted, either. At this moment, he’s back in Germany living with his father. We’re hoping that maybe this might help him work out his problems. Frankly, you don’t know what to do any more. You try everything.”
Ursula openly discussed Manuela, whom they call Monny. “We don’t know what actually
aggravated that last episode last year, but psychiatrists assure us it’s what they call a “preconditioned illness.” It means that this something in her own personal makeup. That Bob and me…our life…the fact that we are who we are…has nothing to do with it.”
“We’re also told that it’s hopeless,” explained Bob gently. “It’s not a psychosis. It’s a character disturbance. You see, she’s not ill enough to be committed to an institution permanently. Often she’s quite capable of recognizing the harm she does.
“We’ve tortured ourselves that her problems are triggered because we’re movie stars. It’s the first question everybody asks us, and it’s what we’ve asked ourselves constantly. We’ve had every regret famous people have when their children turn out wrong. But every doctor has assured us that the answer is positively no. That it’s a real illness. Not the slightest engendered by us or her environment. That her deep-seated emotional disturbance would come out anyway, and Ursula’s marrying me or being in this business was in no way responsible.”
Ursula Thiess, who’s often labelled The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, and who looks scarcely twenty herself, looked up. “This type of child will to anything to get attention. This is all a bid to be the center of attraction in the only way she thinks she can. It seems Monny feels incapable of reaching the highest level of life like she feels we did. So, rather than compete with us, she seeks the opposite. She goes toward the lowest denominator. Those with whom there’s no challenge. Those on the bottom rung, with whom she’ll feel comfortable…even superior. Monny’s rebellion comes out in peculiar friendships. She gravitates to beat characters and wallows in that association–especially because she knows what it does to us.
“She begins resenting all she’s had. She goes through periods where Oh! if only she could swallow our names. Actually, she’s an introvert. Maybe a long-term relationship with a psychiatrist could straighten her out. Who knows? Right now she’s at the U.C.L.A. Neuropsychiatric Hospital. The doctors tell us that in their judgment it hardly seems likely this is a condition she will outgrow with time.”
They continued softly, “When she’s thinking straight, she’s a gorgeous child,” said her mother.
“She has a beautiful figure,” said her stepfather. “She’s not only a beauty but she’s creative. This child can write and paint beautifully. But I guess all we can do is hope…and pray.”
Ursula Thiess has occasionally jazzed up many a movie and TV screen. However, since May 1954, she’s put her ambitions in mothballs to concentrate on being Bob Taylor’s missus. Part of this decision undoubtedly springs from another low spot in Bob’s life: his divorce from first wife Barbara Stanwyck.
“I haven’t seen Barbara in two years,” Bob said. “I used to drop in on the spur of the moment and we’d have a cup of coffee together. I kind of feel sorry for her.”
He thought silently for a moment, then, “Somewhere along the line, Barbara lost out on happiness. She’s a terrific actress. But that’s all she ever cared about. She could have been happier if she’d had a hobby. Or given of herself. Or shared the things a man likes to do. In all these years, she’s never ever come near our house or even bothered to get to know Ursula. It’s a shame. Ursula could be very good for her.”
Perhaps Stanwyck isn’t why he’s loathe to have the second Mrs. Taylor win any Academy Awards, but whatever the reason, it’s agreed Ursula’s career is very minor in their lives.
“Recently I did the Tonight Show,” Bob said. “And some old gal in the first row leaned onto the stage, stuck out her hand, and did that tired ‘remember me’ bit. To tell the truth, I didn’t. Finally said, ‘Don’t you remember? I interviewed you for my school paper. We haven’t changed a bit, have we?’
“Let’s face it honey,” he sighed. “The ravages of age take their toll, no matter what I try. I mean, what are you going to do? You can’t fight it. The only thing you can fight is the overweight bit. But even that’s getting to be a touch struggle for me. Time was, when I got a little flabby around the middle, I’d just exclude that second piece of pie. These days it’s not enough any more. I’ve really got to stick on diets a week at a time.
“And that’s why,” he said, showing the disappointment he felt over the loss of his show, “you’ve really got to grab every single opportunity that comes your way. You’ve got to make everything count. And what’s most important, you’ve got to try to salt away every buck you can, because there are always younger, newer guys coming up every day.”
“Bob was a man never intimidated by celebrity personalities and, God knows, he met them all. But he stood in awe of those of his colleagues who had acquired wealth through wise investments. He had a fear of dying a pauper, and developed a strange sense of economics. His generosity would not make him hesitate to invest in very expensive camera equipment, jewelry for his wife, a horse or other luxuries. But the monthly milk bill would sometimes be questioned and he would ask me to watch it more carefully. His early childhood savings trends were simply not in proportion to the realities of present household expenses.” Ursula Thiess, My Life Before, With & After Robert Taylor, 2007, page 153.
Manuela Thiess eventually overcame her troubles and became a successful educator and photographer. You can see some of her photographs on her Facebook page. She is married and lives in Mexico.