by Howard Strickling, MGM
It was only a very few years ago that a youngster arrived in Hollywood who had everyone talking about him. Nice things were said about his appearance, his personality, his youth. Upon one thing, EVERYONE agreed -- here was a young actor who could be great.
Today, Robert Walker has proved them right -- by a series of successful performances and by coming through a period of profound personal stress such as few men must face, and coming through it with flying colors.
To get his feet back on the ground and find himself again, at a time when he admittedly was confused and desperate, Walker stepped out of the Hollywood limelight and off of the screen for one complete year. When he returned, it was as his gay, charming self once again, yet with a new confidence and matured sense of manner. In “ Vengeance Valley”, stirring action story of the West, he gives one of his most powerful and unusual portrayals. It’s a performance which preview audiences heralded as a fine continuation of the career which had been highlighted by such roles as the bumbling G.I. in “See Here, Private Hargrove”, as Jerome Kern in “Till the Clouds Roll By”, as Johannes Brahms in “Song of Love”, as the devil-may-care youth of “The Sea of Grass”, as the gay suitor in “Please Believe Me”, and as the efficiency-minded naval officer in “The Skipper Surprised His Wife”.
Such roles have presented an achievement seldom equaled by a young actor of Bob’s years.
Bob was born, amidst an outburst of excitement, on October 13, 1918 in Salt Lake City. Sirens wailed, whistles screeched and bells clanged -- as a large portion of the city suddenly went up in flames! His father, newspaper editor Horace Walker, and his mother, Zella, still have the clipping to prove it.
With such an exciting start in life, it would appear logical for Walker to go on to a brilliant childhood, climaxed by an even more brilliant career. It is true that when “Bataan”, his first motion picture, was released, Salt Lake City and Ogden both staged a hair-pulling watch over whose local boy he was. Marquees read BOB WALKER and Robert Taylor in “ Bataan”. His mother and father were overwhelmed with attention and his Dad had to take bows at the Rotary Club. But behind the glow of pride ran the bewildering vision of a skinny kid whose middle name was TROUBLE.
He was never the hellion type, far from it. A misunder-stood yearling is what he thought he was. Youngest and skinniest of four brothers, he had no one to heckle, since he was also the skinniest kid on the block. Only when there was a gap in the team would the guys let Bob play. Labeling him as individualist, even at that tender age, is an understatement.
Bob managed to be kicked out of kindergarten!
He played hooky from school day in and day out. His folks couldn’t understand why his grades were so poor, and he couldn’t understand what was so important about it. Neither could his chum. When the Walker family moved to Ogden from Salt Lake, he determined to get on his own. Free of pestering elders, the world was a wide and beautiful place.
He found it wide, anyway, when together with his pal whom he was visiting in Salt Lake, he hopped a freight. But at Las Vegas, he was put off the train. By that time, home didn’t look so bad and another freight took him back there. He had his family, however, walking on eggs. Aunt Tenny, who is Mrs. Hortense Odlum of Bonwit Teller’s, was drawn into the family counsels and offered to send the maverick to the military school her own boys attended, the San Diego Army and Navy Academy at Carlsbad. In the beginning it was just a change of battling locale. Then he came under the understanding eye of Virginia Atkinson, dramatics teacher. One day, she approached the discontented youngster to ask:
“How would you like to read for a part in a play?”
Six months later, neither his family nor Bob recognized himself.
His grades picked up, the chips were gone from his shoulders, the sun was out, he loved his fellow man and worshipped Mrs. Atkinson. He had found in self-expression the freedom his nature craved.
Bob stayed in Carlsbad five years and in interstate dramatic contests won best-actor award twice in a row. The Pasadena Playhouse offered him a scholarship -- Aunt Tenny, a two-year course at the American Academy in New York. He would have liked to have taken both. But at 18 New York can’t be resisted.
There was a girl in Tulsa who wanted to be an actress. Her name was Jennifer Jones. She, too, went to the Academy that year. And in the first year they fell in love. That summer Jennifer enrolled with a tent show in the Midwest, Bob won the part of a skinny boy in a Broadway play. Three days later, he was told by the producer that the skinny boy was changed to a fat one. Bob was out.
That is when he reverted to his childhood to say:
“What’s the use?”
He hopped a United Fruit liner that didn’t go round-the-world but hauled bananas back and forth from Central America. By the end of summer he had sweated out the peeve in his system and was ready to again tackle the Academy. But he hadn’t counted on Aunt Tenny, whose word was her bond and who expected the same of others. She felt Bob had walked out on their deal, quit under his first blow. In her code, the deal was invalid. Bob was on his own.
Instead of the Academy he persuaded Paul Gilmore to let him and Jennifer put on “Springtime for Henry” in Provincetown. Bob slung hash for his room and board at the Yonkers co-op and his brother, Walter, a New York attorney, contributed $10 a week to his support. Next came a radio opening in Tulsa, Oklahoma at $25 a week. After 14 weeks, Bob and Jennifer were married on January 2, 1939.
They spent their honeymoon trying to crash Hollywood, but Hollywood would have neither of them. Difficult days followed, especially when their first baby was due. But the day Bobby arrived, Big Bob got three radio jobs. Michael came eleven months later, and by that time, Bob was an established radio actor with five regular programs, among them, “The Aldrich Family”, “March of Dimes”, and several “soap operas”. But it was the theater he craved. The feeling was not mutual.
Gordon Oliver, a fellow actor, again suggested pictures and put Walker in touch with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer New York offices. At the time they were looking for a young actor for the small role of the sailor in “ Bataan”. Bob was tested. Twenty-four hours later, he was on his way to Hollywood. Jennifer and the boys were already there, she having won the Academy Award-winning role of Bernadette in “Song of Bernadette”.
The day after Bob arrived he was in front of the cameras with Robert Taylor. Bob cannot say enough about the star and Tay Garnett, director of the picture. The latter’s understanding, great patience and sympathy to a raw, untrained actor will never be forgotten, Walker declares.
The sneak preview of “ Bataan” tells the story of what happened. He was discovered by the great motion picture public. Walker the sailor sailed right into its heart.
Quick to capitalize on his shy, awkward charm, Bob became “Private Hargrove”, then a more serious role as the young scientist of “Madame Curie”, and Bob as a Hollywood personality was set. Everything was rosy. Those days of struggle in New York were blotted out. So was his discontent of childhood. But everything wasn’t perfect. His marriage failed, ending in divorce in 1945.
But his career continued in its ascendency.
In 1944, he was busy with “Since You Went Away”, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”, and “The Clock”. The next year he appeared in “Her Highness and the Bellboy”, “The Sailor Takes a Wife”, and “What Next, Corporal Hargrove?”
What next for Robert Walker was the top break of his career so far -- the lead in “Till the Clouds Roll By. He, the skinny kid of only a few years ago was set for the portrayal of Jerome Kern. Producer Arthur Freed enjoys telling about the day he spoke to his good friend Kern about casting Bob in the role.
“Just a minute,” cautioned Kern, “I’ll call my wife and see what she says.”
“Robert Walker play you?” laughingly responded Mrs. Kern. “Fine, you stay there and send Bob here!”
It is this role which marked the advent of Walker’s artistic maturity and led to his earning the chance to play a young officer in the story of the atom bomb, “The Beginning or the End”. This was followed by being cast as the son with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in “The Sea of Grass”. Gone forever was the shy, uncertain Robert Walker. As the bitter youth of that Western saga, Walker surprised even his most enthusiastic booster. Stars, director and audience alike, acclaimed his characterization as a stellar standout, one which led Clarence Brown, meticulous in picking actors for his pictures, without a moment’s hesitancy to offer Bob the role of Johannes Brahms in “Song of Love”. It was a vigorous, romantic, sympathetic role, one which would have tested the capabilities of any seasoned trouper, and one which Bob met with humble enthusiasm and sincere hard work. It was a role which actors term “plum” and which set Robert Walker high in the cinema’s firmament of stars. Following it, he swung with equal ease into a top light comedy role in “One Touch of Venus”.
It was then that his break-up came, also the beginning of his year-long absence from the screen that ended when he returned to win new friends and new laurels with his role in “Please Believe Me”, in which he joined Deborah Kerr, Mark Stevens and Peter Lawford in a top cast. Off the screen he became a leader in such new interests as juvenile delinquency work, Screen Actors Guild affairs and little theater activities.
His winning performance in “Please Believe Me” promptly decided the studio to name him for the much-sought-aft
lead in “The Skipper Surprised His Wife”, followed by a hit role in “ Vengeance Valley”.
In his small and new ranch-style home in a canyon in the Santa Monica mountains, Bob has his two growing sons with him much of the time, and nothing ever interferes with his fun with them, the twin apples of his eye.
They romp, play, tussle, argue. Both he and the youngsters love all forms of exercise, especially hiking. Bob plays tennis, golf and enjoys swimming. He’s also a motorcycle enthusiast. He loves the piano.
His favorite writers are Saroyan and Warwick Deeping because they are sentimental, and Nancy Hale because she’s sophisticated.
His clothes are conservative, plain colors in ties and heavy woolen socks all year round. Jewelry leaves him cold and the one good piece he owns is a watch which he forgets to wear. But he never forgets appointments and is seldom late. He eats like a wolf, drinks two quarts of milk a day, as much cream as he can get, and would rather have butter than jam. Pie for breakfast is old hat, but cabbage, at any meal, is taboo.
He shuns big social gatherings, is modest to the point of being bashful, but is now quick to make friends and tough to lose as a friend. Although he’s taken dancing lessons, he doesn’t like to dance. Has finally mastered three steps of the rumba. He belongs to the Lambs Club of New York, keeps a small bent nail from his freight-hopping days as a good-luck charm, calls his pet Welsh terrier “J.J.”, collects early American furniture, builds miniature airplanes and his favorite recreation, despite his appearance, is a prizefight.
Six feet in height, with dark brown wavy hair, blue eyes, Walker, off screen, looks more like the student than the actor. On his studio biography, under the question: “Opinion of Hollywood”, Bob wrote: “’S Wonderful!”
The feeling is mutual.