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The Bizarre Death and Mysterious Burial of a Hollywood Oscar WinnerAlan Parker - March 2nd, 2011
Almost nobody remembers Gig Young now, but 41 years ago he was the toast of Hollywood.
The Academy Awards for 1969 were presented on the evening of April 7, 1970, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.
It was the second year the Oscars were televised worldwide and it was also the second year there was no host — a brief interregnum between the Bob Hope era and most of the 1970s when hosting was done by committee (before one last hurrah for Bob Hope and the beginning of the Johnny Carson era).
Winning the Oscar for Best Picture was Midnight Cowboy, the only X-rated film in the history of the Academy Awards to win Best Picture.
John Wayne got the only Oscar of his career as Best Actor for his role of crusty Rooster Cogburn in True Grit and Maggie Smith won Best Actress as an eccentric Scottish teacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Goldie Hawn (in one of those typical Oscar “huh?” decisions) got the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Cactus Flower.
And the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor goes to … Gig Young for his performance as Rocky, the sleazy and manipulative promoter of a Depression-era dance marathon in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
It was a popular choice in Hollywood, where Gig Young had established himself over the previous 30 years as a charming, genial party guy who often played the role of a charming, genial lush onscreen — and on the Tonight Show couch as a frequent, amusing guest of Johnny Carson.
Young had been nominated for Best Supporting Actor twice before, for 1951′s Come Fill The Cup and 1958′s Teacher’s Pet, but the 1969 win was the pinnacle of his career — and the beginning of the end.
Actually the beginning of the end for Gig Young began with the birth of Byron Elsworth Barr in St. Cloud, Minnesota, on Nov. 4, 1913.
For most of the next three decades, Gig Young was Byron Barr, a charming, genial kid and aspiring actor.
According to most biographies, Byron was raised in Washington, D.C. (more about that later) before winning a scholarship at the end of high school to the famous Pasadena Community Playhouse in California, where he worked on his acting chops before being picked up as a contract bit player by Warner Bros. in the late 1930s.
The young actor was still known as Byron Barr — and got the occasional screen credit under that name — until his breakout role in 1942′s The Gay Sisters, in which he played a character named … Gig Young.
Warner Bros. decided “Gig Young” was a catchier name than “Byron Barr” (and — unbelievable as it may seem — there was another young supporting actor kicking around Hollywood at the time also named Byron Barr) so “Byron Barr” stopped being a charming, amiable second-string actor and “Gig Young” stopped being a movie character’s name.
Gig Young, actor, then reverted to Byron Barr, pharmacist’s mate in the U.S. Coast Guard, for the duration of World War II.
When the war ended and Byron Barr returned to civilian life, Warner Bros. dropped his contract. But Byron Barr decided to keep his Warner Bros. stage name and Gig Young quickly became a solid, busy Hollywood presence in movies like Wake of the Red Witch, The Three Musketeers and Only the Valiant.
In the mid 1950s he was hosting the television series Warner Bros. Presents while keeping up his busy movie career and busier social life.
By 1956 he was on to his third wife, Elizabeth Montgomery, daughter of famed Hollywood actor Robert Montgomery. Elizabeth Montgomery would go on to superstardom in the 1960s as Samantha Stephens, the nose-twitching hexess in TV’s Bewitched (1964-72).
But first she had to dump Gig Young. Montgomery divorced him in 1963, citing physical and emotional abuse fuelled by her husband’s alcoholism.
The Gig Young party gig was starting to run low on steam, but there were still two more wives, a pretty good TV series called The Rogues and that 1969 Academy Award to go before the whole charming, amiable Gig Young persona blew apart in a million pieces.
He married his fourth wife, Hollywood real estate agent Elaine Williams, shortly after the Montgomery divorce and daughter Jennifer — Byron Barr/Gig Young’s only child — came along in April 1964.
Of course, Williams was divorcing Barr/Young within three years (physical-emotional abuse/alcoholism) and in the subsequent child support proceedings Barr/Young proclaimed that Jennifer was not his biological child and he was not responsible for her upkeep. The court ruled against him, but more about that later.
So Gig Young staggered into the 1970s, clutching his Oscar, with a few more movie roles to come but far more trouble.
Typical was his experience in 1973 when Mel Brooks picked Gig Young to play the Waco Kid — a role ultimately assumed by Gene Wilder — in the groundbreaking western comedy Blazing Saddles.
Let’s let Mel Brooks tell you what happened on the first day of filming when Cleavon Little’s character Bart and the Waco Kid (Gig Young), a broken-down, drunken gunslinger, meet for the first time in jail:
“We draped Gig Young’s legs over and hung him upside down. And he started to talk and he started shaking. I said, ‘This guy’s giving me a lot. He is giving plenty. He’s giving me the old alky shake. Great.’ And then it got serious, because the shaking never stopped, and green stuff started spewing out of his mouth and nose, and he started screaming. And, I said, ‘That’s the last time I’ll ever cast anybody who really is that person.’ If you want an alcoholic, don’t cast an alcoholic… Anyway, poor Gig Young, it was the first shot on Friday, nine in the morning, and an ambulance came and took him away. I had no movie.”
Gene Wilder flew from New York to Los Angeles over the weekend and was playing the Waco Kid on Monday morning, but that’s another story.
The DTs didn’t deter Gig Young and he was still firmly on his downward spiral when he hooked up with director Sam Peckinpah (another guy on a downward spiral) to make a couple of ultra-violent, nihilistic movies — 1974′s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and 1975′s The Killer Elite.
(It seems to be during the making of these films that Gig Young started collecting guns.)
There were two more movies after that and one more marriage before Gig Young’s ignominious end.
Young was an invisible presence in a terrible movie, The Hindenburg, also released in 1975, and then he hit rock bottom in 1978 when he was cast in a patchwork reworking of an unreleased kung-fu movie called Game of Death — incomplete footage of which was shot prior to star Bruce Lee’s death in 1973.
So Gig Young’s last movie had him in a minor supporting role to an action star who had been totally inactive for five years.
Not really a good mental and emotional place to be for his fifth marriage on Sept. 27, 1978, to 31-year-old German actress Kim Schmidt (sometimes erroneously listed as 21 and sometimes erroneously listed as Australian).
I’m not sure why Kim Schmidt married him — maybe it was true love, maybe it was Oscar love, maybe it was just something to do — but it was a bad decision.
Three weeks after the wedding Gig Young ended the marriage in their condo apartment, Suite 1BB of the Osborne Apartments on West 57th Street in New York City, on Oct. 19, 1978.
He ended it by loading a Smith & Wesson .38-calibre revolver — one of many, many firearms he kept in the apartment — and putting one slug through his wife’s head and one slug through the roof of his mouth.
Exit, Gig Young.
But not gracefully.
Adding insult to felonious injury, his will left the bulk of his estate to his 1970s agent, Marty Baum of CAA, and $10 to his putative daughter, Jennifer Young. (How creepy is that, taking as your real last name the fictional name of a guy who had disowned you as his daughter?)
In the end, it was up to Gig Young’s sister, Genevieve Barr Merry, to bury her brother. Which she did, in the Green Hill Cemetery in Waynesville, North Carolina.
And that is where Gig Young’s story ends and mine begins.
A couple of years ago, I took an extended road trip down the east coast of the U.S., partly to write travel stories, partly to heal wounds of a dissolved marriage and partly to feed an eccentric hobby of mine — visiting the graves of interesting dead people.
I must admit that Gig Young didn’t meet the main criterion of my search for dead people — for the most past they were people I admired or, at least, could stand in awe of.
People like Rod Serling, creator of the Twilight Zone (a simple stone on a rural hillside in the Finger Lakes district of upper New York); Mark Twain ( a grotesque monument in Elmira, N.Y., erected 30 years after his death by his daughter to jointly honour her dead Russian composer husband); Billie Burke, the actress who played the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, alongside her previously deceased/bankrupt husband Flo Ziegfield of Ziegfield Follies fame (simple graves on a hilltop outside New York City shaded by a huge statue Burke erected in honour of her mother). People like that.
But my ultimate destination was North Carolina, the place of my birth and the place where I had scattered my father’s ashes over his parents’ graves the better part of a decade earlier.
I was doing some travel writing/gathering up in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains first and that was where I stumbled across the fact that Gig Young was buried in Waynesville.
That was also when I became aware that Young — an actor I was very familiar with from my childhood — had died in a bizarre murder-suicide. And I couldn’t figure out what he was doing buried in a small mountain town in North Carolina , far away from Hollywood and New York City and even Washington, D.C., where he supposedly grew up.
So driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway chasing 19th Century inns, steam locomotives and a moonshiner named Popcorn Sutton, I stopped off at the Green Hill Cemetery on a hot, sunny June afternoon to look up Gig Young.
One major thing that distinguishes American cemeteries from Canadian cemeteries is the number of little flags erected at gravesites. Those flags are usually put there by the American Legion and other post-service fellowships to honour departed members.
In a normal U.S. cemetery, a third to a half of the graves will be showing flags, in part because of higher American war death tolls in the past half century and in part because mandatory conscription — and thus an extended base of former military personnel — was in effect in the U.S. from the early 1940s through the 1970s.
Then there’s another quirk: The further south you travel, the more Confederate flags you see intermingled with United States flags in cemeteries. Those flags are maintained by organizations like the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy to honour the southern dead of a war fought 150 years ago.
I tell you this because the Green Hill Cemetery is so old it has far more graves sprouting Confederate flags than U.S. flags.
I like cemeteries: They’re calm and peaceful and have interesting stories to tell. And I generally like people who work in cemeteries: They tend to be calm and peaceful and have interesting stories to tell too.
And when you’re looking for a needle — one single grave — in a haystack — a cemetery with anywhere between 300 and 300,000 (Arlington) graves — the people who work there are a good place to start the search.
Since there aren’t usually a lot of living people in a cemetery on a midweek afternoon, it didn’t take long to find caretaker Lonnie Higgins.
Lonnie was a nice guy but a fairly young guy, cemeterily speaking, so he didn’t have quite the sense of historical ownership I was looking for.
Lonnie could direct me to a grist stone once operated by Daniel Boone (everything in the mountains of North Carolina has some connection to Daniel Boone), to the car dealer buried in a Model T Ford and to the grave of the very last serving Confederate officer (Alden Howell, died 1947 age 106), but he had no idea who Gig Young or Byron Barr was or where he was buried.
Lonnie thought a little more.
“And we’ve got that actress here, the one from Bewitched.”
“Elizabeth Montgomery?” I asked in disbelief.
“No, not Samantha. Her mother.”
“I guess. I heard she was buried here but I’ve never seen her grave myself.”
That was just too weird: The guy once married to Elizabeth Montgomery and the woman who once played her mother on TV buried in the same rural cemetery in the middle of nowhere.
And then, thankfully, Fred Rathbone drove up in his truck.
Fred was the former Green Hill caretaker, retired now, but the main man for 35 years and the repository of knowledge I had been looking for.
And yes, Fred was related to Basil Rathbone, the Sherlock Holmes actor whose urn crypt in a New York mausoleum I had recently been locked out of.
“He was my daddy’s second or third cousin.”
Well, everybody in North Carolina is pretty much related to everybody else, including Daniel Boone, so the Rathbone connection was no surprise.
With the pleasantries over, I asked Fred about Gig Young.
“Oh, yes, he’s here but not under that name. Under the family name.”
“Yeah, that’s it. I’ve seen it many times but I don’t remember right where now. Over that way somewhere. There’s a family monument and then the individual markers.”
“And Agnes Moorehead? She’s buried here too?”
Fred looked confused.
“Lonnie told me Agnes Moorehead, the mother from Bewitched, is buried here too.”
Fred’s furrowed brow cleared.
“Oh, no. The Bewitched connection is to Gig Young. He was married to Samantha, you know. Lonnie just got his witches mixed up.”
Lonnie and Fred and I had a good chuckle about that one.
So Lonnie and Fred went on talking and watching birds and listening to the wind in the trees while I went grave hunting.
And about 45 minutes later — after finally turning 90 degrees from the direction Fred had pointed me in — I found the Barr family plot.
And under the Barr monument there were five gravestones:
John E. Barr 1877-1975
Emma C. Barr 1879-1944
Donald E. Barr 1906-1949
Floyd H. Barr 1883-1969
Byron E. Barr 1913-1978
So there was Gig Young, buried with his family under a modest stone stained with I don’t know what, except maybe shame.
I went to find Fred and Lonnie and showed them the grave.
Fred told me John and Emma were Gig/Byron’s parents, Donald was his older brother and Floyd was his uncle.
And Fred told me Gig/Byron’s father, John, had served in the Philippines in the Spanish-American War (1899-1901) with Fred’s grandfather.
“So the family was here for a long time?”
“Oh yeah, they owned a cannery.”
“Well, all the published information says Gig … um, Byron … was born in Minnesota and grew up in Washington.”
“Well, John and Emma were away for a while but they came back when Byron was six or so and he grew up here. That’s for sure. I grew up with him. I was a lot younger than he was but I saw him around.”
So that’s why Gig Young is buried in Waynesville, N.C. At the end of his sad, broken life, his sister took him home to be buried with his family in the little mountain town where he spent his childhood.
And that’s pretty much it.
Except for the daughter, Jennifer.
Even though her father had denied her and spurned her in his will, Jennifer Young grew up in Hollywood claiming some reflected glory from her famous/infamous father/non-father.
She has a music career of sorts now and is trying to find backers for a documentary on her father, but she was known as a fixture on the Hollywood party scene for years and made headlines in the past 15 years for two things.
1. Jennifer was BFF and former roommate of Beverly Hills madam Heidi Fleiss, although Jennifer denied persistent accusations that she was one of Heidi’s stable of high-priced Hollywood hookers. Charlie Sheen, a Heidi client, could shed more light on that if he didn’t have troubles of his own that probably outweigh most self-inflicted career setbacks endured by Jennifer’s father/non-father. (I really think Charlie should take a good look at Gig Young’s lifestyle choices. But he won’t. See you at the end of the road, Charlie.)
2. In the mid-1990s, Jennifer launched a highly publicized campaign to get possession of her father’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar from agent Marty Baum, who had claimed it in a round-about way under the terms of Gig Young’s will. In a tripartite agreement involving Baum, Jennifer Young and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (legal owners of the statue), Baum agreed to turn over the Oscar to Jennifer on his death.
Well, Marty Baum died in November 2010. Jennifer Young got the Oscar in December and the Academy says she can keep it for 48 weeks of every year until she dies. That’s about as close to a happy ending as this story can get.