Vintage Hunk: Robert Walker

By: Mike McCrann

"I only know that with the help of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, I am now to a certain extent the driver instead of the driven."

Robert Walker
Los Angeles Times Sept 1, 1951.

The recent death of Farley Granger made me think of his co-star Robert Walker in Alfred Hitchcock's brilliant Strangers on a Train. Of all the tragic actors in Hollywood, Walker was the saddest.

Walker's life had totally disintegrated in the late 1940s after his divorce from Jennifer Jones. A serious alcohol problem and a mental breakdown led to a stay at the famed Menninger's Clinic and basically ended Walker's career. But in 1950 Alfred Hitchcock offered the recovering Walker the lead role in Strangers On A Train.

Then he died in 1951 at the age of 32 under mysterious circumstances.

Robert Walker2 Robert Hudson Walker was born in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1918. His parents' divorce made the shy, introspective boy develop an interest in acting, and his aunt paid for his enrollment at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Walker met fellow student Phylis Isley and they were married in her hometown of Tulsa, OK in 1939. After a brief stint in Hollywood where Phylis had two minor film roles, both actors returned to New York. He found radio work and the couple had two sons in 1940 and 1941.

The event that forever changed both their lives came in 1941 when Phylis auditioned for the movie role of the hit play Claudia. She did not get the part but producer David O. Selznick was instantly attracted to the dark haired beauty. Within a year the Walkers were back in Hollywood, but Phylis was now known as Jennifer Jones. She was cast as the lead in the 1943 Fox release The Song Of Bernadette and Selznick arranged for Walker to get an MGM contract. Selznick and Jones became linked forever in what some consider a Svengali/Trilby relationship, and the day after she won the 1943 Best Actress Academy Award, Jones announced her intention to divorce Walker. Every story about Walker has his life and mental frailty being totally destroyed by losing Jones, the love of his life.

At the same time that Jones was becoming a star, Walker was too. His shy, cute, boyish demeanor was highly attractive. He followed a good role in Bataan with a staring role in the 1944 hit See Here, Private Hargrove. Selznick then borrowed Walker to play Jones' doomed romantic interest in his 3-hour war saga Since You Went Away. The dynamics of that production, with Jones and Walker playing love scenes orchestrated by Selznick, are far more interesting than the film itself. Many saw Selznick as a sadistic monster during this period, but to be fair to Jones, she stayed married to Selznick until his death in 1965. Also, Walker's alcohol and mental problems probably predated any Jones/Selznick meeting. The notoriously reclusive Jones never commented on her break with Walker, even when the press and public were blaming her for the divorce and Walker's subsequent decline.

Robert Walker In 1945 Walker managed to make the brilliant hit The Clock with Judy Garland. Directed by Garland's husband, Vincente Minnelli, this story of a soldier who meets a girl and marries her during a whirlwind weekend was a huge critical and commercial hit. But Walker's drinking seriously impacted the shooting. From then on, MGM cast Walker in one silly role after another, the worst probably being composer Jerome Kern in Till the Clouds Roll By.

Walker's drinking was out of control and his brief second marriage to director John Ford's daughter was a 5-month disaster that reportedly had its share of domestic violence. After his second divorce, Walker finally took dramatic steps to heal himself by entering the Menninger Clinic in 1949. Unfortunately, by 1950 Walker was practically unemployable in Hollywood. His MGM contract expired and there were no decent work offers until Alfred Hitchcock came to the rescue by giving him the part of a lifetime: playing the psychotic murderer in Strangers on a Train. This brilliant film based on the great Patricia Highsmith (Talented Mr. Ripley) book co-starred gay actor Farley Granger. Walker played the rich Bruno Anthony who proposes that he and Granger switch murders. Bruno will (and does) kill Granger's trashy wife and Granger will (but doesn't) kill Bruno's rich father. This film is totally fascinating in that Bruno appears to be gay and straight-acting Granger really was gay. Walker gave the performance of his career in this film and it looked like his life was back on track.

Robert Walker1 Walker was finishing up My Son John when he died under strange and controversial circumstances. Walker's housekeeper said she found him in an alcohol-fueled state and called his psychiatrist. The psychiatrist administered a barbiturate called amobarbital in an effort to calm the actor. The combination of drugs and alcohol killed him. The rumors following his death had everything from suicide to accidental drug overdose. Why a shrink was allowed to inject a patient with a powerful drug was pretty much ignored.

Robert Walker was a fine actor and an extremely sad man. He left behind two sons,  a number of good performances, and one great one in Strangers on a Train. Both his sons were raised by Jones. His sole surviving son, Robert Walker Jr., was 11 at the time of his father's death and had a brief movie career. In 2010, at a tribute to his mother at The Norton Simon Museum, the young Walker had only positive things to say about Jones. He did not say much about his father. The demons that destroyed the senior Walker were probably exacerbated by the loss of Jones, but the seeds of such behavior probably started long ago in a story we'll never fully know.