“I was this punk kid from Nebraska who had an awful lot of the world’s good things tossed in his lap.” –Robert Taylor
Among many matinee idols of Hollywood’s Golden Age was Robert Taylor, a well-known film and television actor who took on leading roles in several memorable films.
Robert Taylor was born on August 5, 1911, in Filley, Nebraska, as Spangler Arlington Brugh. His parents were Ruth and Spangler Brugh. Taylor moved throughout the Midwest frequently during his childhood. Taylor’s father worked as a farmer and, later, doctor, when doctors predicted that Taylor’s mother would die before age 30. His father became a doctor for the specific purpose of keeping his wife healthy and ultimately succeeded, with her living well past 30.
Taylor’s family relocated to towns in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Nebraska. Once situated in Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1917, the family remained there for close to two decades.
While growing up in Beatrice, Taylor was active in sports and orchestra. He excelled in track and field and also played the cello in high school. Once Taylor graduated, he attended classes at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, continuing his cello education. Later, Taylor followed his mentor and professor, Herbert E. Gray, to a new teaching position at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He continued his studies in music and also joined Pomona’s theater troupe, performing in a play called Journey’s End in 1932, soon capturing the attention of an MGM talent scout.
MGM saw promise in Taylor and he was signed to a seven-year contract, changing his name to Robert Taylor. He made his film debut in Handy Andy (1934) after working as a test boy, essentially feeding lines to stars who were undergoing screen tests. When an actor for the studio’s Crime Does Not Pay serial fell ill, the director asked for the test boy to fill in for the actor. Taylor’s performance was so effective that he was quickly cast to appear in feature films, including Magnificent Obsession (1935), at the request of co-star Irene Dunne and Camille (1936) with Greta Garbo.
Taylor’s many talents led to him to work in a range of film genres, including musicals, comedies, romances, and dramas. Dubbed, “The Man with the Perfect Profile,” he appeared in films like Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935) alongside June Knight, Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), and Waterloo Bridge (1940). A Yank at Oxford (1938) made him the first American actor to star in a British film. Primarily playing characters with a positive image, Taylor soon took on darker roles in Billy the Kid (1941), Johnny Eager (1941), and Bataan (1943).
In 1939, Taylor married actress Barbara Stanwyck. The couple remained married until their divorce in 1951, though they resumed a working relationship after the divorce.
During World War II, Taylor served as a flight instructor in the U.S. Naval Air Corps, training at Glenview Naval Air Station in Glenview, Illinois, while also appearing in and directing 17 instructional films. He would also contribute voiceover work as a narrator for The Fighting Lady (1944).
Upon his return from the service, he resumed his film career, mainly working in Westerns. He eventually left MGM to begin Robert Taylor Productions and would later appear in the television series The Detectives.
Taylor married once again to German actress Ursula Thiess in 1952. The couple would go on to have two children: Terrance and Tessa.
Taylor’s love of flying would continue after the war years. His private plane was called “Missy,” Stanwyck’s nickname. Taylor maintained the plane as a hobby and as a means of transportation to deliver him to different filming locations.
In the 1960s, he and Stanwyck starred in the thriller The Night Walker (1964). He also traveled abroad to appear in various films and committed to narrating the television series Death Valley Days until his passing in 1969.
Taylor passed away on June 8, 1969, due to lung cancer. He was 57 years old. He was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
Today, Taylor is remembered in his hometown and beyond.
Gage County Historical Society and Museum houses a permanent exhibit on Taylor, which includes his personal make-up kit, as well as archival materials. It is located at 101 N. Second St., Beatrice, Nebraska.
They also offer a free PDF book about Taylor’s Nebraska years here as well as several Taylor-related items in their online gift shop.
In 1994, the Robert Taylor Memorial Highway was dedicated in honor of Taylor, east of Beatrice on US Hwy 136 to Filley, Nebraska. In 2015, the Gage County Community Players Theater in downtown Beatrice honored Taylor for what would have been his 105th birthday.
Taylor’s alma mater, Doane College, is still in operation as Doane University. It is located at 1014 Boswell Ave., Crete, Nebraska.
In 1940, Taylor and Stanwyck resided at 707 N. Arden Ave., Los Angeles, California, which still remains today. There, they lived with Stanwyck’s son, Dion, as well as the butler, maid, and cook.
Glenview Naval Air Station, where Taylor trained, is no longer active. It has now been redeveloped as a mall called The Glen Town Center, located at 2030 Tower Dr., Glenview, Illinois. The original control tower remains. A small museum dedicated to the former air station stands at 2040 Lehigh Ave., Glenview, Illinois, with some photos of Taylor on display.
In Palm Springs, California, the Plaza Theatre mentions Taylor on a plaque, as the theater opened with a screening of Camille (1936). Though now closed, the original building is located at 128 S. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs, California.
Taylor also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in motion pictures at 1500 Vine St., Los Angeles, California.
His handprints and shoe prints remain in the TCL Chinese Theatre Forecourt at 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, California.
Forest Lawn—Glendale is located at 1712 Glendale Ave., Glendale, California.
Today, Taylor is remembered for his filmography and continues to have dedicated fans all over the world.