If Robert Taylor was one of the most popular leading men of Hollywood, why doesn’t his name ring a bell? Well, just as his career was soaring, the impossibly handsome Taylor made one fatal, career destroying mistake.
1. He Was Under Their Control
As a hot young actor, the Hollywood studios liked to keep Robert Taylor snuggly under their arm. MGM liked to pair their pretty boy in films with powerful older women—and then they shockingly made him marry one. Sadly, Taylor now had two puppet masters to answer to: MGM and his wife.
When Taylor started to feel a little claustrophobic, he finally did something on his own and the consequences were disastrous.
2. They Were On The Run
Robert Taylor was born Spangler Arlington Brugh on August 5, 1911, in Nebraska. Dad was a farmer, who seemed intent on keeping his family moving as if they were running from the law. When mom got gravely sick, dad did something remarkable. He quit farming, studied medicine, and personally worked on bringing his wife back to health.
Mom now had a new lease on life, but it would become a nightmare for young Taylor.
3. He Escaped
Since mom had almost lost her life, she became extra protective of her son. Even when Taylor escaped her clutches and went to college in California, her shadow followed him. The other students picked up on this and started calling Taylor a momma’s boy.
But these nasty students were about to start eating their words, because this momma’s boy was about to meet up with a real Hollywood agent.
4. He Was Perfect
Taylor soon switched his major from the cello to acting. A talent scout from MGM, who attended one of his school plays, thought that Taylor had something rare: the perfect profile. The scout offered Taylor a contract, and he signed it on the dotted line. The pay was $35 per week, but don’t laugh—that’s about $800 in today’s money. Not bad for a guy who’d never made a film before.
Taylor must have felt like he had it all. He was, however, about to get a humiliating reality check.
5. He Had To Change
At this time, MGM had the formidable Louis B. Mayer at its head. When Mayer took a long look at Taylor, he found him lacking. Mayer wanted to take Taylor’s raw materials and make him into a star. First off, Mayer got him a new haircut, and then he told him to put on some weight.
But altering his looks was just the beginning. Mayer had bigger plans for making this mamma’s boy into a Hollywood idol.
6. There Was Nothing Left
Also on Mayer’s cutting block was Mayer’s original name. MGM didn’t ask for anyone’s opinion, they just swapped Spangler Arlington Brugh for Robert Taylor because it sounded manly. To make him even more manly, MGM sent Taylor to the gym. They also went to work on other things, like the way he walked, talked, and even his mannerisms. It makes you wonder if there would be anything left of little Spangler Arlington Brugh.
Once the transformation was complete, Taylor was ready to work. Sadly, his first job would be a huge disappointment.
7. He Needed A Dad
MGM turned Taylor in “the test boy,” which meant just doing screen tests with other Hollywood hopefuls. At the same time, Taylor was cozying up to the formidable Mayer, and I’d guess he was looking for a father figure. When his real dad suddenly passed, Taylor became even closer to Mayer. But Taylor had to be VERY careful. Louis B. Mayer loved one thing and one thing only: Money.
But for now, Taylor was just itching for a real part—and it took a twist of fate to finally bring him one.
8. He Got A Big Break
Taylor's big break came when an MGM actor got sick. It was just a short film called Buried Loot, but the studio was suddenly in desperate need of a replacement and someone thought to call in “the test boy”. After seeing him in the film, execs at MGM were kicking themselves. Why had they wasted this great leading man as “the test boy”? Taylor was a hit in Buried Loot—but that wouldn't mean squat unless he could pull off a feature film.
With his first lead role just around the corner, there couldn’t have been more riding on it.
9. She Wanted Him
Major star Irene Dunne was making Magnificent Obsession for Universal and in need of a new leading man. She’d heard about a hot new star at MGM, and she became fixated on getting Taylor—seven years her junior—as her learning man. Soon, Dunne made a dramatic request: She wanted to borrow Taylor from MGM for this film. Hmmm…maybe it was Dunne who had the "magnificent obsession".
Mayer reluctantly said yes, and Taylor now had to prove himself. His looks had got him the part, but now he had to show them he could actually act.
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10. He Was A Star
Magnificent Obsession premiered at Radio City Music Hall on a frigid night in December 1935 and, in spite of the weather, fans crowded the theater. The hordes were there to see either the illustrious Dunne or the handsome newcomer Taylor. Maybe it was both. What happened in the end was very simple: Taylor was now a major leading man in Hollywood.
There was, however, something Taylor didn’t know. The studio was using some pretty sneaky antics to make his fame soar.
11. There Were Thousands Waiting
MGM was sneakily manipulating Taylor’s ascension to movie idol status. If Taylor was taking a train somewhere, the studio would plant a story that thousands of swooning women had waited at the station for him. The truth was, the story was totally made up.
The result, however, was exactly what the studio wanted: Thousands of women at the next station swooning and waiting for Taylor. Then, MGM went one outrageous step further.
12. He Wasn’t Alone
Taylor once got on a boat for a trip abroad—but when he crashed on his bed for a much needed nap, he immediately realized that there was something underneath: two young, giggling fans. A startled Taylor got the women out of the room, and only later did he find out why they were there. The studio had planted them to get some free publicity.
The real truth was that Taylor needed some help in the romance department, and it was about to arrive from a very surprising source.
13. It Was A Set Up
The youngest Marx brother—Zeppo—called Taylor out of the blue and asked if he wanted to meet a beautiful woman. The lady in question was superstar Barbara Stanwyck, who had steadily made her way up the tiers of Hollywood. When he spoke with Stanwyck, Marx had been very vague about who she’d be meeting. He simply called him RT.
What happened next was the most adorable “meet cute” ever.
14. He Muddled It
When Taylor got to the nightclub, he saw the lovely Stanwyck and quickly asked for a dance. There was just one problem: Stanwyck thought she was meeting someone named RT, and never made the connection that this was him. Marx and his wife were cracking up watching these two trying to work things out. Once they did, however, there was no stopping them.
15. He Got Them For Free
When he met Stanwyck, Robert Taylor was in the midst of making the film Camille with Hollywood legend Greta Garbo. Taylor was now BFFs with Stanwyck, and besides having a beautiful woman on his arm, he was also getting free acting classes. It was a win-win for Taylor—but not everything was going so smoothly.
As it turned out, Garbo also had some acting "tips" for him—and he wasn't ready for them.
16. She Smothered Him
Camille called for some heavy romance between Taylor and Garbo. Of course, romance was as common as mud in films then, and Garbo was searching for something memorable. Taylor’s good looks inspired her, and she came up with the crazy idea to absolutely smother Taylor’s face with kisses. The director agreed, and the sloppy kissing scene went down in history.
Taylor may have been getting sloppy with Garbo, but he was about to make a big and brave move forward in his relationship with Stanwyck.
17. He Moved Right In
At this time, Stanwyck had a ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Taylor saw her lovely lifestyle and decided to move right in. Well…he did the next best thing, and bought his own ranch next door. Next, he went ahead and copied Stanwyck’s interest in horses. Instead of breaking out and making a life of his own, Taylor had just borrowed Stanwyck’s.
Taylor and Stanwyck were two peas in a pod—but a certain someone was getting ready to tear them apart.
18. He Needed Permission
Remember, Louis B. Mayer had a tight rein on Taylor, and that meant the MGM boss got to weigh in on Taylor's romantic life—and he did not like what he saw. According to Mayer, Stanwyck was not the one for Robert Taylor. She was too independent, and Mayer thought she was not a team player.
Unless Taylor could change the headstrong Mayer’s mind, he’d have to say goodbye to Stanwyck forever.
19. They Put Them Together
As it turned out, fate stepped in and solved Taylor’s problem. You see, MGM was making His Brother’s Wife, starring Jean Harlow and Clark Gable. Mayer suddenly thought the film would make more money if the on screen love birds were actual love birds. Mayer quickly replaced Harlow and Gable with Taylor and Stanwyck. While critics didn’t like the film, the ticket-buying public lapped it up.
With Mayer’s blessing, Taylor and Stanwyck were a real team. A real team that was about to fall flat on their faces.
20. There Was No Spark
Audiences were eager to see Taylor and Stanwyck’s real life passion on the screen in This Is My Affair. Sadly, it didn’t seem to exist—or at least, it wasn’t coming across on the screen. The studios didn’t really care why, they just refused to make any more films with this sparkless couple.
If the studios wanted to see Taylor’s spark, however, they’d see it in his next film. He’d also show off a whole lot more.
21. He Took It Off
In 1938, Taylor made the comedy A Yank At Oxford, which gave him the chance to show off his athletic prowess and something else: his hairy chest. After the film's success, women suddenly wanted their men to be hairy and their boyfriends wanted to please them. For the guys who didn’t come by one naturally, an enterprising company reportedly devised a truly bizarre solution: They designed and marketed a hair piece for the chest made in Taylor’s honor. Gross.
And speaking of honor, Taylor’s was about to take a massive hit.
22. They Called Him Immoral
So, Taylor and Stanwyck were carrying on as if they were husband and wife, but there was one problem: They weren't actually husband and wife. Photoplay magazine decided to “out” celebrities that were living in sin, and they called Taylor and Stanwyck immoral.
Word got to MGM’s Louis B Mayer and, let’s just say, he wasn't happy. The MGM boss quickly devised a plan to fix this problem quickly—and permanently.
23. There Was No Romance
On May 14th, 1939, MGM announced the marriage of Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck. If photos of the newlyweds look a little strained, it’s because Mayer had to force the rings onto their fingers. There wasn’t even a romantic wedding night in a heart shaped bed, either. Nope, Taylor spent the night with his mother. Even worse? He’d forgotten to tell her about the wedding.
Obviously, when people found out about Taylor and Stanwyck’s passionless wedding night, the rumor mill started churning.
24. There Was A Rumor
Spending his wedding night with his mother didn’t help stop the gossip that was running around Hollywood. People thought that Stanwyck was gay for two main reasons: Her manly style of dressing and her tight group of gay friends. Then, there was Taylor. If the gossips thought that the Taylor/Stanwyck marriage was a sham, they were definitely going to come after him as well.
25. He Was Too Handsome
The thing about Taylor was that he was almost too handsome for words, and this naturally spawned rumors that he was gay. But it wasn't just his looks, there was another bit of "proof" to add fuel to the fire: He always acting opposite older, powerful women. Irene Dunne, Greta Garbo, and even his wife Stanwyck all fit into this category. The thinking was that no straight man would want to look inferior and weaker than a woman.
MGM heard the rumors and did something drastic to make them go away.
26. The Toughen Him Up
To combat the rumors that Taylor was gay, MGM changed the type of movie he appeared in. Now that he was a married man, they didn’t want him appearing as a pretty boy any longer. That’s when Mayer had him play the lead in Billy the Kid, then a boxer in The Crowd Roars. They were doing everything they could to present Taylor as all man.
Stanwyck, however, was not on board with the makeover. In fact, it seemed she wanted to undermine it any chance she got.
27. She Humiliated Him
There certainly had been more than a few humiliating moments where Taylor did look weak compared to his wife. In fact, on several occasions she’d embarrassed him in public by shouting at him. After one too many mortifying moments, Taylor had finally reached his limit.
He suddenly had the idea to make Stanwyck pay. Luckily for him, the perfect opportunity fell right at his feet.
28. He Was Over The Moon
At the time, Taylor was working on a film with the glamorous Lana Turner. According to legend, Taylor was over the moon with Turner’s looks, and Turner was also quite the smitten kitten herself. Where stories differ is whether Taylor and Turner actually sealed the deal. Either way, they were certainly hot on screen. The studio even called this explosive couple “T’nT”.
When Stanwyck found out about T’nT, she exploded.
29. He Was Off Script
So, the usually kowtowed Taylor was totally acting off script. He was allegedly cheating on his wife, and with a younger actress no less. Of course Stanwyck found out, and she made her bold move. Some say she threatened to take her own life. The gashes on her wrists certainly seemed to imply that, but Taylor later claimed that they came from his wife trying to open a window. Really?
Thing were getting messy, but being in a romantic triangle with Turner and Stanwyck certainly helped dampen the gay rumors. To make them go away forever, Taylor had a wardrobe change.
30. He Got Macho
In 1941, the US was gearing up to participate in WWII, and the government wanted to use Hollywood for propaganda. You see, they needed to make the country feel good about having Russia as its new ally. So, they created the film Song of Russia, and when Taylor showed up looking manly in a soldier’s uniform, thoughts of him being gay went out the window.
Taylor was proudly playing a savior of America. But in reality, he was hiding a shameful secret.
31. He Was A Puppet
Taylor’s secret was that he couldn’t stand up to Mayer. You see, Taylor actually wanted to enlist in the army, but Mayer wouldn’t let him. Mayer wanted his boy to make movies about WWII, not participate in it. Once again, Mayer was pushing the weak willed Taylor around. The humiliated Taylor did what Mayer asked, and finished Song of Russia.
Taylor did eventually get into the army—but once again, he would just get pushed around.
32. She Wanted Him Home
What Uncle Sam had in mind for Taylor was actually a pretty cushy job. He became an instructor at an Air Force base. This kept him safely stateside—and not too far from his controlling wife. Some people even suggested that Stanwyck had arranged for this post. Others thought it was Mayer.
Stanwyck wanted her husband at home and Mayer wanted him safe to earn more money for MGM. Would Taylor ever get a chance to make a decision by himself? Well, yes, actually—and with disastrous consequences.
33. He Took A Stand
America had this takeaway from WWII: Communism had no place in the US. Taylor wanted to keep communism out of Hollywood, and so he helped start the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. This was all well and good...until another group cropped up. One that was much more dangerous.
This was the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Taylor was about to learn that he’d bitten off way more than he could chew.
34. They Were Out For Blood
Taylor was certainly against communism, but the HUAC was clearly out for blood. The committee wanted actors to name the names of people they thought were communists. Taylor’s film, Song of Russia—the one that praised the communist country—put Taylor front and center in the search for communists.
HUAC invited Taylor to a trial—and they were going to ask him some very scary questions.
35. He Gave Them What They Wanted
Taylor had got himself into a muddle. He really didn’t want to attend the HUAC trial, because he knew they wanted him to be a snitch. But almost as soon as he arrived, his principles went out the window. He did show up, and unlike most of his contemporaries, he decided to name names.
36. He Sealed Their Fate
Once Taylor had given the two names as suspected communists, HUAC added Morley and da Silva to their blacklist. Sadly, their fate was horribly sealed. Da Silva was not in a Hollywood picture again until 1961. Morley got it even worse. She did not work again in Hollywood until after 1970.
Ratting on Morley and da Silva was one decision that Taylor made without the help of Stanwyck or Mayer. And it was one he would eventually pay for big time.
37. He Got Banned
Because he spoke out against communism, Taylor’s movies received a ban in Czechoslovakia and in Hungary. Even in France, some communists wanted to ban Taylor’s films. While these bans didn’t likely hurt Taylor financially, we’ll soon see how they tarnished his reputation in Hollywood.
And what he did next tarnished it even further.
38. He Was A Real Rat
Taylor was now quite unpopular in Hollywood, and his reputation was about to take another hit. In 1949, Stanwyck made East Side, West Side, where she played a woman whose husband cheats on her with glamor girl Ava Gardner. Sadly, something similar was happening in real life. If you want proof, read Gardner’s memoir where she calls Taylor an “excellent lover”.
As it turned out, Taylor was just getting started.
39. She Gave Him A Choice
Taylor needed some time away from his controlling wife, so he jumped on a picture that was filming in Italy. While on the set of Quo Vadis, Taylor started a passionate affair with a bit player named Lia De Leo. Back in LA, Stanwyck saw a tabloid that laid bare her husband's affair.
That's when Stanwyck bravely gave her little boy toy an ultimatum: De Leo or her. Taylor shocked his wife by choosing neither. He was a free man. Now he could freely mess up his life all on his own.
40. He Ran Home
After ending his marriage with Stanwyck, you’d think that a still young and handsome Taylor would go on a dating rampage. Nope, not our Taylor. He went running to his mother. He actually lived in the maid’s quarters of the house he bought her. Apparently, they were so short of space he had to use her breakfast nook to store his clothes.
Taylor could only hide out at mom’s house for a limited time. Soon he’d be out in the world again—and making a perfect mess of it.
41. He Met His Match
Instead of playing the field for a while, Taylor went right into a second marriage. This was German actress and model Ursula Thiess, whom some called the most beautiful woman in the world. In fact, it was Howard Hughes himself who’d brought the gorgeous Thiess to America. So, now Hollywood’s most handsome man had met his match with a breathtaking wife.
His new wife did, however, come with some very unfortunate baggage.
42. He Gave Up His Freedom
Taylor’s new wife had two children—Manuela and Michael—from a previous marriage. Both of them were having a heck of time adjusting to life in America—and to life with a step father. Taylor could have lived a life of leisure with almost any woman that he wanted. Instead, he’d chosen a woman with two difficult children.
As it turned out, one of the children wasn’t just difficult. He was just plain scary.
43. He Had A Scary History
The truth soon surfaced that Taylor’s new stepson had a history with the law back in Germany. You see, he’d done something positively unforgivable. He’d tried to poison his biological father. For this heinous incident he’d spent a year in prison. You can imagine Taylor must have been sleeping with one eye open with this guy under his own roof.
Yes, Taylor wasn’t sleeping well, but his next move would keep him up all night.
44. The Publicity Was Rotten
Raising his step children was difficult enough, try adding two more. Yes, Taylor and Thiess conceived two children, making it a noisy family of six. The two babies were a handful, but they paled in comparison to Taylor’s stepchildren. Manuela and Michael both had incidents involving the law, and this meant some really rotten publicity.
Everything in his life was going wrong. I’d say his next venture had the possibility of making things even worse.
45. He Had A Sweet Reunion
In the meantime, Stanwyck’s career had taken a bit of a dive. In 1964, she was making the low budget horror film The Night Walker. Wanting some publicity for this film, the director had the idea to reunite Stanwyck with her ex-husband. Taylor did ask Thiess if she minded, and her vague answer was, “not necessarily”.
It was good enough for Taylor, and he jumped on board. It was a nice break for him after some tough years. Things at home, however, were just getting worse.
46. They Found Something
Taylor’s stepson Michael’s behavior was spiraling out of control, and it soon landed him in a mental hospital. Around the same time, Taylor ended up at the hospital as well, for something called "Valley Fever," which required surgery. While he was under the knife, the doctors made a devastating discovery. Taylor didn’t just have Valley Fever, he had lung cancer. Taylor promptly stopped his three pack a day addiction. Sadly, it was far too late.
47. A Horrifying Discovery
While Taylor was battling cancer, they released his stepson from the mental hospital. Michael needed solitude, so he moved into a motel in West Los Angeles. It was the last thing he ever did. When Thiess was delivering some medication to her son, she discovered Michael’s lifeless body. He had overdosed. It was every mother’s worst fear.
Fate, however, wasn’t through with Thiess. She had more heartache coming her way.
48. She Laid Him To Rest
As it turned out, Thiess didn't get much time to mourn her son’s passing, because a little over a week later, she faced another devastating loss. That of her husband. Thiess suddenly had two family members in need of a burial. Even worse, because of Taylor’s fall from grace in Hollywood, it would be difficult to get a crowd for his funeral.
Well, at least there was fellow conservative—and future President—Ronald Regan on hand to give the eulogy. You’d think that being six feet under would protect Taylor from his critics. Well, it didn’t.
49. It Came Back To Haunt Him
Because he participated in the unfair search for communists, Taylor had fallen from grace in Hollywood. Before the scandal, there was a building on the MGM lot that proudly bore Taylor’s name. One day, without any fanfare, they renamed the building after someone else. The name Robert Taylor stood for something different now, and MGM wanted to quietly cancel him.
However, there could be another reason for Taylor’s fade from the spotlight—and it's something a lot less dramatic than turning in communists.
50. He Was A Loser
In his career Taylor made over 50 films, and some people have called him one of the most popular leading men in Hollywood. What’s strange is that he never won—or was even nominated for—an Oscar. I think he sums up the reason best himself. He told a reporter his acting secrets, and there were only two: You have to know your lines and be at the studio on time.
Well, you couldn’t accuse him of overthinking. To be honest, I think few people did.