For six years, Robert Young appeared on TV extolling Sanka as “good coffee that makes good sense.” “He did those commercials so he could put his six grandchildren through college,” his daughter Carol Proffitt explained to Closer. “They all graduated from great schools — Yale, USC — all the best.”
The family-oriented, affable characters Robert created — wise Jim Anderson of Father Knows Best and the benevolent physician Marcus Welby — were very real parts of the actor, but not the whole story. Though Robert tried to do the right thing for the people he loved, he privately battled severe depression and alcoholism. “He was a very thoughtful, caring person, but he wasn’t easy to understand,” explained Carol, one of four daughters he had with his wife, Betty.
The couple met in high school and wed in 1933, shortly after Robert signed with MGM Studios. As a young actor, he co-starred in more than 100 films, often with Golden Age greats like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn. Though Robert worked consistently, he often played secondary roles.
That didn’t stop Robert and Betty from living a very glamorous life, with multiple homes and famous friends. “When I was 5 years old, Daddy asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I said I wanted a pony,” recalled Carol. “I named her Gypsy.”
The Young family often went up into the mountains around their ranch in Tarzana, California, for Sunday cookouts. “Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy and a lot of others went,” recalled Carol. “The chauffeur would take the station wagon full of the BBQ. I would ride my horse, and mother would guide me on a leash.”
By the 1950s, Robert had begun working in the new medium of television. “I’d like to be the father, but not a boob,” he said of the judicious patriarch he created on Father Knows Best, which landed him two Emmy Awards. He brushed off any suggestions to spice up the show by making it less wholesome. “That would have been like taking a beautiful painting and obliterating it with black paint,” he insisted.
But in his private life, Robert struggled. “Mother and Daddy did what they could to protect us, but it was a hard childhood,” Carol acknowledged. “Daddy knew he had problems with drinking and depression, but you didn’t discuss anything. You’re supposed to be the Father Knows Best family — we didn’t have any problems.”
Robert joined AA for a time. Eventually, he also sought mental help to treat his depression — although there were setbacks. In 1991, he attempted to take his life, at age 84, after a night of heavy drinking. The star, who died of natural causes at age 91, was never able to completely rid himself of his demons, but Carol recalled many good times with her father. “So many stories were about drinking and depression, but that is not who Daddy was. He had a great sense of humor,” she said. “He believed that the best you can do is be yourself.”
—With reporting by Amanda Champagne-Meadows
For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.