Robert Charles Francis (February 26, 1930–July 31, 1955) appeared in only four Hollywood films, all with military themes, before he was killed at age 25 in a crash of the airplane he was piloting.

Robert Francis
Robert Francis New York Sunday News 1955.JPG

Robert Francis in 1955 at age 25

Robert Charles Francis was born in Glendale, CA in 1930. His parents, James and Lillian Francis, ran a family pharmacy. He was the youngest by 10 years of three children.

Francis was conscientious student and excellent skier. Throughout his teenage years he aspired to join the U.S. Olympic team.

While tanning on a Santa Monica beach, he was spotted by  Hollywood talent scout who persuaded him to us his handsome, all-American looks to become an actor.

Francis graduated from Pasadena City College in 1947. He began to take acting classes, which were interrupted by two-year stint in the U.S. Army.

Spotted–Screen Test

He attended the Batomi Schneider Drama Workshop, where the husband of his acting coach, who worked at Columbia, helped arrange screen test. Studio head Harry Cohn had been looking for a new male lead.

Francis’ quiet and peaceful manner, in contrast to those of  James Dean and Marlon Brando, appealed to Cohn, who was known for demanding obedience from his stars and staff.

Although Francis tended to play reserved characters, they were often rebellious in their approach.

On the strength of his screen test, he earned a contract and a lead role in The Caine Mutiny.

Francis took keen interest in aviation, and it was this passion that brought him to the attention of Howard Hughes. The two men went flying together, with Francis likely to be at the controls of Hughes’ planes, though Francis’ time in the air was curtailed once Cohn offered him contract at Columbia.

Robert Francis as Willie Keith in The Caine Mutiny

Francis’ debut was also his most significant role, Ensign Willie Keith in The Caine Mutiny (1954), alongside Humphrey Bogart, Fred MacMurray, Van Johnson and José Ferrer.  His character had a romantic subplot opposite May Wynn, and dominated by a suffocating mother.

Prior to the film’s release, Francis and Wynn were sent on press junkets together by Cohn, aiming to showcase the studio’s two youngest stars. As a result, gossip magazines reported offscrenn romance and even possible engagement.

After The Caine Mutiny, Francis was voted one of Screen World’s “Promising Personalities of 1954.”

Capitalizing on his rising star, Francis was cast in They Rode West (once more alongside Wynn), followed by The Bamboo Prison and John Ford’s The Long Gray Line.

In Ford’s film, Francis was given third billing in the credits, indicating Columbia’s intent to make him a big star.

Although he appeared in only four films in his short career, in each one he played a character in the military and received solid reviews.

Francis was loaned to MGM for Tribute to a Bad Man and was scheduled to travel to the location in Wyoming to begin shooting, a journey he would never make.


A week before his departure for the Tribute to a Bad Man set, on July 31, 1955, Francis was piloting a borrowed Beechcraft Bonanza, which belonged to fellow actor Joe Kirkwood, Jr.

Also on board were Kirkwood’s business partner, George Meyer, 38, a commercial pilot who had flown B-29 bombers in WWII, and actress Ann Russell, 24. Immediately after the 5:00 p.m. takeoff (eyewitnesses called “poor”) from Lockheed Air Terminal in Burbank, the plane’s engine began to sputter and then lost power over Restland Cemetery.

Francis managed to avoid crashing into crowds at a nearby Valhalla Memorial Park, but the aircraft stalled and crashed in a parking lot where it burst into flames, killing all three occupants.

Francis was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park on August 2, 1955.

End Note

Exactly two months later, on Sep. 30, James Dean (born in 1931) would die in a car crash, at age 24.