Death in Hollywood: Walker, Robert–Age 38 (Strangers on a Train)

Robert Hudson Walker (October 13, 1918 – August 28, 1951) was an American actor, best known for starring as the bright villain in Hitchcock’s thriller Strangers on a Train (1951), which was released shortly before his early demise.

He started in youthful boy-next-door roles, often as a soldier. One of these roles was opposite his first wife, Jennifer Jones, in the World War II epic Since You Went Away (1944). He also played Jerome Kern in Till the Clouds Roll By.

Twice divorced by 30, he suffered from alcoholism and mental illness, which were exacerbated by his painful separation and divorce from Jones.

Walker was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. Emotionally scarred by his parents’ divorce when he was a child, he developed interest in acting. It led his maternal aunt, Hortense McQuarrie Odlum (then the president of Bonwit Teller), to pay for his enrollment at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City in 1937. Walker lived in her home during his first year in the city.

While attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Walker met fellow aspiring actress Phylis Isley, who later took the stage name Jennifer Jones. After brief courtship, the couple married in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on January 2, 1939.

Walker had some small unbilled parts in Winter Carnival (1939), and two Lana Turner films at MGM: These Glamour Girls (1939) and Dancing Co-Ed (1939).

Walker’s and Jennifer Jones’ elder son Robert Walker Jr., born in 1940, became a successful actor, working with John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Walter Matthau amongnothers. Their other son, Michael Walker (March 23, 1941–December 23, 2007) was also an actor who appeared in The Rogues (1964), Coronet Blue (1967) and Hell’s Belles (1969) and several ’60s TV series including Perry Mason: The Case of the Cheating Chancellor (1965).

Walker found work in radio while Isley stayed home and gave birth to two sons in quick succession: Robert Walker Jr. (1940–2019) and Michael Walker (1941–2007).

Walker co-starred in the weekly show Maudie’s Diary from August 1941 to September 1942. Isley’s luck changed when she was discovered in 1941 by producer David O. Selznick, who changed her name to Jennifer Jones and groomed her for stardom.

The couple returned to Hollywood, and Selznick’s connections helped Walker secure contract with MGM, where he started work on the war drama Bataan (1943), playing a soldier who fights in the Bataan retreat.

He followed it with a supporting role in Madame Curie (1943). Both were notable commercial successes.

Walker’s charming demeanor and boyish good looks caught on with audiences, and he was promoted to stardom with the title part in as the “boy-next-door” soldier in See Here, Private Hargrove (1944).

He appeared in Selznick’s Since You Went Away (1944), in which he and his wife portrayed doomed young lovers during World War II. By that time, Jones’ affair with Selznick was common knowledge, and Jones and Walker separated in November 1943, in mid-production. She filed for divorce in April 1945.

The filming of their love scenes was torturous as Selznick insisted that Walker perform take after take of each love scene.  Since You Went Away was one of 1944’s most financially successful movies, earning over $7 million.

Back at MGM, Walker appeared alongside Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), the story of the Doolittle Raid, which was box office hit. He played flight engineer and turret gunner David Thatcher.

Walker starred as a GI preparing for overseas deployment in The Clock (1945), with Judy Garland playing his love interest in her second non-musical film. (Garland’s first non-musical was Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941).

Although she recorded songs for the picture, all were dropped before it was released.) Directed by soon-to-be husband Vincente Minnelli, The Clock was profitable, though not as successful as Garland’s musicals.

He then made a romantic comedy with Hedy Lamarr and June Allyson, Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945).

He did a second Hargrove film, What Next, Corporal Hargrove? (1945) and a romantic comedy with June Allyson, The Sailor Takes a Wife (1945).

Walker starred in the musical Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), as the popular composer Jerome Kern, which had rental receipts of over $6 million.

He starred as another composer, Johannes Brahms, in Song of Love (1947), which co-starred Katharine Hepburn and Paul Henreid, which lost MGM over $1 million.

In between, he made a film about the atomic bomb, The Beginning or the End (1946), which also lost at the box office, and a Tracy-Hepburn drama directed by Elia Kazan, The Sea of Grass (1947), which was profitable.

In 1948, Walker was borrowed by Universal to star with Ava Gardner in the film One Touch of Venus, directed by William A. Seiter. The film was a non-musical comedy adapted from a Broadway show with music by Kurt Weill.

Walker married Barbara Ford, director John Ford’s daughter, in July 1948, but the marriage lasted only 5 months.

Back at MGM Walker was in some films which lost money, Please Believe Me (1950) with Deborah Kerr and The Skipper Surprised His Wife (1950) with Joan Leslie.

More popular was a Western with Burt Lancaster, Vengeance Valley (1951), a notable hit.

In 1949, Walker was at the Menninger Clinic, treated for a psychiatric disorder. Following his discharge, he was cast by director Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train (1951), where he received acclaim for his performance as the psychopath Bruno Anthony.

In his final film, Walker played the title role of Leo McCarey’s My Son John (1952), made at the height of the Red Scare. Despite the film’s anti-Communist themes, Walker was allegedly neither liberal nor conservative, despite being a Republican, and took the job to work with McCarey and co-star Helen Hayes. Walker died before production finished. As a result, angles from his death scene in Strangers were spliced into similar death scene near the end of the film.

Walker was a registered Republican who supported Dwight Eisenhower’s campaign in the 1952 presidential election, and was of the Mormon faith.

On the night of August 28, 1951, Walker’s housekeeper found Walker in an emotional state. She called the actor’s psychiatrist, Frederick Hacker, who arrived and administered amobarbital for sedation. Walker had allegedly been drinking, and it is believed the combination of amobarbital and alcohol caused him to lose consciousness and stop breathing. Efforts to resuscitate Walker failed and he was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. He was aged 32.

In her biography of Walker and Jones, Star-Crossed, author Beverly Linet quotes Walker’s friend Jim Henaghan, who was not mentioned in official accounts of Walker’s death, who was present. Henaghan, who was married to Gwen Verdon at the time, stopped by Walker’s house, where they played cards, and Walker was behaving normally. Walker’s psychiatrist arrived and insisted that he receive an injection. When Walker refused, Henaghan held him down for the physician to administer it. Walker lost consciousness, and frantic efforts to revive him failed.

Filmography

1939 Winter Carnival Wes Uncredited
These Glamour Girls College Boy
Dancing Co-Ed Boy Uncredited
Alternative title: Every Other Inch a Lady
1943 Madame Curie David Le Gros
Bataan Leonard Purckett
1944 See Here, Private Hargrove Private Marion Hargrove
Since You Went Away Corporal William G. “Bill” Smollett II
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo David Thatcher
1945 The Clock Corporal Joe Allen Alternative title: Under the Clock
Her Highness and the Bellboy Jimmy Dobson
What Next, Corporal Hargrove? Corporal Marion Hargrove
The Sailor Takes a Wife John Hill
1946 Till the Clouds Roll By Jerome Kern
1947 The Beginning or the End Colonel Jeff Nixon
The Sea of Grass Brock Brewton
Song of Love Johannes Brahms
1948 One Touch of Venus Eddie Hatch
1950 Please Believe Me Terence Keath
The Skipper Surprised His Wife Commander William J. Lattimer
1951 Vengeance Valley Lee Strobie
Strangers on a Train Bruno Anthony
1952 My Son John John Jefferson Walker’s final film role