The suave actor ended his tumultuous life and career 16 years ago

Gig Young became famous for the characters he seemed to embody: amiable, suave sophisticates who were still, somehow, losers. In 1958’s Teacher’s Pet, for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, he portrayed a dreamy professor whose overweening flawlessness drove Doris Day into the arms of Clark Gable. He later won an Oscar for playing a slick, sleazy promoter-emcee of dance marathons in 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? But even an Academy Award could not remedy a deeply disappointing career and even deeper personal troubles — lifelong alcoholism and crippling insecurity. On Oct. 19, 1978, the 64-year-old actor shot his wife of three weeks, 31-year-old Kim Schmidt, in the base of the skull with a .38, then put the gun in his mouth and fired. ”He seemed like a man who had everything going for him,” said his longtime friend and agent Martin Baum, to whom Young willed his Oscar. ”How little we know.”

Born Byron Barr, Young was a theater actor in Pasadena when a Warner Bros. scout signed him in 1941. He won critical attention in 1942’s The Gay Sisters, was compared to Cary Grant, reportedly had a dalliance with Bette Davis, and seemed headed for stardom. But two years in the Coast Guard during World War II interrupted his rise. By war’s end, the forgotten Young had to start over. In the process, he became indelibly known for playing ”the Gig Young type” — the guy who doesn’t get the girl.

His relationships fared little better. He tried to relieve his pain through rounds of teetotaling and psychotherapy, but three of his five marriages (including one of six years to a pre-Bewitched Elizabeth Montgomery) ended in divorce; he lost his second wife, Sophie Rosenstein, to cancer.

Young’s fortunes seemed to change with Horses. His portrayal of the dissipated Rocky Gravo so stunned colleagues and critics that costar Jane Fonda supposedly apologized for having objected to his casting. Life magazine declared, ”If Gig Young doesn’t get an Academy Award for his portrayal of human devastation there is no justice.”

It was too little too late. Young had earned a reputation for being unreliable, and directors were skittish. Yet he kept working in minor films and small theater productions, and in September 1978, a Washington Post profile called him ”blithe as ever … a survivor [who] is frustrating the Curse of the Oscar.” It was little more than a month later that the man who seemed to have everything killed himself.

Time Capsule / Oct. 19, 1978
”Kiss You All Over” by Exile was lingering at the top of the pop charts, while TV viewers tuned in to the sitcom What’s Happening!! James A. Michener’s Chesapeake was a best-seller, and Midnight Express captured moviegoers.