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Wednesday, July 22, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Actor Robert Young Dies At 91 -- He Was Beloved For Roles In `Father Knows Best' And As `Marcus Welby'

AP

LOS ANGELES - Robert Young, loved by millions of television viewers on "Father Knows Best" and as the compassionate "Marcus Welby, M.D.," has died. He was 91.

Mr. Young died last night at his home in Westlake Village, his physician, John Horton, said today.

"It was basically related to age, and he had had heart surgery and his heart was not so good," Horton said.

After a prolific career in films, where Mr. Young appeared in "Sitting Pretty," "Northwest Passage" and "Journey for Margaret," he went on to even greater success in two long-running television shows that were among the most popular of their respective decades.

"Father Knows Best," which Mr. Young originated on radio in 1949, moved to television in 1954. It was so popular that CBS continued it in prime-time reruns for two seasons after the original run ended in 1960.

In contrast to shows in which comedy came largely from a blundering character, "Father Knows Best" aimed for chuckles more than belly-laughs as Jim and Margaret Anderson thoughtfully soothed the growing pains of Betty, Bud and Kathy.

Answering latter-day criticism that the show wasn't realistic, Mr. Young said that adding a subplot about real-life crises such as illness or drugs "would have been like taking a beautiful painting and obliterating it with black paint."

He recalled telling a producer friend, in the process of creating the original radio show, "I'd like to be the father, but not a boob." He said they strove to create "what we thought would be representative of a middle-class American family, if there was such a thing."

"Marcus Welby, M.D.," which ran on ABC from 1969 to 1976, got even larger audiences with a similarly thoughtful, compassionate lead character. It was the highest-rated show in 1970-71 - ABC's first top program - and was in the top 15 shows for four seasons, 1969-73.

Mr. Young's role as the general practitioner who understood patients' hopes and fears as well as their diseases brought him praise from medical groups.

Mr. Young won two Emmys for "Father Knows Best" and a third for "Marcus Welby, M.D."

After "Welby" ended, Mr. Young appeared in television movies and specials.

He was married to the same woman - Betty Henderson, who died in 1994 - for more than 60 years, and they had four daughters. But his life had its valleys as well, with alcoholism and depression. In 1991 he attempted suicide.

Mr. Young was born Feb. 22, 1907, in Chicago. The family moved to Los Angeles when he was 10.

His playhouse acting after high-school graduation eventually gained Hollywood interest and his first film role, in "The Black Camel."

Gradually he escaped the shadow of flashier stars and won top roles for himself and a long MGM contract.

His co-stars included Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Katharine Hepburn, Greer Garson, Norma Shearer and Jean Harlow.

"I am a plodder," Young once said. "My career never had any great peaks. But producers and directors knew I was reliable. So when they couldn't get the really big stars, they'd say, `Let's get Bob.' "

Mr. Young is survived by daughters Betty Lou Gleason, Carol Proffitt, Barbara Beebe, and Kathy Young; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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