Best known for his role as a murderer in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.
These Glamour Girls
See Here, Private Hargrove
Her Highness and the Bellboy
What Next, Corporal Hargrove?
The Sailor Takes a Wife
The Beginning or the End
The Sea of Grass
Song of Love
One Touch of Venus
Please Believe Me
The Skipper Surprised His Wife
My Son John
Robert Walker was never nominated for an Academy Award.
My personal life has been completely wrecked by [David O. Selznick]’s obsession for my wife. What can you do to fight such a powerful man? ~ Robert Walker
Robert Walker was born Robert Hudson Walker on October 13, 1918 in Salt Lake City, Utah, the youngest of four sons of Zella (née McQuarrie) and Horace Hudson Walker. Emotionally scarred by his parents’ divorce when he was still a child, he developed an interest in acting, which led his maternal aunt, Hortense (McQuarrie) Odlum (then the president of Bonwit Teller), to offer 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 a brief courtship, the couple were married in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on January 2, 1939. Walker had some small unbilled parts in films like Winter Carnival (1939) and These Glamour Girls (1939).
Walker found work in radio while Phylis stayed home and gave birth to two sons in quick succession – actor Robert Walker Jr. (born 1940) and Michael Walker (1941 – 2007). Walker co-starred in the weekly show Maudie’s Diary from August 1941 to September 1942. Phylis (Jennifer) then returned to auditioning where her 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 moved to Hollywood, and Selznick’s connections helped Walker secure a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he started work on the war drama Bataan (1943). He followed it with a support role in Madame Curie (1943).
Walker’s charming demeanor and boyish good looks caught on with audiences, and he worked steadily playing “boy-next-door” roles in films such as See Here, Private Hargrove (1944), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945).
He also 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. The filming of their love scenes was torturous as Selznick insisted that Walker perform take after take of each love scene with Jones. She filed for divorce in April 1945.
That same year, Walker starred as a GI preparing for overseas deployment in The Clock, with Judy Garland playing his love interest in her first straight dramatic film. He also made a second Hargrove film, What Next, Corporal Hargrove? (1945) and a romantic comedy with June Allyson, The Sailor Takes a Wife (1945).
In 1946, Walker starred in the musical Till the Clouds Roll By, in which he played the popular composer Jerome Kern. He starred as another composer, Johannes Brahms, in Song of Love (1947), which co-starred Katharine Hepburn and Paul Henreid. In between he made a film about the construction of the atomic bomb, the flop The Beginning or the End (1946), and a Tracy-Hepburn drama, The Sea of Grass (1947).
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. He married Barbara Ford, the daughter of director John Ford, in July 1948, but the marriage lasted only five months.
Back at MGM he was in some films which lost money, Please Believe Me (1950) and The Skipper Surprised His Wife (1950). More popular was a Western with Burt Lancaster, Vengeance Valley (1951).
Walker spent time at the Menninger Clinic in 1949 where he was treated for a psychiatric disorder. Following his discharge, he was cast by director Alfred Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train (1951).
In his final film, he 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 and took the job to work with McCarey and co-star Helen Hayes. Walker died before production finished, and so angles from his death scene in Strangers were spliced into a similar melodramatic death scene near the end of the film.
On the night of August 28, 1951, Walker’s housekeeper allegedly found the actor in an emotional state. She called Walker’s psychiatrist who arrived and administered amobarbital for sedation. Walker had allegedly been drinking before the outburst, and it is believed the combination of amobarbital and alcohol caused him to lose consciousness and stop breathing. Efforts to resuscitate Walker failed, and Hollywood lost a promising young actor when he died at 32 years of age.
Walker was buried at Lindquist’s Washington Heights Memorial Park in Ogden, Utah.