Picks and Pans Review: Final Gig: the Man Behind the Murder

updated 08/12/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/12/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by George Eells

On Oct. 19. 1978, at the Osborne, a handsome old apartment building in midtown Manhattan, actor Gig Young, 64, shot and killed his 31-year-old fifth wife, Kim, whom he had wed only three weeks before, lie then shot and killed himself.

Why? No one knows even now, but potential for disaster was evident.

In 1969, Young won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for portraying a cynical dance-marathon emcee in They Shoot Horses. Don't They? He was 56 by then, though, and it was all downhill alter that—drink, drugs, humiliating collapses on stage and film sets.

Eells, biographer of a number of senior showbiz figures (Mae West, Ginger Rogers), has carefully reconstructed the life of this tormented actor, born Byron Ellsworth Barr in St. Cloud, Minn. After high school, Byron set out for Hollywood, where in 1941 Warner Brothers signed him at $75 a week and a year later renamed him Gig Young, after the role he played in The Gay Sisters, a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle.

Gaining reputation as a skilled light comedian, Young worked steadily (he had two Oscar nominations before They Shoot Horses). He divorced four times. (No. 3. when Gig was 43, was Elizabeth Montgomery, whose father, actor Robert Montgomery, wouldn't attend the wedding.)

While most of Final Gig is admirably researched, its explorations of Young's problems with women are strained. (A woman who looked after him as a child may have abused him sexually, Eells theorizes—without offering much evidence.)

Eells does make clear Young's preoccupation with Hollywood success, his fear of failure, and his concern with virility. (In his 20s, for health reasons, he had a vasectomy, which he tried to reverse during his marriage to Montgomery. His fourth wife, Elaine, gave birth to a daughter, but Young, later suspicious that the child wasn't his, rejected her totally. He left the daughter a mocking $10 in his will.)

It wouldn't have hurt Eells's book if Young had been a bit more of a thinker or wit. And the writing is often awkward: "The gritty and exploitive underbelly of the paternalistic studio system he'd sunk his trust in left Gig confused."

But Final Gig nevertheless has a certain power. Readers who have a taste for despair will especially value its record of a handsome, emotionally crippled actor's tragic-disintegration. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95)

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