Robert Francis (actor)
|Born||Robert Charles Francis
February 26, 1930
Glendale, California, U.S.
|Died||July 31, 1955
Burbank, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Airplane crash|
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park|
Robert Charles Francis was born in Glendale, California in 1930. His parents, James and Lillian Francis ran a family pharmacy. He was the youngest by 10 years of three children. He was a conscientious student and an excellent skier, so much so that throughout the majority of his teenage years he had aspirations to join the U.S. Olympic team. However his career prospects soon changed as, whilst tanning himself on a Santa Monica beach, he was spotted by a Hollywood talent scout who persuaded him that with his handsome, all-American looks he should try to become an actor.
He graduated from Pasadena City College in 1947, after which he soon began to take acting classes in order to work on his skills. However, they were interrupted when he had to spend two years in the army. He resumed his classes after he was discharged from the army. He attended the Batomi Schneider Drama Workshop, which led to a screen test for Columbia Pictures. It just so happened that the husband of his acting coach worked at Columbia. He thought that Francis would be of interest to the studio's founder Harry Cohn. Cohn was on the look out for a new male lead. Francis's manner had always been quiet and respectful unlike James Dean and Marlon Brando. It was these personal traits that appealed to Cohn, who was known for demanding obedience from his stars and staff. Although he tended to play reserved characters, they were often very rebellious in their approach. On the strength of his screen test he earned a contract and the pivotal role in The Caine Mutiny.
He began a keen interest in flying in his early twenties and it was this passion that brought him to the attention of Howard Hughes. They shared their interest and frequently went flying together, with Francis most likely to be at the controls of Hughes' planes. The amount of time spent flying together soon reduced once Cohn offered Francis a contract with his studio.
He made his motion picture debut and had his most significant role, that of Ensign Willie Keith, in The Caine Mutiny (1954), alongside Humphrey Bogart, Fred MacMurray, Van Johnson and Jose Ferrer. The film involved a subplot opposite May Wynn. Prior to the film's release, Francis and Wynn were sent out on press junkets together by Cohn as a way to showcase the studio's two youngest stars. As a result, the gossip magazines reported a romance between the two and even a possible engagement. After his film debut he was voted one of Screen World's "Promising Personalities of 1954".
Capitalising on his rising star, he was quickly cast in, They Rode West, followed by The Bamboo Prison and John Ford's The Long Gray Line. In Ford's film he was given third billing on the screen credits, which show how Columbia were lining him up to be a big star. Although he only appeared in four films in his short life, in each one he played a character in the military, to solid reviews.
A little more than a week before his departure, he piloted a Beechcraft Bonanza (belonging to Joe Kirkwood, Jr.) with passengers, George Meyer and starlet Ann Russell out of Burbank. Immediately after their 5 pm takeoff (which eyewitnesses called a "poor takeoff") the plane's engine began to splutter and then lost power over Restland Cemetery, Francis managed to avoid crashing into a crowd at nearby Valhalla Memorial Park, but the craft burst into flames as he attempted to land on a parking lot near Lockheed Air terminal. Francis, along with the two other passengers was killed instantly.
It is alleged that Francis apparently did not possess a pilot's rating or certificate and the Civil Aeronautics Administration investigation determined that pilot error was responsible for the crash, which took place nearly six months after the release of The Long Gray Line.
He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park on 2 August, 1955. His funeral was attended by, among others, Jeff Donnell, Jack Lemmon, Vince Edwards and May Wynn, (who later married Jack Kelly, opposite whom she and Francis had starred in They Rode West).
- The Ed Sullivan Show (TV Series), Episode 8, Season 22, - 1955 - Himself
- The Long Gray Line (1955) - James N. Sundstrom Jr.
- The Bamboo Prison (1954) - MSgt John A. Rand
- They Rode West (1954) - Dr. Allen Seward
- The Caine Mutiny (1954) - Ensign Willis "Willie" Keith
- Spokesman Review (via Google), "Cause of Plane Crash Sought" (August 2nd, 1955 - retrieved on June 11th, 2011).