Friday, June 2, 2006

Robert Sterling R.I.P.

Actor Robert Sterling, best known for his roles in the TV series Topper and such movies as Show Boat and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, died Tuesday at age 88.

Sterling was born William Sterling Hart in New Castle, Pennsylvania. He attended the University of Pittsburgh. Before taking up acting, he had worked as a clothing salesman. In 1939 he signed a contract with Columbia Pictures. He took the stage name "Robert Sterling" to keep from being confused with silent Western star William S. Hart. At Columbia his film career was lacklustre at best; Sterling appeared only in a few small parts in even smaller films.

Fortunately, in 1941 he was signed to MGM as a possible replacement for Robert Taylor, who had entered the U. S. Navy. Although Sterling was usually not the leading man, he did play supporting roles in several major feature films. He appeared in such films as Two Faced Woman, Somewhere I'll Find You, Show Boat, and The Sundowners.

Sterling also appeared on the Broadway stage. He appeared in the play Gramercy Ghost in 1951 and Roman Candle in 1960. It was through the former that he met his wife, actress Anne Jeffreys, who was playing in Kiss Me Kate just across the street. Sterling and Jeffreys started a stage act not long after their marriage, which led to the two of them being cast as George and Marion Kerby, the two fun loving ghosts who haunted the title character in the classic TV series Topper (based on the novel by Thorne Smith, which also inspired three classic films made in the late Thirties and early Forties). Topper ran from 1953 to 1956, with a healthy afterlife in reruns following its network run. Sterling and Jeffreys later appeared in their own short lived TV series, Love That Jill. Without his wife, Sterling starred in another short lived series, Ichabod and Me.

With the exception of the films Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Global Affair, most of Sterling's work was in television. He guest starred on many shows, among them The Loretta Young Show, Wagon Train, The Twilight Zone, and Murder, She Wrote.

I always liked Robert Sterling. He was a talented actor with a gift for comedy. Indeed, it must be pointed out that in Topper he stepped into a role originally played by Cary Grant (who portrayed George Kerby in the 1937 feature film Topper) and nearly matched Grant in the role. It is sad that he was generally cast in secondary roles and never saw much success (beyond Topper) on television. He not only had the looks of a leading man, but he also had the talent. I rather suspect that with the proper vehicle, he could have had a very successful career.

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