Robert Montgomery: Dapper Golden Age Movie Star

Dad of TV’s Bewitched Star Enjoyed Diverse Career as Actor, Director

The ambitious light leading man Robert Montgomery fought his own typecasting — eventually proving himself a creative force in movies, on stage, and in television.

Too often these days, Robert Montgomery is remembered primarily as the father of Elizabeth Montgomery, the glamorous actress who played Samantha Stevens on TV’s Bewitched for nine seasons.

In fact, Robert Montgomery may be the most accomplished Hollywood star you’ve never heard of. He started out playing rich boys, but fought for diverse roles, eventually winning acclaim behind the camera and as a Tony-winning Broadway director.

Robert Montgomery Raised Just North of New York City

Montgomery hailed from the little Hudson River town of Fishkill Landing, New York, where he was born Henry Montgomery, Jr. in 1904. Henry, Sr. was a well-to-do rubber company executive who sent Junior to fashionable prep schools in New York and abroad.

But when Henry, Sr. died in 1922, the family was stunned to find the money was gone.

Henry Jr. found work as a railroad mechanic’s helper and as a deckhand on an oil tanker.

Montgomery Meanders Into Acting Career

Eventually, he moved to New York, intent on a writing career. Instead, Montgomery meandered into acting, debuting in the 1924 production The Mask and the Face. He adopted the stage name Robert and proceeded to rack up stage credits.

In 1928, the one-time preppie married New York socialite and fellow stage actor Elizabeth Allen.

After being rejected by a Samuel Goldwyn scout for having a neck that was “too long,” he signed with MGM.

1929 brought Montgomery’s film debut in the lightweight rom-com So This is College, about USC pals competing for a comely co-ed.

Early Co-Stars Included Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer

He graduated to playing wealthy, tuxedoed playboys opposite Greta Garbo and later, repeatedly, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford.

But Montgomery proved his range, playing a frightened prison inmate in 1930s The Big House. Alas, studio chief Louis B. Mayer insisted he continues playing callow, wealthy sophisticates.

Offscreen, there was sadness. Just before Christmas, 1931, Robert and Elizabeth Montgomery’s 14-month-old daughter Martha died from meningitis.

Bewitched Star Elizabeth Montgomery Born In 1933

In the spring of 1933 came another daughter. Baby Elizabeth grew up to become the world’s most famous fictional sorceress on TV’s Bewitched.

In 1936, the Montgomerys completed their family with the arrival of Robert Montgomery, Jr.

In 1935, Montgomery was elected to the first of four terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Although he initially favored the idea of a “club” (rather than a union) to represent actors, the politically conservative Montgomery nonetheless pursued a vigorous agenda to protect actors during the depths of the Great Depression.

Onscreen, Montgomery fought for more diverse roles. In 1937, he convinced MGM to cast him against type as a psychopathic killer in Night Must Fall. The film did little business, but he earned wide praise and an Oscar nomination as best actor.

Robert Montgomery Earns Oscar Nomination for Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Perhaps his best-known role was also against type – as a dese-dems-and-dose prizefighter accidentally sent to heaven prematurely in 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Montgomery was nominated for best actor but lost the Academy Award to Gary Cooper (for Sergeant York).

(The movie was remade in 1978 by Warren Beatty as Heaven Can Wait.)

Playing opposite the accomplished comedienne Carole Lombard, Montgomery’s equally light touch enlivened Alfred Hitchcock’s only comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. (The film is not to be confused with the unrelated Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie vehicle).

Early in World War 2, Robert Montgomery voluntarily drove an ambulance in France. Eventually, he saw action in the South Pacific and was an operations officer aboard a destroyer at the D-Day invasion of France.

For his wartime heroism, Montgomery was awarded the Bronze Star.

Director John Ford Does Montgomery a Huge Favor

Montgomery’s only war picture, 1945’s They Were Expendable, brought the actor an unexpected bonus. When director John Ford broke his leg during production and couldn’t continue, the director told MGM, “Montgomery’ll finish the picture.”

The surprised Montgomery did. This opened doors to directing.

In 1947, Montgomery convinced a doubting MGM to let him shoot the experimental noir The Lady in the Lake, based on Raymond Chandler’s novel. As Philip Marlowe, the camera serves as the narrator’s point-of-view; we hear Montgomery’s voice, but only see the action from his vantage point.

The actor-director followed up with Ride the Pink Horse, based on Dorothy Hughes’ mystery novel.

Robert Montgomery Promotes Hollywood Blacklist

In 1947, the political conservative joined actors Ronald Reagan and George Murphy as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, then probing alleged Communist influence in Hollywood.

Thus, Robert Montgomery endorsed the blacklisting of many Hollywood figures, driving many actors, writers and others either overseas or out of the industry altogether.

During this time, the one-time wannabe writer began publishing stories in Colliers and other popular magazines. He also produced radio dramas, before turning to the fledgling TV industry in 1950.

Montgomery produced, hosted and sometimes starred in the Emmy-winning anthology series Robert Montgomery Presents.

Robert Montgomery Coaches Future President Dwight Eisenhower

Beyond career changes, there were personal ones. After 22 years of marriage, he and Elizabeth Montgomery divorced in 1950. Four days later, he married another Elizabeth – the New York divorcee Elizabeth “Buffy” Grant Harkness.

In 1952, the war hero coached Dwight Eisenhower on his public appearances, helping the former Supreme Allied Commander capture the presidency.

In 1955, Montgomery returned to Broadway — to direct the thriller The Desperate Hours, with Karl Malden and Paul Newman. It took the Tony for Best Drama, and Montgomery was named best director. (The play was filmed that same year starring Humphrey Bogart.)

Montgomery Works With Close Friend James Cagney

Four years later, longtime friend James Cagney teamed with Montgomery to shoot The Gallant Hours, about Admiral “Bull” Halsey, whom Montgomery had served under during the war.

Montgomery stayed active in the 1960s and 70s, joining the boards of various corporations and organizations, including New York’s Lincoln Center. He directed another Broadway show in 1962, this one with Joseph Cotten and Cotten’s wife Patricia Medina.

In 1968, Montgomery published the book An Open Letter From a Television Viewer, which was highly critical of the TV industry.

Robert Montgomery was 77 when he died of cancer in 1981 at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

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