Robert Francis knew he had other things going for him. He knew he was handsome, fit, had a sensuous, romantic voice that should be used somehow to its best advantage and he was obsessed with sex. What if he could pull all that together somehow and become a big movie star? Sex had been used before to advance a Hollywood career and it would again long after Francis would be forgotten.
He was born in 1930 in Glendale, California, to a pharmacist family. He was the youngest (by 10 years) of three children. He was a good student and an avid skier. Throughout most of his teenage years he had aspirations to join the U.S. Olympic team. He was active sexually with both sexes by the time he hit his early teens and by the time he reached his 20s, he would describe himself as sexually insatiable. He would also decide he had a preference for men.
Around this same time he discovered a love of flying. Once he discovered acting it became a part of the trio of things that spurred him on. He saw sex as a way to promote his acting career and his acting career would enable him to buy his own plane.
After his discovery on that Santa Monica beach, he took some acting classes but they were interrupted by a two-year hitch in the service. Shortly after his discharge he became more involved in acting classes. The husband of the acting coach worked at Columbia Pictures. He thought the handsome Francis would be someone studio chieftain Harry Cohn might be interested in and he was right. Cohn needed a hot male property. Kim Novak was taking care of the distaff side. Francis had always been quiet and respectful, two traits that would appeal to the dictatorial Cohn, who admired obedience.
It is unknown how Francis came to the attention of Howard Hughes. The most likely scenario was that Hughes scoped him out. The eccentric billionaire had spies everywhere and made it his business to know everything that was going on in Hollywood. Much has been made over the years of Hughes' fascination and pursuit of actresses, some of whom were already big stars and many of whom were would-be starlets. Many of the latter were stashed away in apartments, adrift from their families, and under Hughes' complete control while awaiting their big break.
What is not as well publicized, of course, is Hughes' homosexuality. A number of his trysts involved some of the movie capital's biggest gay or bi stars and again, like with the women, some of the up-and-coming males as well. It was well-known in some quarters that Hughes and Francis often went flying together, probably with Francis at the controls of Hughes' planes. They often flew to Catalina Island and back, although the back didn't occur until several days later. Most of their time together occurred while Francis was taking his acting classes. He didn't always attend every day and Hughes took up a lot of his time. That diminished some when Harry Cohn offered Francis a contract with his studio but their relationship did not end.
|With MacMurray & Bogart in "The Caine Mutiny"|
Young Mister Francis would only make four films in his career and the first was the best, The Caine Mutiny. The stellar cast included Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray and Jose Ferrer. Pretty impressive credentials for the eager Francis and he soaked it up. He excelled in playing Ensign Willie Keith, who along with Johnson's character, stands trial for mutiny against a captain who they believe has gone insane.
On the ship and in the courtroom are Francis' best scenes, providing a glimpse into what would surely have been a meteoric career. But a subplot put him opposite May Wynn, a young starlet two years Francis' senior, as his love interest. If this storyline detracted from the main theme, it was not much noticed by the young filmgoers who found him particularly irresistible. Ah, it was just what Harry Cohn had in mind.
|With May Wynn|
Prior to the film's release, Francis and Wynn were sent out on press junkets. Whether real or imagined, soon reporters were chatting up a hot romance and before long, there was talk of an engagement. I am guessing this was studio-arranged, a way to showcase two of their young contract stars and perhaps hide his homosexuality. The countless movie magazines I read breathlessly detailed the couple's every move.
So must have some others because Robert Francis was voted one of the promising newcomers of 1954. The clackety-clack even captured the attention of Life Magazine that was doing a piece on Hollywood hunks. A rather famous shot had Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Robert Wagner hanging on a ladder and a second photo encouraged Francis, Tab Hunter, Cameron Mitchell and John Ericson to run up stairs.
Francis' next two films were B efforts, for sure, but he was the star of both. That's how it was usually done in those long-ago days of studios and their roster of stars. The new kids had lesser roles in important productions and may get starring roles in lesser films. Such was They Rode West, an oater about a cavalry post doctor who is a friend of the Indians and a sore spot with his fellow soldiers. Tall and imposing Phil Carey was his nemeses and recent Oscar winner Donna Reed and May Wynn (yes, yes, May Wynn) were the two women who loved him. It was a western, so of course I quite liked it but it really wasn't any great shakes.
Nor was The Bamboo Prison, which came next and is easily his most forgettable film. I hadn't realized until I was assembling this piece that Francis was in the military in all four of his films. Here he is a Korean War POW who has turned informant. I saw it at the time but hadn't realized how much anti-communist propaganda it contained until I saw it again a year or so ago. Dreary stuff.
By this point Francis no doubt picked up the clue that one does not air one's gay laundry indiscriminately so like all good gay boys of the 1950s, Francis kept a close (or is that closed?) check on his sexuality. But one can only wonder what happened when he met equally handsome, equally insatiable Tyrone Power on the set of his next film, John Ford's wonderful The Long Gray Line. Power played real-life Marty Maher, an Irishman who spent 50 years at West Point and living on the grounds as a non-commissioned officer. Francis played the son of friends of the Maher family. Despite the fact that he is only in the final quarter of the film, he was third-billed (after Power and Maureen O'Hara) which shows the hopes that Columbia had for the young actor.
Almost six months after the release of The Long Gray Line, Robert Francis was dead at age 25. He was killed on July 31, 1955, when the small plane he was piloting lost power shortly after takeoff in Burbank. In an effort to avoid a crowd at a cemetery, he crashed into a parking lot. The plane burst into flames and he and two passengers were instantly killed. He apparently did not possess a pilot's certificate or rating and pilot error was determined to be the reason for the crash. Eyewitnesses apparently reported that he had a poor takeoff.
I remember the day he died. I was only 10 but had, of course, seen his four films and had been looking forward to him co-starring with James Cagney in Tribute to a Bad Man, which was about to start filming. But what I remember the most about his passing was that he was the first person whose death affected me. (Two months later I would feel even more sadness over Jimmy Dean's death). I had never known anyone in my own life who had died. I felt a genuine sadness. We only enjoyed him briefly. I have never forgotten him.
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