Childhood & Early Life
Gig was born Byron Elsworth Barr, on November 4, 1913, in St. Cloud, Minnesota, to John, a reformatory chef, and his wife, Emma Barr. He had spent some of his growing years in Washington, DC, along with his older siblings.
Gig and his family later moved to their hometown, Waynesville, North Carolina, and then returned to Washington again, where Gig attended 'McKinley High School.' He participated in his high-school plays and hence developed a passion for acting.
Gig worked as a second-hand car salesman after high school and simultaneously studied acting at the 'Phil Hayden Theatre' night school. He later moved to Hollywood and joined the 'Pasadena Playhouse' on a scholarship. Around the same time, he signed a contract with 'Warner Bros.' after a scout discovered him after he saw Gig perform in the play 'Pancho.'
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Gig made his debut with the 1940 comedy 'Misbehaving Husbands,' in which he was credited as “Byron Barr.” In his subsequent projects, too, he was credited as “Byron Barr,” which made many mistake him for another actor of the same name.
One of Gig's first prominent roles was in the 1941 'Academy'-nominated short 'The Tanks Are Coming.’ However, he continued making uncredited and bit roles. His line "How's the ice?" in his distinctive voice in the 1942 comedy 'The Man Who Came to Dinner' became iconic.
Gig took a short career break in 1941 to serve as a pharmacist's mate in the ‘United States Coast Guard.’ Upon his return, he resumed acting and bagged his first significant film role under a 'Warner Bros.' contract. It was a role in the 1942 drama 'The Gay Sisters.' He played the character named ‘Gig Young,’ which later became his stage name. Subsequently, Gig was seen in more prominent roles, and he simultaneously ventured into TV, too.
Gig was not satisfied with his remuneration at 'Warner Bros.' Hence, after appearing in the 1948 drama 'The Woman in White,' he left the studio and began freelancing for other studios. He signed a contract with 'Columbia Pictures' and simultaneously did freelancing. During that phase, Gig mostly appeared as second leads.
Some of Gig's prominent second lead roles were in 'The Three Musketeers' (‘Porthos’), 'Wake of the Red Witch' (‘Samuel “Sam” Rosen’), and 'Tell It to the Judge' (‘Alexander Darvac’). He also made a few TV appearances in 'The Silver Theatre,' 'Pulitzer Prize Playhouse,' and 'The Bigelow Theatre.'
Gig's first lead role in a film was that of ‘Paul Bennett’ in the 1951 'RKO' film noir 'Hunt the Man Down.' However, he continued doing supporting roles in Westerns and war films. Gig's acclaimed performance as an alcoholic named ‘Boyd Copeland’ in the 1951 film 'Come Fill the Cup' earned him an 'Academy' nomination.
His role in the 1952 'MGM' comedy 'Too Young to Kiss' got him a term contract with the studio and the lead role of ‘Dr. Jason Kent’ in the 1952 film 'Holiday for Sinners' (which unfortunately crashed at the box office).
Through 'MGM,' Gig earned the starring role of ‘Johnny Kelly’ in the 'Republic Pictures' film noir 'City That Never Sleeps' (1953). 'MGM' cast him in the lead role of ‘Hob Danvers’ in the successful 1953 3-D Western 'Arena.' Gig later left 'MGM' and relocated to New York.
Gig began receiving mostly comic roles after he ventured into the theater circuit. He did the ‘Broadway’ play 'Oh Men! Oh Women!' (1953–1954). He had hosted 36 episodes of 'Warner Bros. Presents.'
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Gig was cast as ‘Dr. Hugo Pine’ in the 1958 romantic comedy 'Teacher's Pet,' which earned him his second 'Academy Award' nomination and his first 'Golden Globe’ nomination. Even after so many recognitions, Gig was still being cast in second-lead roles. However, he had a significant part in the anthology ‘The Twilight Zone.’
Gig continued his stint in theater with the ‘Broadway’ revival of 'Under the Yum-Yum Tree' (1960–1961). He was cast in the 1962 comedy 'Boys Night Out,' but his scenes were removed from the final print. He was also part of the project 'Drink to Me Only,' which never materialized.
In 1963, Gig was seen as ‘Key Weedon,’ opposite Shirley Jones, in ‘MGM's 'A Ticklish Affair.' The following year, he began his 22-episode stint in the 'NBC' series 'The Rogues,' as ‘Tony Fleming,’ one of Gig's favorite roles. However, the channel was not satisfied with the performance. Gig returned with his first stage musical production of 'The Music Man.'
Gig finally won an 'Academy Award' for his performance as the dance marathon emcee and promoter ‘Rocky’ in the 1969 tragedy film 'They Shoot Horses, Don't They?.' He received his first 'Emmy' for his portrayal of ‘Jones’ in the 1971 TV movie 'The Neon Ceiling.'
Around the same time, Gig's career started going downhill due to his alcoholism that cost him several roles. He even collapsed while filming the comedy 'Blazing Saddles' because of alcohol withdrawal and was hence removed from the film. However, he still made screen appearances in the subsequent years and even had the lead role in the TV pilot for 'Spectre' (1977), which unfortunately did not turn into a series.
Gig's final appearance was in the 1978 film 'Game of Death,' whose release was postponed for nearly 6 years due to Bruce Lee's death during its production in 1973. Gig was honored with a “star” on the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame.’
Family, Personal Life & Death
Gig's first marriage, to his 'Pasadena Playhouse' classmate Sheila Stapler, ended in 1947, after 7 years. In 1950, he married Sophie Rosenstein, a 'Paramount' in-house drama coach who was several years older than him. Sophie died of cancer 2 years later.
Followed by Sophie's death, Gig got engaged to actor Elaine Stritch. He met actor Elizabeth Montgomery on the sets of 'Warner Bros. Presents' in 1956 and got married the same year. Elizabeth divorced Gig In 1963, because of his addiction.
Nine months later, Gig married real-estate agent Elaine Williams. They had a child, Jennifer, in April 1964. Their divorce after 3 years led to a legal battle regarding child support that Gig refused to accept, claiming that Jennifer was not his biological child. He, however, lost the case after 5 years of court battles.
On September 27, 1978, Gig married 31-year-old German magazine editor Kim Schmidt, whom he had met in Hong Kong while filming 'Game of Death.'
Three weeks later, Gig, and Kim were found dead in their Manhattan apartment. Reports suggested a homicide, though the motive could not be ascertained. A diary opened to the September 27 page that read "we got married today'' was found at the crime scene. Gig was reportedly undergoing counseling and treatment by psychologist and psychotherapist Eugene Landy.
Gig's funeral service was held in Beverly Hills, and he was buried in his family plot in the ‘Green Hill Cemetery’ in Waynesville, North Carolina, beside his parents, siblings, and an uncle.
The actor left an estate worth approximately $200,000. He had signed off his 'Academy Award' to his agent, Martin Baum, and his wife, Bernice. Jennifer later started a campaign to get the award back. According to an agreement, the award was taken back by Gig's family after Baum's death in 2010.