Byron Elsworth Barr became Gig Young after “Gay Sisters” gig!
by Jamie Jobb
Sometimes "identity theft" is difficult to comprehend – particularly when it involves Hollywood, where stolen identity is nothing new.
Take "Gig Young", for example. He was a Hollywood actor from the 1940s to the 1970s who assumed the fictional name of a loutish character he portrayed in a studio picture three years into his career.
Once he assumed the character's on screen name, he reprised that lothario role repeatedly throughout the twisted fate of his own life off screen. Until his life ended in a drunken murder/suicide plot right out of Film Noir.
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Seven decades ago, Warner Brothers cast an actor named Byron Elsworth Barr to play "second banana" in a Barbara Stanwyck feature, "The Gay Sisters" (1942). The character he plays in that film is "Gig Young".
You can see from these clips that screenwriter Lenore Coffee and the film’s cast had fun with that character name when the film was in production, joking about it as often as they could.
Barr liked the name "Gig Young" so much he decided to keep it as his own on screen. Warners agreed, and he was so credited in subsequent roles, right up to his final film role as Jim Marshall in “Game of Death” (1978). He ended up making 55 pictures in thirty years, and won an Oscar for his performance in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969).
The original credits for "The Gay Sisters" listed "Byron Barr" as playing "Gig Young" but after Barr assumed that screen name, the credits were changed in later release prints.
This creates a confusing mess for anyone who sees the film in the Twenty-First Century where "Gig Young" is vaguely recalled from his dim but considerable celebrity from the Twentieth Century.
"The Gay Sisters" is often screened on TCM. If you get a chance to see it, note that:
The credits of "The Gay Sisters" were not changed to read "Gig Young as himself" – because any actor named "Gig Young" was unknown at the time, so he could not appear in public "as himself", like say Liberace or Cantinflas.
Actor George Brent plays a character named "Charles Barclay" which may sound similar to -- but is by no means reflective of -- an NBA player who spells the name differently and was born 22 years after the film was made.
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Speaking of shelf life, Gig Young's professional name change was necessitated by confusion with another actor named "Byron Barr". As Young's career developed he became typecast as the self-same cynical-but-friendly drunken buddy of the "top banana".
Unfortunately that recurring acolholic role spilled over into his private life and eventually scuttled his career. When Young passed out drunk on the set of "Blazing Saddles" in 1973, Mel Brooks replaced him with Gene Wilder. Brooks tells that story of that first day on the set with Gig in the saddle:
“We draped Gig Young's legs over and hung him upside down. And he started to talk and he started shaking. I said, This guy's giving me a lot. He is giving plenty. He's giving me the old alky shake. Great. And then it got serious, because the shaking never stopped, and green stuff started spewing out of his mouth and nose, and he started screaming. And, I said, That's the last time I'll ever cast anybody who really is that person. If you want an alcoholic, don't cast an alcoholic. Anyway, poor Gig Young, it was the first shot on Friday, nine in the morning, and an ambulance came and took him away. I had no movie.”
After that humiliation, Gig Young's star quickly collapsed like other black holes which once were Hollywood supernovae. Further sordid details of his demise may be found in the links below, but Gig's daughter Jennifer Young has produced a loving documentary that concentrates on the value of her father's career without ignoring his flaws, which she has experienced first hand. A portion of her film was once posted to You Tube, but since has been taken down. There is these update links, regarding her attempts to distribute the film: