Robert Sterling, the handsome leading man of several 1940s B movies and the star of the TV series Topper, died of natural causes at his home in the Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood on May 30. Sterling was 88.
The New Castle, Pa., native (born William Sterling Hart) and former clothing salesman began his film career at age 22 in 1939. Renamed Robert – so as not to be confused with silent era cowboy star William S. Hart – Sterling appeared in bit parts in numerous Columbia productions before getting cast in bigger roles in B movies at Fox and MGM.
At the latter studio, where Sterling was supposed to become the new Robert Taylor, he supported Greta Garbo in her last film, Two-Faced Woman (1941), and none other than Taylor himself in the crime melodrama Johnny Eager (1942).
Additionally, Sterling played a boxer in the 1941 B comedy Ringside Maisie, starring Ann Sothern. They were married two years later, and were divorced in 1949. Actress Tisha Sterling is their daughter. (Ann Sothern died in 2001.)
Sterling went on playing small roles in major productions and bigger ones in B movies until his film career was interrupted by World War II. Upon returning from service, Sterling had an important role in the Claudette Colbert-June Allyson vehicle The Secret Heart (1946), but shortly thereafter his career faltered.
He came back later in the decade, co-starring in a couple of B Westerns, and appearing in a supporting role in the 1951 version of Show Boat.
Sterling met his future wife, Anne Jeffreys, while he was playing the romantic lead in Gramercy Ghost on Broadway, and she was appearing – right across the street – in the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me Kate.
The couple became quite popular when they starred in the 1950s TV comedy series Topper (1953-55), inspired by the Thorne Smith novel, and by the 1937 Cary Grant-Constance Bennett vehicle and its sequels.
In the series, Sterling and Jeffreys played George and Marion Kerby, two happy-go-lucky ghosts who haunt banker Cosmo Topper (Leo G. Carroll) and his wife, Henrietta (Lee Patrick), the new occupants of the Kerbys' old home.
From then on, Sterling worked mostly on television. He co-starred with Jeffreys in the short-lived 1958 sitcom Love That Jill, and in the early sixties starred as a New York City reporter who buys a small-town newspaper in Ichabod and Me.
According to the Los Angeles Times obit, in the 1970s Sterling worked as vice president and spokesman for a company “that implemented the software for one of the first supermarket barcoding and computer inventory systems.” He later launched his own business, Sterling & Sons, a Santa Monica-based company that manufactured custom golf clubs.
In the last decade of his life, Sterling suffered from shingles. He had been bedridden for five years.