The Stories Behind the Stones

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

After your tour of the virtual cemetery, don't forget to visit the official store (or the brand new downtown location) on your way out and pick up a souvenir or two. Thanks!

Robert Francis
(Feb. 26, 1930 - July 31, 1955)

March 8, 2015 -- Like James Dean, Robert Francis was a young actor with a bright future in Hollywood the early 1950s.

Dean and Francis were both in their mid-20s, born less than a year apart. Both had appeared in just a few films, but both were attracting serious attention from fans and studios.

But while Dean was known for portraying the rebel, the sensitive and troubled anti-hero, Francis, an Army veteran, was tall, handsome, broad-shouldered, square-jawed and straight-laced. In all four of his film roles, Francis played military officers, and he absolutely looked the part.

Within two months of each other, in 1955, both Dean and Francis were killed in tragic accidents - Dean in his car, Francis in a small plane.

Today, James Dean is a film icon and a legend, and Robert Francis is all but forgotten.

Robert Charles Francis was born Feb. 26, 1930, in Glendale, Calif., the youngest of three children of James William and Lillian Warnock Francis. At the time Francis was born, his father was working as an electrical engineer, and the family, including his sister, Lillian, and brother, James Jr., lived on Kenneth Road in Burbank.

Francis graduated from Pasadena City College in 1947 and, while on the beach in Santa Monica, he was spotted by a talent scout, who tracked him down from his license plate number on his car, and convinced Francis that he had a future in films. (Another version of the story has the talent scout seeing Francis on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse.)

After serving two years in the Army, Francis returned just in time to audition at Columbia Pictures for a part in "The Caine Mutiny" (1954), which starred Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer, Fred MacMurray and Van Johnson, and featured Tom Tully, E.G. Marshall, Lee Marvin, Claude Akins, Whit Bissell and Jerry Paris in supporting roles.

Francis, despite having no formal acting or film experience, won the role as Ensign Willie Keith, a newcomer to the Navy who joins with two experienced officers in questioning the competency and sanity of their captain. The film was a major release for Columbia, produced by Stanley Kramer, directed by Edward Dmytryk, and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Herman Wouk. And it was especially surprising that Columbia would select such an inexperienced actor for such a key role in the film.

On screen, Francis held his own with his film veteran co-stars, and appears in nearly every scene in the film. "The Caine Mutiny" was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Bogart, and Best Supporting Actor for Tully. ("The Caine Mutiny" didn't win any Oscars, however. The big winner at that year's ceremony was "On the Waterfront.")

After his appearance in "The Caine Mutiny," Francis was named by Screen World magazine as one of the "Promising Personalities of 1954."

Francis next appeared in a starring role in "They Rode West" (1954), co-starring with Donna Reed; followed by "The Bamboo Prison" (1955), co-starring Dianne Foster, Brian Keith and E.G. Marshall; and "The Long Gray Line" (1955), co-starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara, and directed by John Ford.

After appearing in four films for Columbia, Francis was loaned out to MGM to appear in "Tribute to a Bad Man" (1956), which was originally to star Spencer Tracy. Filming was scheduled to begin in August 1955 in Colorado.

Less than two weeks before he was scheduled to leave for Colorado, on Sunday, July 31, 1955, Francis was at the Lockheed Air Terminal (now Bob Hope Airport) in Burbank, Calif. With him were aspiring actress Ann Russell, 24, and Irving George Meyer, 38, a commercial pilot and Air Force veteran who flew B-29s during World War II.

The three started the day at Santa Monica Airport, where Meyer was checking out a four-seat, single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza airplane that actor Joe Kirkwood had purchased about six months before from Lance Reventlow, the only child of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. Kirkwood, who starred in the "Joe Palooka" film and TV series, and Meyer were business partners.

Francis, Meyer and Russell flew from Santa Monica to Burbank, then flew out of Burbank at about 5 p.m., although their next destination is unknown. Also unknown is why Meyer, the veteran pilot, and Russell were sitting together in the back seat, while Francis, who had no formal flight training or experience, was at the controls, while the co-pilot's seat was empty.

Shortly after take-off, while heading toward Valhalla Memorial Park, the plane began to sputter and lose power. Rather than attempt to make an emergency landing at the cemetery, which was crowded with Sunday visitors, witnesses said Francis attempted to turn the plane, which stalled and crashed in a parking lot south of Vanowen Street before bursting into flames. All three aboard the plane were killed.

Based on a charred pilot's license found in the wreckage, investigators originally thought that Reventlow was flying the plane, but Kirkwood told them that he had not yet cleaned the identification papers out of the plane. (A Beechcraft Bonanza was the same plane that was carrying singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson when they died in a crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, in February 1959, less than four years later.)

Francis' funeral service was held at the Little Church of the Flowers at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale, and he was buried at Forest Lawn in Hollywood Hills, in the Hillside section.

Russell, whose real name was Audrey Ann Snyder Dosch, was also buried at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, about 75 feet from Francis' grave. She was the mother of three children - Michael, 5; Ruby, 4; and Scotty, 3.

Meyer was buried in his hometown of Wahpeton, North Dakota.

At the time of the crash, Francis was living with his parents on South Grand Oaks Avenue in Pasadena. Francis' father, James, died in 1978, at the age of 84. His mother, Lillian, died in 1981, at the age of 93. They are buried on either side of their son.

After Francis' death, filming went on as scheduled in Colorado for "Tribute to a Bad Man." The original star, Spencer Tracy, complained about the remote filming location, and was replaced by James Cagney. Francis was replaced by Don Dubbins, who had a small, uncredited role in "The Caine Mutiny."

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