Robert Sterling

Ghostly George Kerby in 'Topper'
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The Independent Online

William Sterling Hart (Robert Sterling), actor: born New Castle, Pennsylvania 13 November 1917; married 1943 Ann Sothern (marriage dissolved 1949; one daughter), 1951 Anne Jeffreys (three sons); died Brentwood, California 30 May 2006.

Robert Sterling achieved his greatest fame in American television's first comedy-fantasy series, Topper. He and his wife Anne Jeffreys also played man and wife on screen, but the crucial difference was that their characters, George and Marion Kerby, were ghosts, who returned to haunt their New York country house after being killed in an avalanche while skiing. With them they took Neil, the brandy-drinking St Bernard which had failed to rescue them.

The British actor Leo G. Carroll (later to play the spymaster Mr Waverly in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) joined them as Cosmo Topper, the uptight, ageing banker who bought the house. The perennial joke in the popular series (1953-55) was that the Kerbys and their dog made themselves visible only to Topper, leaving his prim wife Henrietta, their maids and his bank boss, Mr Schuyler, thinking him raving mad whenever they saw this respectable man apparently talking to himself. However, the mischievous ghosts did succeed in getting the fuddy-duddy Topper to loosen up a bit.

A forerunner to series such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, Topper featured plenty of good-hearted mischief. Once, when the family maid resigned, George sent a burlesque queen, Miss Lola la Verne, for the job. On another occasion, when Cosmo was attending a college reunion, George and Marion guaranteed him a warm welcome by taking money from his funds and making a generous donation of $5,000 to the college, without his knowledge. Conversely, the pair also helped him to a winning streak at a craps table in Las Vegas.

Topper ran for 78 episodes, many of the early ones written or co-written by Stephen Sondheim before he went on to become a successful composer of stage musicals. The programme was notable at the time for its trick camera work, enabling the Kerbys and their dog to appear transparent while (mostly) unseen wires made household items move at will. The series followed three feature films and a radio series, all based on the character created by Thorne Smith in 1926. Almost half of the episodes were screened in Britain in the 1950s, with a dozen shown again three decades later, bringing a historic programme to a new generation of viewers.

Sterling was born William Sterling Hart in New Castle, Pennsylvania in 1917, the son of a professional baseball player. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and worked as a clothing salesman before switching to acting, changing his name to Robert Sterling because there was already a screen western star called William S. Hart.

After being signed by Columbia Pictures, which was attracted to his boyish good looks, Sterling made his screen début in The Amazing Mr Williams (1939) and followed it with bit-parts in a string of unremarkable feature films.

Then, MGM put him under contract as a potential leading man to replace Robert Taylor, who left Hollywood to join the Navy, and he was soon starring as gangsters in I'll Wait for You (1941) and The Get-Away (1941), and a boxer in Ringside Maisie (1941), alongside his wife-to-be Ann Sothern, who played the heart-of-gold adventuress of the title in a string of "Maisie" films. He also had some success in romantic dramas, such as Somewhere I'll Find You (alongside Lana Turner, 1942), but found himself slipping down the cast list on returning from wartime service as an army pilot instructor.

Although he later acted in the western The Sundowners (1949) and the screen musical Show Boat (1951), Sterling's career was by then on the wane. Following his divorce from Sothern, Sterling met Anne Jeffreys when he was appearing on Broadway in Gramercy Ghost at the Morosco Theatre in 1951 and she was starring in Kiss Me Kate on the opposite side of the street at the Shubert Theatre - show-business reporters called it "The Romance of Shubert Alley". The couple launched a club act together that proved a success and led to their being cast in Topper.

But attempts to emulate the success of Topper failed. Both were paired again in the short-lived sitcom Love That Jill (1958), Sterling starred as a small-town newspaper editor in another long- forgotten comedy, Ichabod and Me (1961-62), and he narrowly missed landing the title role in the hit courtroom series Perry Mason, which instead went to Raymond Burr.

Work became sparse and, in the 1970s, Sterling gave up acting to launch a successful computer business, although he made a few brief comebacks in episodes of popular television series, teaming up with Jeffreys again in both Hotel (1984) and Murder, She Wrote (1986).

Anthony Hayward