Wednesday, September 29, 2010
The Walt Disney of Situation Comedies
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
During the '30s and '40s, actor Fred MacMurray established a silver screen persona as one of the movies’ most affable and likable leading men. He excelled at leads in romantic comedies such as The Gilded Lily (1935), Hands Across the Table (1935) and The Princess Comes Across (1936), and extended his range to dramatic fare such as Alice Adams (1935), The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), The Texas Rangers (1936) and Above Suspicion (1943). He even demonstrated that he could reach even farther with a critically lauded turn as a killer in Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Double Indemnity (1944), a film which was nominated for seven Oscars (though the actor himself went without a nod)
But by the 1950s, MacMurray’s box-office luster as a movie star had dimmed slightly, though he would appear in two of his best vehicles in The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Apartment (1960). Instead, his career took a different path when he agreed to star in The Shaggy Dog (1959), a slapstick romp produced by the Walt Disney studios. Fred became one of the most recognizable faces in Disney flicks from that point on, appearing in six additional movies released by the studio…most notably the 1961 box-office smash The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and its sequel, Son of Flubber (1963).
The original concept of Dog was actually pitched to ABC (who had asked Walt Disney to create more hit programming along the lines of Disneyland and Zorro) as a situation comedy, but the network was a little lukewarm about the idea, and so Uncle Walt decided to make a feature film instead. But there are those who believe that MacMurray’s turn in the film was essentially a springboard for a weekly comedy series that he would star in for ABC (and later CBS); a show that premiered on the network 50 years ago on this date. You know it as My Three Sons.
“The same dog, the same kids, and Fred” was the pungent observation of Walt Disney Studios writer-producer Bill Walsh on the sitcom success of My Three Sons…though that may be stretching things a tad. But there’s no denying that Sons had a Disney-like feel to it; MacMurray’s…or, I should say, Steve Douglas’ (the father he played on the show) oldest son Mike was played by child actor Tim Considine, a veteran of the Hardy Boys and Spin and Marty “serials” that were featured on Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club. Don Grady, who played the middle Douglas offspring (Robbie), was a Club “Mouseketeer” on the early years of the program (as Don Agrati). Stanley Livingston (Richard, though nicknamed “Chip”) may not have had a Disney connection but he had made appearances on TV’s The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet…which was practically Disney to its very core.
My Three Sons, created by producer Don Fedderson and former Leave it to Beaver scribe George Tibbles, essentially chronicled the weekly misadventures of the Douglas family, humorous tales from an all-male preserve (Steve was a widower) that was run by Michael Francis “Bub” O’Casey (William Frawley), the kids’ grandfather. Though a series that had a noticeable lack of female participation might seem a bit chauvinistic (the show did sometimes suggest that males were superior and could do very nicely without the opposite sex), it’s important to note that Sons often offered wry commentary on gender roles in society. Bub, a feisty ol’ Irishman who took no guff from anyone, was technically the “female” of the household — he did the cooking, cleaning, sewing, etc., and essentially looked after Steve’s brood with care and love. (In the show’s first episode, he is summoned to the front door when a cosmetic salesman asks young Chip if he can speak with “the lady of the house.”) Sons also was unique in that it was one of the first situation comedies to ignore the traditional nuclear-family concept of domestic comedies on television, a model established by shows such as Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show. While there were occasionally comedy series that featured unmarried adults in charge of children (Bachelor Father, Love That Bob), Sons really kicked off the single-parent trend, ushering in a vogue of sitcoms that would later include Family Affair (created and produced by many of the same people who worked on Sons), The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Julia, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Nanny and the Professor.
At the time of My Three Sons’ debut, there still existed a stigma about television that kept big-screen actors and actresses away from the small screen — even after a few of them began to stick in their toe to test the boob tube waters. MacMurray, in a casual conversation with Robert Young, asked his fellow thespian about the working conditions on Young’s Father Knows Best, and Young launched into a complaint about how time-consuming the schedule could be. So MacMurray — who owned 50% of Sons — had it stipulated in his contract that he only had to work a total of 65 consecutive days per season, a system that was soon dubbed “the MacMurray method.” All of the actor’s scenes were shot within this time frame (so all Fred really had to do was change his cardigan...and facial expression), allowing him to work on feature films if the opportunity presented itself — but it turned out to be a nightmare for the show’s writers, who often had to have a backlog of scripts completed beforehand to accommodate the actor’s unorthodox schedule. This situation was rife with any number of inconveniences for the supporting actors as well — particularly if a scheduled guest star suddenly passed away or if an actor gained weight or had a growth spurt. (The writers often fell back on featuring limited participation from MacMurray, alibiing that his character was “out of town” or phoning in from a business trip.) As problematic as filming out of sequence was (the other performers despised it, with Bill Frawley being the most vocal), the “method” soon became an accepted practice in the business, and was later adopted by new-to-TV stars such as Brian Keith, Henry Fonda and James Stewart.
At the beginning of My Three Sons’ fifth season, actor Frawley (who was 77 at the time) was in ill-health, and Desilu — the company where Sons was filmed — could no longer get insurance for him…which necessitated his character be “written out” out of the show at mid-season (his last appearance was in the episode “A Woman’s Work,” where it was explained that he’d moved back to Ireland to help out the family’s Aunt Kate). The following episode would introduce Bub’s cantankerous brother Charley (William Demarest, who no doubt got the part due to his friendship with star MacMurray, whom he had known and worked with since the 1930s) to the cast, a retired Merchant Marine who would continue on as the household’s chief cook-and-bottle-washer for the next seven years. Frawley made no secret of his displeasure at being replaced…and was particularly nonplussed that Demarest was filling his shoes because of his legendary feud with the actor. The fact that Desilu — who had employed Frawley on the landmark sitcom I Love Lucy as iconic wacky next-door neighbor Fred Mertz — had to give the actor his walking papers is bitterly ironic; Frawley’s last TV role was a cameo appearance in the studio’s The Lucy Show before his death in 1966.
The fifth season also would see the departure of eldest son Mike, who started dating Sally Ann Morrison (Meredith MacRae) in the show’s fourth season and would manage to propose marriage in only a few episodes that followed. The extensive planning and execution of Mike and Sally's eventual nuptials certainly provided a valid reason for their exit…but the real reason for actor Tim Considine’s bow-out was that he elected not to renew his contract after a major disagreement with producer Fedderson. Considine, who had penned a pair of scripts for Sons, was far more interested in directing the show than appearing in it. (Considine was also a auto racing enthusiast, something his contract forbade.) Considine and MacRae appeared in the first episode of Sons’ sixth season in a brief sequence that found the two tying the knot — but for all intents and purposes neither of them were ever heard from again (MacRae later turned up on Petticoat Junction, replacing actress Gunilla Hutton as Billie Jo Bradley). This situation, in which a character drops out of sight and is rarely again referenced by the family came to be known among television aficionados as the “Mike Douglas Kiss Off” — no connection to the legendary talk-show host, of course. (Considine wouldn’t reunite with his TV “clan” until the 1977 Thanksgiving reunion special, which curiously paired the Sons cast with the members of TV’s The Partridge Family.)
Faced with the decision of having to re-title the show My Two Sons, head writer Tibbles hit upon the idea of adding a replacement “third son” to the cast with a three-part story arc that found the Douglas family adopting young Ernie Thompson, a friend of Chip’s that also had been introduced during the show’s third season (Ernie, in order to become a Douglas, had to suffer the indignity of having his parents perish in a car crash as well as becoming two years younger). Ernie was played by Barry Livingston — Stanley’s real-life brother — and he pretty much settled into the “Chip” role for the rest of the show’s run. The disappearance of Mike and subsequent replacement by Ernie, in fact, coincided with Sons’ move to CBS in the fall of 1965 when ABC refused to pay for the show’s switch to color production.
With one son marched down the matrimonial aisle and out of the house, it wasn’t long before the middle son, Robbie, found a fiancée in Katie Miller in the beginning of My Three Sons’ eighth season. (Grady had no directorial aspirations and didn’t race cars so he stuck around on the show for a while until the 12th and last season, when it was explained that Robbie’s job had relocated him to Peru.) Katie, played by Tina Cole, was one of the benefits of the family’s move to Los Angeles, Calif., from their original stomping grounds in the fictitious burg of Bryant Park. Again, in keeping with the Douglas family tradition of moving fast into wedded bliss before their intendeds could change their minds, Robbie and Katie were wed a mere four episodes later — and at the beginning of season eight, the newlyweds got a visit from the stork…in the form of triplets (which they dutifully named Steve, Jr., Charley, and Robbie the Second…which kind of gives you an idea of how much stock Bub and Mike held at that time). Chip wasn’t quite old enough to get hitched (he’d get that done in season 11 with girlfriend Polly Williams [Ronnie Troup]…and ever the rebel, he bypassed the whole ceremony nonsense and just eloped) so patriarch Steve stepped up to the plate by tying the knot with Barbara Harper, a widow played by cult favorite Beverly Garland, not too long after the start of the 10th season. Barbara had a little girl from her previous marriage, a precocious little tot named Dodie (Dawn Lyn), who fortunately arrived just at the right time on the series because Ernie was starting to outgrow his cuteness. (MacMurray must have enjoyed the wedding so much he did it again a second time — only as Laird [Lord] Fergus McBain Douglas, the Scottish cousin of Steve’s who scooped up cocktail waitress Terri Dowling [Anne Francis] in a four-part story arc that ushered in the show’s last season.)
During its phenomenal 12-year stint on television — the second longest live-action family situation comedy after Ozzie & Harriet — My Three Sons failed to crack the Top 30 shows only twice…in its seventh and last seasons. In fact, in its penultimate season, the show was still popular among viewers (#19) and would have probably soldiered on after its 12th year were it not for CBS President Fred Silverman’s insistence on moving it from its Saturday night slot (where it had resided since the 1967-68 season) to a new berth on Monday nights, awarding its old spot to network newcomer All in the Family. The ratings took a nose dive, and a move to Thursdays at midseason couldn’t repair the damage…though in Fred’s defense, Family would soon become the #1 show on TV. (The story goes that MacMurray, who renewed his contract on an annual basis, would have continued playing the Douglas patriarch had the show been renewed for Season 13…and even lobbied Silverman to save the show but to no avail.)
For years after the show’s demise and its inevitable arrival at the Old Syndication Home, My Three Sons was rerun constantly…but only in color; Viacom withheld the early 1960-65 black-and-white shows, much in the same manner as they did the first two monochromatic seasons (1963-65) of Petticoat Junction. A generation of couch potatoes grew up not knowing of Bub and Mike until Nick at Nite reintroduced Sons’ early years to its schedule in 1985, often publicizing the series with wacky promos including an unforgettable spot that added “lyrics” to Frank DeVol’s memorable “Chopsticks”-like theme (“And then there’s Bub/He makes them food/They’ve got a dog/They’re My Three Sons”). The black-and-white reruns (and the shows from Season 12) were a mainstay of the cable channel until 1991; they briefly resurfaced again on TVLand in 2000 and were featured on FamilyNet about a year ago but have since disappeared in the mists of TV memory. CBS DVD-Paramount has released the first two seasons of Sons to DVD but one has to wonder how committed they are to making certain it’s not forgotten; not only have the releases been the dreaded “split-season” issues but much of the music has been changed for copyright reasons.
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and for years couldn’t figure out why his mother considered Beverly Garland her favorite actress (“You mean the lady on My Three Sons?”).