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My TV Dad

Today is the birthday anniversary of Frederick Martin MacMurray, better know as Fred MacMurray, the Golden Age of Hollywood actor, with films such as The Caine Mutiny, Double IndemnityThe Apartment and The Egg and I lining his resume. MacMurray is, I think it's fair to say, a bit of an underrated actor. He starred mostly in comedies and, while certainly a leading man, his dramatic chops were rarely utilized outside of his collaborations with director Billy Wilder. For the most part, folks today who remember him do so mainly from his 12-year-stint as Steve Douglas on the venerable sitcom My Three Sons. That's how I was introduced to this great actor.

Steven Douglas was the head of household of what would eventually become a rather large brood. Initially, when My Three Sons began in 1960, it was Steve, his three sons, and his cantankerous father-in-law "Bub" O'Casey. The show was filmed, rather than performed in front of a live audience. This was mainly done so that MacMurray (per his contract) could film all of his scenes for each season within three months, and then the rest of the actors filled-in their scenes during the remaining production months. One of the plusses of this was that it gave the show a more homey-feel, and made the episodes seem more evenly-paced. It also allowed for greater location shooting (even if it was only the Douglas's back yard).

It's true that I idolized Fred MacMurray in his My Three Sons role. My own home life, while comfortably middle-class, had not always been the happiest, much of it due to my father's personality and behavior. With MacMurray's embodiment of Steve Douglas, I saw how nice and warm-hearted a father could be (even if it was somewhat idealized for 1960s television). Indeed, in my teens, when having children was much more of a life-goal than it later became, I wanted to have kids so that they could be raised right: loved and treated gently in the Steve Douglas way. As it is, I've simply lived the family life vicariously through My Three Sons reruns and DVDs. That's good enough.

Aside from his twelve years in television, MacMurray had a long career of tremendous roles in films of note. Some of these are well-known, many are not. Who doesn't know of The Absent-Minded Professor and Flubber? Long before Robin Williams starred in the remake, MacMurray owned the role. Then there's The Shaggy Dog, another beloved Disney classic. MacMurray's dramatic turns are quite superb. He was the devious and shameful Lt. Keefer in The Caine Mutiny, and I'll never forget the moment when Jose Ferrer splashes his face with champagne. MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck joined forces to murder her husband in Double Indemnity. And he was the ultimate heel of a boss in The Apartment, which co-starred Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon.

1935's The Gilded Lily opens with Claudette Colbert sitting on a park bench in New York City, watching the world go by with a young man tossing popcorn into his mouth. This was the movie-going world's first proper introduction to Fred MacMurray. He'd starred in a few minor parts before this, but it was this appearance with Colbert that would jump-start his career. That same year he starred with Katherine Hepburn in Alice Adams. In 1947, MacMurray and Colbert re-teamed for the comedy classic The Egg and I, the timeless story of city folk who try and make a go of it on the farm. It's probably best know for creating the spin-off series of films about Ma and Pa Kettle.

Of course, not all of MacMurray's work is as well-known as his comedies and dramas. Sometimes this is warranted, other times not so much. Check out The Rains of Ranchipur if you have the chance. The plot is mediocre, but it's a fine performance from Fred, and it is a visually gorgeous film. Father Was a Fullback is a feel-good comedy that also features Thelma Ritter and a young Natalie Wood. And one of my personal, underrated favorites is The Miracle of the Bells, which co-starred Frank Sinatra and the beautiful Alida Valli. It's melodramatic, but effective. The aforementioned works may not be among the most well-known films, but they're definitely worth a viewing if you have the chance.

In the end, it was obvious that Fred MacMurray could do it all: comedic roles, dramas, playing the heavy, and starring in a long-running television series playing my favorite TV dad. It's why, when my mom and I visited friends in California in March 1991, we took a tour of Brentwood, to find the home of MacMurray and his wife, former actress June Haver. We found it (after hours of searching), took a photo of the front of it, and drove on. Eight months later, MacMurray passed away at the age of 83. He hadn't made a film in thirteen years. That's ok. His body of work already stands the test of time.


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