FOR A DOZEN YEARS, FRED MACMURRAY was pop culture’s perfect pop. As the widowed father, Steve Douglas, on TV’s My Three Sons (1960-72), MacMurray, with his affable grin and becalming pipe, embodied the ideal of a passing era, the benevolent American dad who shared our values of home, hearth and a friendly supper table.
Less judgmental than Robert (Father Knows Best) Young, less impulsive than Michael (Little House on the Prairie) Landon, less frazzled than Ozzie Nelson and not quite so smug as Bill Cosby, MacMurray’s brand of fatherhood emphasized the traditional heartland virtues of patience, probity and a dollop of affectionate good humor in a time of disaffection and strife on campus, in the streets and in the living room. Perhaps that’s why MacMurray, though he’s scarcely appeared on prime time in nearly two decades, is remembered fondly by two generations of viewers: Even as parents and children were squaring off across the battlements of the ’60s, he made fatherhood look as easy as fixing a leaky faucet.
MacMurray also made acting look deceptively effortless. For all of his paternal beneficence on the tube, and his post-Dagwood Bumstead bumbling in a string of Walt Disney movies, notably The Shaggy Dog (1959) and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), MacMurray the film actor was really at his best when he was up to no good. MacMurray showed a sinister streak skulking behind that ingratiating grin, and he used it to create the chilling insurance agent who turns to murder with Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), the conniving naval officer in The Caine Mutiny (1954) and the philandering executive in 1960’s Oscar winner The Apartment.
Though in later years he admitted regretting those nasty roles because he feared they made viewers dislike him (as an ex-fan once informed him on the sidewalk), he also knew what it was about his acting style that made him so effective as a villain. “Whether I play a heavy or a comedian,” he said, “I always start out as Smiley MacMurray, a decent Rotarian type. If I play a heavy, there comes a point in the film when the audience realizes I’m really a heel.”
Offscreen, he really wasn’t. In fact MacMurray was much like his TV persona, an amiable, unaffected husband and father who just happened to be one of Hollywood’s enduring stars. And so a sizable retinue of family and friends mourned last week when MacMurray, 83, died of pneumonia at St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica. Said actress Beverly Garland, 65, who played his wife in the last seasons of My Three Sons (after the show’s producers decided it was time Steve remarried): “I’m shocked. I knew he had been ill, but I didn’t want him to go away. I wanted him always to be there.”
So, of course, did his real-life family. At his bedside when he died was his wife of 37 years, actress June Haver, 65 (who came out of a convent to marry MacMurray a year after his first wife, actress Lillian Lamont, died in 1953), as well as their adopted daughter Kate, 35, a screenwriter. MacMurray is also survived by Kate’s twin, Laurie, who owns an advertising company, and two children adopted with his first wife: Robert, 45, a Hawaii construction company owner, and Susan, 50, an Arkansas housewife. MacMurray had seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
He was also close to his TV family, whose members were eloquent in their recollections of MacMurray on the set and of his private life as well. Tim Considine, 50, the eldest son on My Three Sons, remembers seeing MacMurray and Haver at a tribute a few years back. “She took wonderful care of him,” he says. “He wasn’t physically strong at the time. She made sure everything was right for him without being intrusive or overly protective.”
Hollywood benefits and parties were never MacMurray’s cup of grog anyway, sick or well. “He wasn’t your glamor-boy kind of star,” says Barry Livingston, 37, who played the series’ adopted son, Ernie. “He was an outdoorsman type who was always traipsing around the world to go to some golf tournament.” Livingston adds, “He was a very humble, down-to-earth man who felt extremely uncomfortable with his celebrity. There was a real sweetness about the man, but he wasn’t anybody’s fool either.”
Assuredly. By the time of his death, MacMurray had become one of the richest actors in Hollywood. By 1943 he was reportedly earning some $420,000 a year, making him the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. He also invested early and wisely, and when Don Fedderson, a TV producer and personal friend, approached him about doing My Three Sons in 1959, MacMurray agreed only after he was offered a partnership in the production and guaranteed that he would work no more than three months a year. (He shot his scenes first; everything else was filmed around him.)
He also didn’t get rich by squandering his money: MacMurray enjoyed a reputation for frugality that would have done Jack Benny proud. Don Grady, 47, who played the second son, Robbie, remembers that MacMurray used to brown-bag his lunch to the set. Adds Beverly Garland: “I remember once the wardrobe man coming in and saying, ‘Fred, I really think that we should buy a dozen new shirts for you.’ And Fred replied, ‘Buy a dozen new shirts? Why don’t you just turn the collars around?’ ”
But MacMurray was also a marvelous raconteur who could break up a gathering by recounting awkward love scenes he had filmed in an era when the unofficial Hollywood censor’s rule was, One foot on the bedroom floor at all times. Considine remembers a bash when he was dancing with June, and Fred jumped up on the bandstand and commandeered a saxophone—the instrument that had launched his career years before. Says Considine: “He was really in his element.”
Frederick Martin MacMurray was born into that musical element on Aug. 30, 1908, in Kankakee, Ill., where his father, Frederick, a concert violinist, was playing on tour. An only child, young Fred was packed off to military school in Quincy, Ill., after Frederick and his mother, Maleta, separated. In his teens, he settled with his mother in Beaver Dam, Wis., where he earned 10 varsity letters in three sports at the local high school and a certain renown as a saxophonist. A sinewy six-footer, Mac-Murray won an American Legion scholarship to Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis., where he studied music and led his own band, Mac’s Melody Boys.
Young Fred had artistic talent as well and left Carroll to study at the Chicago Art Institute, where he bankrolled himself by playing in a dance band. He changed direction once more in 1928 when his mother decided she wanted to go to Los Angeles; Fred agreed to drive. Once there, he picked up jobs as a movie extra until signing on as a singer and saxophonist with a vaudeville band, the California Collegians. The Collegians were called to New York City to appear in the Broadway comedy Three’s a Crowd; shortly thereafter, MacMurray won the part of Bob Hope’s understudy in the Broadway musical Roberta.
During the production of Roberta, he met a dancer, Lillian Lamont; they dated for two years and married in 1936. The couple eventually adopted two children, Robert and Susan, and Lillian gave up dancing for homemaking.
MacMurray’s career, meanwhile, began to thrive. After his film debut in the 1934 comedy Friends of Mr. Sweeney, MacMurray got calls for sophisticated-male roles until his stylish, black-tie looks landed him the lead in The Gilded Lily opposite Claudette Colbert. That, along with a smooth performance later in the year as the rich boy from the heights opposite poor-but-dreamy Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams, established MacMurray as one of the favorite charmers in 1930s screwball comedies.
MacMurray sometimes wondered how he got there. As he once put it, “When I read some things other movie people say about their work, I think I’m in the wrong business. I don’t have any of those deep thoughts. I’m just myself—that’s what I’m hired for.”
Writer-director Billy Wilder saw MacMurray differently—partly out of sheer desperation. Wilder needed a male lead to play opposite Barbara Stanwyck in the dark tale of murder and betrayal Double Indemnity. “Fred was my very last choice,” Wilder remembers. “I tried every other leading man around, but they all stayed away because they were afraid to play a murderer.”
So Wilder pursued MacMurray, who proved reluctant for other reasons. “I worked on him,” Wilder continues, “and he said, ‘Look, I’m a saxophone player.’ I told him now was the moment to make the big step, and he said, ‘I read the script and I loved it, but it requires acting.’ ” It did, but MacMurray held his own against Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson with his hard-boiled portrayal of Waller Neff, the wisecracking insurance agent trapped in a scheming wife’s silken web.
In 1953 his wife suddenly died, leaving MacMurray bereft. But on the set of Where Do We Go from Here? in 1944, he had met a young song-and-dance actress named June Haver. She had taken to a Catholic convent after the death of her fiancé but finally emerged and married MacMurray in 1954. They adopted Kate and Laurie two years later.
MacMurray’s second villain role, as the slippery Lieutenant Keefer in The Caine Mutiny (1954) with Humphrey Bogart and José Ferrer, was a success, and six years later Billy Wilder asked him to play another heel, Shirley MacLaine’s married lover in The Apartment. By then there was no question of MacMurray’s acting reach, but he had already returned to the lighter road with Disney’s Shaggy Dog and later with The Absent-Minded Professor, in which MacMurray made flubber a household substance.
Meanwhile, his friend Don Fedderson approached him about My Three Sons. MacMurray relented after his conditions were met—mainly that he get to spend nine uninterrupted months a year with his family at their sprawling colonial home in Brentwood, Calif., and their ranch north of San Francisco. Real home foibles sometimes became grist for Sons: MacMurray did get his tie stuck in a car door, as did his alter ego, Steve Douglas, in a memorable episode. “There were bits and pieces that were translated into the show,” says Laurie.
Sons ran for 12 seasons, making the show second only to Ozzie & Harriet as network television’s longest-running sitcom. MacMurray, by then enormously wealthy, effectively withdrew from acting to family life, fishing streams and the golf course.
Though he had been fixed forever as a national icon, MacMurray to his last days never quite understood his place in American hearts. At a 1986 tribute all he could say was, “Well, I’ve done pretty good for a guy who plays saxophone.” But Don Grady understands perfectly. Several years ago, he recalls, at a Hollywood Bowl reunion of the Disney Mouseketeers, the celebrities in the audience were introduced one by one to polite applause. But when the emcee came to MacMurray, Grady remembers, “You suddenly heard the whole bowl go ‘Ahhhhh!’ and this warm gush came out of everyone. I never realized until then what an effect he had on people. What we’ve lost is that warm gush.”
MARK GOODMAN with bureau reports from Los Angeles