Fred MacMurray will be remembered as lovable TV dad

November 06, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Fred MacMurray, who played the All-American TV dad for 12 years on "My Three Sons, died yesterday of pneumonia at 83.

MacMurray, who was born in Kankakee, Ill., died in a Santa Monica, Calif. hospital, after a Hollywood career that spanned seven decades in film and TV. While MacMurray was most widely known during the last 21 years for his amiable suburban-TV-dad persona of "My Three Sons," he also was recognized for distinguished work in feature films playing a greatly different sort of person. In fact, he often played scheming and crooked or philandering characters -- a contrast which exemplifies the depth of his acting talent.

Arguably MacMurray's greatest performance was in Billy Wilder's 1944, film noir classic, "Double Indemnity," in which he played a shifty insurance agent who loses everything in a scam. The role had the appearance of the persona he would come to establish on TV: the solid middle American. But in this performance, there was a tawdry core of corruption at the heart of his character.

Similarly fine performances as seriously flawed characters came in the "The Apartment," "The Caine Mutiny" and "Pushover." His performance in "The Apartment" in 1960 was his last role on the dark side as the phony nice guy.

That same year, MacMurray debuted on ABC as Steven Douglas, patriarch of the all-male Douglas household on "My Three Sons." From then on, he was the pipe- and-slippers, station-wagon, family-dog, All-American dad. The series -- second only to "Ozzie and Harriet" as network television's longest running situation comedy -- ran for 12 years, moving to CBS in 1965.

"My Three Sons" was so successful -- and MacMurray seemed so at ease in the role of Steven Douglas -- that it revived his feature film career. He played a variation on the Douglas persona in a string of Disney films starting with "The Absent-Minded Professor" in 1961, "Bon Voyage!" in 1962 and "Son of Flubber" in 1963.

MacMurray came to Hollywood from the Midwest during the Depression. He was a singer, musician and bit player around town until 1934 when Paramount signed him as a leading man.

His first major role was opposite Claudette Colbert in "The Gilded Lily" in 1935. He appeared in a string of forgettable performances throughout the '30s in such films as: "The Trail of the Lonesome Pines" (1936), "The Texas Rangers" (1936), "The Maid of Salem" (1937) and "Champagne Waltz" (1937), "Invitation to Happiness" (1939) and "Honeymoon in Bali" (1939).

He spent the war in Hollywood making movies, and his stature grew. His films during this period included: "New York Town" (1941), "Dive Bomber" (1941), "The Lady Is Willing" (1942), "Above Suspicion" (1943) and "No Times for Love" (1943).

In the late 1940s, he appeared in "The Egg and I," "Singapore," and "An Innocent Affair."

His lowest point in feature films came with such cheap westerns as "Gun for a Coward" in 1957 and "Face of a Fugitive" in 1959.

MacMurray was survived by his wife of 37 years, actress June Haver, and a daughter, Kate. Daughters Laurie and Susan and a son, Robert, also survive, as do seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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