He was famous for his niceness

November 06, 1991|By Peter B. Flint | Peter B. Flint,N.Y. Times News Service

Fred MacMurray, the personable, unassuming actor who starred in some of the best film comedies of the 1930s and 40s and was later the protagonist in popular Walt Disney fantasies and the television situation comedy "My Three Sons," died Tuesday of pneumonia. He was 83.

Reviewers repeatedly praised the charm, credibility and spontaneity of the 6-foot-3-inch-tall, pipe-smoking former saxophonist who had never studied acting.

He had a good-guy image in nearly 80 films, but his most noted roles were cads a passion-crazed murderer in "Double Indemnity" (1944) and "Pushover" (1954), a deceitful Navy lieutenant in "The Caine Mutiny" (1954) and an exploitative philanderer in "The Apartment" (1960).

Billy Wilder persuaded the affable actor to play the rotters in "Double Indemnity" and "The Apartment" to surprise and shock moviegoers. He did.

"Whether I play a heavy or a comedian," he said, "I always start out 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."

MacMurray's films include "Alice Adams" (1935), "Hands Across the Table" (1935), "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" (1936), "The Texas Rangers" (1936), "Champagne Waltz" (1937), "True Confession" (1937), "Sing You Sinners" (1938), "Remember the Night" (1940) and "Take a Letter, Darling" (1942).

Others are "Above Suspicion" (1943), "And the Angels Sing" (1944), "Where Do We Go From Here?" (a 1945 musical fantasy that gave the onetime vocalist a chance to sing), "The Egg and I" (1947), "Callaway Went Thataway" (1951) and "There's Always Tomorrow" (1956).

The actor's Disney films include "The Shaggy Dog" (1959), "The Absent-Minded Professor" (1961), in which he invented "flubber," magical rubber compound that enables people and objects to fly, and "Son of Flubber" (1963).

MacMurray won many raises at Paramount Pictures, where he spent his first decade in Hollywood. Frugal by nature, he put his finances in the hands of a manager, made many profitable investments and reputedly became one of Los Angeles' richest citizens.

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