'60s TV family brought a sense of stability to a turbulent era
EDITOR’S NOTE: Don Grady, who played “big brother” Robbie Douglas on television’s 1960-1972 TV series “My Three Sons,” died June 28, 2012, at the age of 68 after suffering from cancer. We interviewed Grady for our cover story on “My Three Sons,” which originally appeared in American Profile magazine in Sept. 2010.
In 1960, a snazzy, jazzy, toe-tapping saxophone theme heralded the opening of a groundbreaking TV show about a single dad, a shaggy dog and a trio of brothers.
For 12 years and 380 episodes, My Three Sons starred Fred MacMurray as widower Steve Douglas raising his three boys in a house that looked—for the first time on network television—much like a “real” home.
“Clothes were strewn all over the place, the boys were jumping over the furniture, the dog was eating off the table,” recalls Don Grady, who portrayed “son” Robbie. “Up until then [on TV], you came to breakfast in your suit!”
Grady’s TV brothers were portrayed by Tim Considine (Mike) and Stanley Livingston (Chip). When Considine left the series in 1965, Stanley’s real-life brother Barry became adopted son Ernie, thereby allowing the show to keep “three sons” in its title.
The premise for each episode was simple, Barry Livingston says. “The boys have a problem, and MacMurray, with his subtle wisdom, lets them work it out—but guides them with an invisible hand.”
MacMurray’s character juggled parenting duties with his work as an aeronautical engineer, getting some household assistance from his gruff father-in-law, Bub, portrayed by William Frawley (Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy). Forced to leave Sons due to failing health, Frawley was replaced by William Demarest as another relative, Uncle Charley.
The family’s shaggy dog, Tramp, added an additional layer of family-style warmth to the weekly plotlines about parenthood, teenagers and suburban life in the ’60s.
An all-American dad
By the time the series launched, MacMurray had appeared in more than 80 movies and was one of Hollywood’s wealthiest actors. But he also was notoriously thrifty, driving his station wagon to work and eating brown-bag lunches.
“People thought MacMurray was aloof,” Considine says. “But he wasn’t—he was bashful. He was kind and fatherly, but also smart and shrewd.”
Grady’s parents divorced just before Sons debuted, and he found an instant connection with his TV father. “We bonded immediately,” he says of MacMurray. “All of a sudden, I had a dad.”
Some TV viewers were taken aback by MacMurray’s part as a wayward husband in The Apartment, which hit the big screen the same year My Three Sons began its television run. Grady recalls seeing MacMurray upset after a woman who’d seen The Apartment accosted him at Disneyland, trying to swat him with her purse and vowing that she’d never see any of his movies anymore.
“He said. ‘That’s the last heavy I’m going to play,’ and he never did again,” Grady adds. “He loved creating the warm, fuzzy dad.”
Grady remembers seeing MacMurray for the last time while performing years ago at an event at the Hollywood Bowl. Celebrities in the audience were greeted with polite applause as their names were called. But when MacMurray was introduced, “the entire audience went ‘Ahhhh!’ Fred loved that. That’s how he wanted to be remembered.”
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