Fred MacMurray: Hollywood’s Jack of All Trades

Fred MacMurrayThe personable, affable air made this conventionally handsome Midwesterner a demanded light comedy-romantic lead to Roosevelt-era audiences as well as a definitive sitcom dad for the Baby Boom generation, and he was never better than in the too-infrequent instances when he was called upon to play against type. Born in Kankakee, Illinois on August 30, 1908, Frederick Martin MacMurray’s family ultimately settled in his mother’s home town of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin; it was there that, through his high school years, Fred pursued his love of sports and music. Determined to follow the vocational path of his concert violinist father, MacMurray began playing participating in local bands as a singer and saxophonist in order to earn his college tuition. He’d ultimately leave his studies at Carroll College in pursuit of his music career, with the late ’20s spent moving from Chicago to L.A., where he obtained some Hollywood extra work. 1930 found him making big inroads as a featured singer recording for the Gus Arnheim Orchestra and making a noted Broadway bow in the hit revue “Three’s a Crowd.” After a few more years in vaudeville, and more glowing Broadway notices for “Roberta” (alongside Sydney Greenstreet and Bob Hope), MacMurray landed a contract offer from Paramount Pictures.

While getting his first featured screen role in a 1935 RKO drama, Grand Old Girl, it was his follow-up later that year, opposite Claudette Colbert, in Paramount’s The Gilded Lily that established his rep. Keeping up a busy pace that would mark his career, Fred would in fact co-star in seven 1935 films, including alongside Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams; as a state trooper in Car 99, with Ann Sheridan and future TV father-in-law William Frawley; and reuniting with Colbert in The Bride Comes Home, a hilarious “battle of the sexes” comedy. The two actors were a perfect fit and would ultimately work together in seven movies.

For the balance of the decade, the tall, winsome actor found himself a frequently requested foil or love interest for Tinseltown’s biggest leading ladies.With Carole Lombard he made four films: Hands Across the Table (1935) features Lombard as a manicurist about to wed wealthy Ralph Bellamy when penniless playboy MacMurray walks into her life (a situation Bellamy learned to endure in a large percentage of his movies); bandleader MacMurray gets involved with wannabe actress Carole, who’s posing as a Swedish socialite, on a transatlantic cruise in The Princess Comes Across (1936); Swing High, Swing Low (1937) is a song-filled tale of showbiz ups and downs; and in the offbeat comedy True Confession (also ’37) he was Lombard’s lawyer husband, defending his wife on a murder rap. MacMurray and Colbert were caught up in the hysteria of the 17th-century New England witch hunts in the ’37 costume drama Maid of Salem. The romantic comedy Honeymoon in Bali (1939) would turn out to be the first of five pictures Fred made with Madeleine Carroll; they paired up again that same year in Café Society and would later co-star in 1941’s Virginia and One Night in Lisbon, followed by Don’t Trust Your Husband (sometimes known as An Innocent Affair) in 1948. And he was delightfully paired with Joan Crawford in MGM’s wartime comedy thriller Above Suspicion (1943), which also featured screen villain Conrad Veight’s final appearance (as a good guy, no less).

While the guy-flick assignments were less frequent in the late ’30s and early ’40s, he was always wholly credible, as best evidenced by the backwoods Kentucky drama The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), co-starring a young Henry Fonda and credited as being the first Technicolor movie shot away from a Hollywood studio; The Texas Rangers (also ’36), which cast Fred as a reformed outlaw out to rope in one of his old gang along with sidekick Jack Oakie; and 1941’s Dive Bomber, where he and Errol Flynn were at each other’s throats in a pre-WWII aviation actioner. In fact, Fred’s looks were heroic enough that comic book artist C.C. Beck used them for his first depictions of the costumed crimefighter Captain Marvel in 1940.  

One role that Fred did not get around this time was when Paramount considered teaming him up with Texas Rangers pal Oakie as wisecracking adventurers in a 1940 comedy/drama, originally planned as a George Burns and Gracie Allen vehicle, entitled Road to Mandalay. The studio eventually opted to emphasize the laugh factor and gave the leads to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The picture, retitled Road to Zanzibar, turned Hope and Crosby into one of Hollywood’s top box office pairings and, of course, was followed by six more “Road” comedies. 

Fred MacMurray: Classic Movie ActorAs a prosecuting attorney, MacMurray had his hands full when shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck is left in his care in Remember the Night (1940), a holiday-themed crowd-pleaser which still remains one of his most popular films. Over time, he worked with good friend Stanwyck three more times and said of those experiences, “I was lucky enough to make four pictures with Barbara. In the first I turned her in, in the second I killed her, in the third I left her for another woman and in the fourth I pushed her over a waterfall. The one thing all these pictures had in common was that I fell in love with Barbara Stanwyck — and I did, too.” 

By the time the WWII years rolled around, Fred was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid performers, even though the critical and box-office responses to his efforts were beginning to diminish. It took a chancy part that no one else wanted–that of the morally flabby insurance salesman seduced into fraud and murder by femme fatale Stanwyck in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944)–to earn him his best notices to date and recharge his career. At Fox, he and second wife-to-be June Haver joined in the patriotic Technicolor fantasy, Where Do We Go from Here? (1945), while he was back at Paramount that same year for the cult-favorite dark farce Murder, He Says, co-starring Marjorie Main and Helen Walker.

The mid-to-late ’40s largely found MacMurray back in his comedic comfort zone, making enjoyable pairings with Colbert in No Time for Love and Family Honeymoon (both 1943) and Practically Yours (1944). He and Claudette had one of their best outings together with their 1947 funny farm film, The Egg and I,  which also served to kick off the Ma and Pa Kettle franchise featuring Main and Percy Kilbride. With Maureen O’Hara he was the titular college football coach and family man in Father Was a Fullback (1949); and in a 1950 role similar to The Egg and I, he and Irene Dunne tried married life on a ranch, where audiences found there was Never a Dull Moment.

Fred MacMurray: Hollywood's Jack of All TradesAs the ’50s stretched on, the maturing performer frequently and effectively worked in the western genre: 1953’s The Moonlighter (opposite Stanwyck again), At Gunpoint (1955), Day of the Bad Man (1958), and Good Day for a Hanging (1959), among others. Fred teamed up with Claire Trevor as drug agents fighting smugglers at the Mexican border, yet each unsure they can trust the other, in Borderline (1950), and he engaged in more screwball shenanigans in the 1951 charmer A Millionaire for Christy. MacMurray continued to display his range with a series of heel turns that are among his most enduring; the corruptible cop of Pushover (1954), opposite Kim Novak, and that same year as the carping, craven Lt. Keefer in the maritime drama The Caine Mutiny, with Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson and José Ferrer.

He was also marvelously manipulative as the adulterous exec of Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning corporate seriocomedy The Apartment (1960), a role that had originally been planned for Paul Douglas, who passed away before filming began. Fred once said, “The two films I did with Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity and The Apartment, are the only two parts I did in my entire career that required any acting!” One part of the picture that gave Fred pause, however, was a scene where he was supposed to flip a quarter tip to a shoeshine man. According to Wilder, MacMurray had problems with the coin toss, and when it was suggested that he try it with a half-dollar. the notoriously parsimonious actor replied, “I would never give him fifty cents; I cannot play the scene!”   

With the dawning of the ’60s, the tone was set for the last phase of Fred’s career with Disney’s putative TV pilot turned big-screen success, The Shaggy Dog (1959). He’d thereafter be the Mouse House’s go-to father figure for their live-action feature fare over the ensuing years: 1961’s The Absent-Minded Professor and its 1963 sequel Son of Flubber; Bon Voyage! (1962), Follow Me, Boys! (1966), The Happiest Millionaire (1967), and Charley and the Angel (1973). He was also a personal friend of Walt Disney himself and was the first actor to be designated a Disney Legend in 1987.

Concurrently with his Disney work, MacMurray would sign on to anchor the ABC sitcom My Three Sons, portraying Steve Douglas, the widowed aircraft engineer who had to be the font of support and wisdom for his boys (The producers’ first choice for the role, Eddie Albert, turned them down. Similarly, MacMurray had been considered to play Eliot Ness in The Untouchables and the title role in Perry Mason.). My Three Sons would rack up an impressive 12-season run, weathering multiple cast changes and a mid-point jump to CBS, and in all of those 380 episodes, Fred was the only actor to appear in every one. Eventually, he would be chosen by TV Guide in 2004 as one of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time.”

MacMurray only took on a handful of assignments after My Three Sons wrapped in 1972, one being the official spokesman for Greyhound Bus Lines, and called it a career after joining the ensemble of the Irwin Allen bee-attack disaster opus The Swarm in 1978. The actor faced multiple challenges to his health in his last years, and he passed away in November of 1991 at age 83.