My Three Sons was a television vehicle for film actor Fred MacMurray, who plays widower and aeronautical engineer Steve Douglas. Audiences watched as Steve raised his three sons, Mike (Tim Considine), Robbie (Don Grady) and Richard “Chip” Douglas (Stanley Livingston). Neighbor Ernie Thompson (Barry Livingston, Stanley’s real-life brother) became a member of the family later when Mike eventually got married and moved away, and Steve adopted him. The show ran on ABC from 1960 to 1965 and then switched to CBS until 1972.
For the first five seasons, William Frawley, who television viewers recognized and loved for his portrayal of Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy, played the boys’ live-in maternal grandfather and housekeeper, Michael Francis “Bub” O’Casey, but when Bill had to leave the show due to declining health, he was replaced by William Demarest playing Bub’s brother, “Uncle Charley.”
When asked what the name My Three Sons brings to mind, Barry Livingston tells Woman’s World, “Fun. Family. The Sixties, which was a far different era than what we’re living in now. There were some downsides back in the day regarding the approach the show took. It certainly started to run against the grain of what popular culture was starting to turn in to. but that said, it had its place and time and was quite a relevant show in its day. It was maybe one of the first very popular shows that depicted a single parent trying to raise three kids. So in that sense, it was ahead of its time, but was dealt with in a very lighthearted way.”
In what follows, Barry and his brother Stanley Livingston look back at My Three Sons, revealing 10 behind-the-scenes facts about a show that lasted for an incredible 380 episodes.
1. Fred MacMurray’s ‘My Three Sons’ shooting schedule was unique
By the time Fred MacMurray was approached to do My Three Sons, he was a major movie star. Having appeared in over 75 films, the only way he was going to sign on to a weekly series was if it didn’t take him too much time to film.
The solution? He would shoot most of his sequences for all of the episodes of a season during the first six weeks of production, and then return for three or four more weeks towards the end. This meant that the Steve Douglas scenes were shot one after another before anything else would be.
Explains Barry. “They would shoot all of [Fred’s] scenes in every episode and all of his closeups. They would skip all the matching closeups and two shots that would be added in the editing room when it was all stitched together. We would shoot those after he left and you would be getting your offstage dialogue from a woman reading his lines off camera; you’d be pretending it was dad. But when you edit it all together, it looked like it was shot at the same time.
“That was a great, sweet deal for him,” Barry adds, “and he went home at five o’clock every day, too. That was how they got a star of his magnitude to commit to being in a series. At the beginning, I think the story I heard is that he was golfing with Robert Young, who was on Father Knows Best, and they were discussing television work. Robert Young said, ‘Don’t ever do what I did and sign a contract where you’re there 12 hours a day and you never see your family.'”
Stanley elaborates, “They would try and get half the shows done pretty much upfront, and then there would be another half of the shows filmed while Fred was gone where we would shoot scenes without him or scenes that he would walk into. And then when he would come back, we’d have to pick things up like he’d never left, or he’d open the front door and come into the scene or walk into the room and just pick it up there.
Stanley says that they actually took Polaroids to show the cast where they were and what they were doing, because they had to jog their memories. “But it all worked out. I never really think I encountered a day where there was a problem, saying, ‘I don’t know what the hell’s going on’,” Stanley laughs. “We never had that. It just seemed to work. It might’ve been difficult if they were highly-charged emotional scenes or action scenes that you were trying to match. These weren’t.”
2. Frawley and Demarest presented challenges for the kids
Barry reflects on working with Williams Frawley and Demarest, “Both of them were very similar, but also very different. They were hard nuts who grew up in the Depression and both were drinkers. William Frawley was probably an alcoholic and he brought that onto the set with him, but not in in an unpleasant way. He was never abusive or angry; he was actually usually pretty jolly and funny, though towards the end he began nodding off — sometimes in the middle of scenes.
Barry adds that William Demarest was probably a heavy drinker back in the day, but by the time he got to My Three Sons, he was sober. “But I think that made him a little crankier,” Barry recalls. “That’s the syndrome of an ex-alcoholic, they need to take the edge off, but he was never sharp or mean with us. He had a cantankerous side to him. Frawley did, too, but it was always wrapped in laughter. Demarest had similar kind of moods, but they were a little darker. Still, both of them were a lot of fun to work with.”
3. MacMurray’s estrangement from his son caused tensions on set
There were some personal issues in Fred MacMurray’s life that occasionally impacted on the show and his costars. “My Three Sons was innocent in its story-telling,” Stanley points out. “We never did anything controversial on the show. It’s not like we dealt with the Vietnam War, race riots or things like that. And God forbid there be a hippie on the show. No way! In fact, and I only found out about it later, but Fred had a son from an earlier marriage who he was estranged from, who was a hippie up in San Francisco. If you knew Fred, you knew that would have to have been pretty traumatic for him.”
Stanley adds, “And I probably didn’t help because I was influenced by that whole counterculture thing when The Beatles came in along with British Rock. I wanted to grow my hair long and wear striped wide bell bottom pants, which wasn’t going to happen on My Three Sons.”
But Stanley took Fred’s feelings in stride. Between seasons he would grow out his hair. “I’d meet Fred at functions and maybe he’d say something snide when I walked away, but it’s not like I turned into another person,” Stanley recalls. “I respected my elders and respected somebody like Fred and I never was somebody who mouthed off on the set. I just didn’t believe in doing that.”
4. Two of My Three Sons pranked Ethel Mertz
Anyone familiar at all with the behind-the-scenes history of I Love Lucy knows that there was no love lost between Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played frequently bickering married couple Ethel and Fred Mertz.
Well, even after that show ended, Frawley never let go of the negative feelings he had for her and two years into the run of My Three Sons, The Lucy Show came along and it was filming on the same soundstage right next to Frawley, which means he had to “live” with Vivian Vance again. So what did Frawley do? He enlisted Barry and Stanley Livingston to torment her without them even realizing it.
“We were like Bill’s little army,” Barry laughs. “We would do his bidding to wreak havoc on Vivian whenever he felt like it. Back then, they would have these film cans, because everything was shot on film. Large, round film cans they would keep the raw stock in. So they’d be laying around the studio, in garbage cans, whatever. Our job was to collect those and at some point, when Bill was fueled up enough on Cutty Sark or whatever, he’d decide that today would be the day.
“He would hold open the door to The Lucy Show stage and you could hear everything that was going on in there. He’d hear Vivian’s voice, which is pretty loud and unmistakable; he would signal us to throw them and we’d throw these cans and the sound would just be explosive metallic, and then you’d get the hell out of there. We would run back to our soundstage, laughing. That was one of his little kicks that he got, and, of course, we were complicit in the whole crime. It was great for us; it was all done under the cover of intrigue and a mission.”
Adds Stanley, “Those cans just came crashing down; some of them took off rolling and spinning and running into each other. It really made a huge commotion, and I think Vivian must’ve known it was Bill, because you could hear her screaming out his name.”
5. My Three Sons vs. All in the Family
The run of My Three Sons was pretty incredible, lasting 12 seasons, but there’s no question that by the end of its time on the air, the medium was changing. Television was becoming edgier and more mature with series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family and M*A*S*H. The Fred MacMurray-led sitcom seemed out of step.
“By the time we went off the air,” says Barry, “we were bearing the brunt of TV changing more than a lot of other shows, because our show went off in 1972 when changes were happening at CBS, with Fred Silverman, the program chief, saying, ‘Cut all that corny Middle America stuff.’ Everything seemed to be gong off, including Petticoat Junction, Gomer Pyle, U.S.MC., Hee-Haw — all those shows that were so popular and were still pretty popular. They had deemed those shows irrelevant. Of course, time has proven that some were better than others.”
6. Younger cast pushed for bellbottoms and polka-dots
The younger cast members were well aware of changes going on in society, and pushed the producers to make changes to reflect that, but lost the battle more often than not.
Barry explains. “Things like, ‘Can we grow our hair long? Can we not wear plaid shirts every day of the week? Can we wear paisley? Can we wear polka dots. Kids are wearing bell bottom jeans to school.’ And those were just superficial things where we were trying to at least dress like people we knew personally in our lives.”
Barry adds, “They relented a little bit, but I think in the long view of things, they kind of thought the second you start adhering to what everything looks like in the culture in a particular moment, it dates the show in the future so that if anyone watches it, they would see the long hair and whatever and say, ‘Oh, that’s from the ’60s; that’s from the ’70s.’ Sort of how the kids on The Brady Bunch look. They resisted it and, in a strange way, I think it was a smart decision. Looking back, the show doesn’t look quite so attached to one particular era.”
7. There was a need for a new third son
Tim Considine played Mike Douglas for the show’s first five seasons, but his departure created a particular problem. “The show was called My Three Sons, so when Tim decided to leave, everyone was in a panic about what to do,” Stanley says, “and they decided that Barry would be a foster child — Ernie — and the Douglas household would adopt him so that he would officially become the third son and keep the name My Three Sons intact. Crisis averted!”
8. Adding a female touch to My Three Sons
Stanley makes an important point about the show: “We were all getting older and we needed women around. By that point Don Grady’s Robbie met Katie, played by Tina Cole, and they had an episode where they got married and she moved into the Douglas household to add a feminine touch.
“They came up with some cockamamie reason why they still lived in the original house and didn’t move out as most newlyweds would tend to do. but that’s TV for you,” Stanley adds. “Then the next year she got pregnant, had the triplets and that whole season was based around the impending birth of a child that turned out to be three children, hence, once again, My Three Sons as a title continued. And then, the following year.Fred met Barbara, played by Beverly Garland, and she had a little girl named Dodie, and so that whole romance blossomed and culminated in his getting married to Barbara. Then it was the same show, but not the same show anymore.”
9. There came a point where My Three Sons no longer made sense
“By 1972,” Barry reflects, “Fred’s character had remarried, they had a little daughter, all of the older sons moved out and it was just me and Tramp [the dog] and Dodie, The show just morphed into some other kind of thing that we all were going along with, but knew it wasn’t quite as strong as the original concept. So it was time to end. We were 12 years in and how many storylines were there at that point? You can’t have Fred solving all the boys’ problems when they’re all adults. It just didn’t make sense anymore, so it really wasn’t a surprise when it ended.”
10. Thanksgiving reunion with the Partridge Family and My Three Sons
A last gasp of sorts, even though the show was doing great in reruns, was the ABC TV special Thansgiving Reunion with The Partridge Family and My Three Sons. When announced, the general reaction to the title was, “What the hell is that?”
It’s a sentiment that Stanley agrees with fully: “I think each one of us had the same reaction to the idea of it. And, you know, the feeling was, ‘What did we do to deserve this?’ How that came about was that Dick Clark, who was the force behind it, probably looked at My Three Sons and said, ‘Hey, these guys went off the air a couple of years ago. They could probably still pull a pretty good audience, but, gee, let’s compare them to somebody else.’ Maybe the combination was a kind of crutch. I don’t know whether we were The Partridge Family‘s crutch or if they were ours, but we got put together. I’m sure it was just a ratings ploy. I thought we should have kept going. There could have been the Ben Casey / The Beverly Hillbillies reunion — just some really bizarre TV show couplings. Hey, how about The Real McCoys / Star Trek reunion? The possibilities are endless.”
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