My Three Sons


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

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About

Created by Don Fedderson and Leave it to Beaver alumnus George Tibbles, My Three Sons was one of television's longest running and most influential domestic comedies. The program was conceived originally as a television vehicle for Fred MacMurray, (who owned 50% of the program), when Fedderson was approached by Chevrolet to develop a program that was "representative of America." During its twelve year run, the program averaged a respectable, but not spectacular 22.2 rating and a 35% share, and underwent enormous narrative and character changes. It is most significant for its development of a star-friendly shooting schedule and for its redefinition of the composition of the television family.

Before he agreed to his contract, Fred MacMurray queried veteran television performer, Robert Young, about Young's workload. Upon Young's complaint about television's time-consuming schedule, MacMurray insisted on a unique shooting plan that was to be copied by other top actors and christened "the MacMurray Method." This so-called "writer's nightmare" stipulated that all of MacMurray's scenes were to be shot in 65 non-consecutive days. All other actors had to complete their fill-in shots while MacMurray was on vacation. Practically speaking, this meant the series had to stockpile at least half a season's scripts before the season ever began so that MacMurray's role could be shot during his limited work days. The repercussions of this schedule were enormous. Guest-stars often had to return nine months later to finish filming an episode; MacMurray's co-stars had their hair cut weekly so as to avoid any continuity discrepancies (MacMurray wore a toupee); and any unforeseen event (a sudden growth spurt, a guest-star's death) could cause catastrophe. Often times, the producers were forced to film MacMurray in scriptless episodes, and then construct a script around his very generalized monologues. Frequently, to avoid complication, the writers simply placed his character "out of town," so that there are an inordinate number of episodes in which Steve Douglas communicates to his family only by telephone. Despite the hardship on writers, directors and co-stars, the MacMurray method was adapted by a number of film stars (Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda) as a conditional requirement for their work in a television series.

The program's narrative concept has proven equally influential. Until 1960 most family comedies were centered on strictly nuclear groupings--mom, dad and biological children. While an occasional Bachelor Father, or The Bob Cummings Show might focus on the comedic exploits of an unmarried adult raising a niece or nephew, most programs, from I Love Lucy to Father Know Best, depicted the humorous tribulations of two-parent households and their biological offspring. My Three Sons initiated what was to become a popular trend in television--that of the widowed parent raising a family. While initial director Peter Tewksbury called the premise a truly depressing one, producers Tibbles and Fedderson chose to ignore the potential for pathos and flung themselves wholeheartedly into the comedic consequences of a male-only household. Ironically (some might even say with more than a touch of misogyny), the bulk of the program's first five years did not focus on the stereotypical male ineptitude for all household chores, but instead continually reinforced the notion that males were, in fact, far domestically superior to the "hysterical" female guest stars.

During the course of its twelve year run, My Three Sons functioned, in essence, as three successive programs with different casts, writers, and directors. For its first five seasons, the program was shot in black and white, aired on CBS and focused on Steve Douglas (MacMurray), aerospace consultant, who, along with his father-in-law, Bub O'Casey (William Frawley) has struggled for the past seven years to raise Steve's three motherless sons--18 year old Mike, 14 year old Robbie and 7 year old Chip. The show was directed and produced by Father Knows Best alumnus Peter Tewksbury. The first year of the program is by far the series' darkest, dealing explicitly with how a family survives, and even thrives, in the event of maternal loss. In its second season, George Tibbles took over, moving the program more toward situation comedy and inserting multiple slapstick-type episodes into the mix. From the third season onward, Ed Hartmann's role as producer redirected the program yet again, to a heavily moralistic, but lighthearted look at generational and gender conflicts. In addition, Hartmann's long-standing friendship with members of the Asian community contributed to an unusual number of episodes dealing with the Chinese and Japanese friends of the Douglas family, granting television visibility and respect to a previously neglected minority group.

When ABC refused to finance the series' switch to color production, the program moved to the CBS network, losing two cast members in an unrelated series of events. First, in the midst of the 1964-65 season, terminally ill William Frawley's $300,000 insurance policy was canceled and Don Fedderson was forced to replace Bub O'Casey with "Uncle Charley," a role played by William Demarest for the program's remaining seven years. Next, an argument with Don Fedderson over Tim Considine's desire to direct resulted in the actor's departure from the program. As eldest son Mike was written out of the series with a fictionalized "move to California," the producers chose a new third son, Ernie, as a replacement. With no regard for narrative plausibility, the producers created a three-part episode in which Chip's best friend Ernie loses his parents in a car crash, suddenly becomes two years younger, and is adopted by Steve as the youngest member of the Douglas family.

Two years later, the program experienced its third incarnation when the Douglas family moved from the fictional Bryant Park to Southern California. Here, Robbie was to romance and wed Katie, and Steve was to end his long-term widowerhood by marrying Barbara and adopting her small daughter. For the program's remaining years, the narrative focused on blended families, Chip's romantic escapades and eventual elopement, and Robbie's triplets, where the premise of three sons promised to continue indefinitely.

The series' influence was demonstrated by the quick succession of single-parent households that were to dominate television's comedy schedule for the next decade. Family Affair, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Flipper, Nanny and the Professor all featured eligible bachelors burdened with raising their own (or relative's offspring) with the help of an adept elderly man or desirable young woman. All of these series worked to erase the necessity of the maternal, as the family operated in an emotionally secure and supremely healthy environment without benefit of the long since dead mother. While there were occasional widow-with-children programs (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Julia), these women were not granted the same versatility of their male counterparts, and were forced to turn to strong male figures (dead ship's captains and doctors, respectively) for continual guidance.

While the 1980s witnessed a regeneration of television's nuclear family, the legacy of My Three Sons dominated, and for every Cosby, there was a Full House, My Two Dads or Brothers. By the 1990s one would be hard-pressed to find any family show that wasn't a single-parent family, a family with adopted children, or a blended arrangement of two distinct families--all configurations which owe their genesis in some way to My Three Sons.

-Nina Leibman

CAST

Steve Douglas...................................... Fred MacMurray  

Mike Douglas (1960-1965)........................ Tim Considine  

Robbie Douglas (1960-1971).......................... Don Grady

Chip Douglas .....................................Stanley Livingston

Michael Francis "Bub" O'Casey (1960-1965)............. William Frawley  

Uncle Charley O'Casey (1965-1972)...... William Demarest  

Jean Pearson (1960-1961)...................... Cynthia Pepper  

Mr. Henry Pearson (1960-1961)................. Robert P. Lieb  

Mrs. Florence Pearson (1960-61).... Florence MacMichael  

Hank Ferguson (1961-1963)....................... Peter Brooks  

Sudsy Pfeiffer (1961-1963)........................... Ricky Allen  

Mrs. Pfeiffer (1961-1963)............................ Olive Dunbar  

Mr. Pfeiffer (1961-1963)................................ Olan Soule  

Sally Ann Morrison Douglas (1963-1965)............... Meredith MacRae  

Ernie Thompson Douglas (1963-1972)..... Barry Livingston

Katie Miller Douglas (1967-1972)...................... Tina Cole

Dave Welch (1965-1967)............................ John Howard

Dodie Harper Douglas (1969-1972)................... Dawn Lyn

Barbara Harper Douglas (1969-1972)....... Beverly Garland

Steve Douglas Jr. (1970-1972) ....................Joseph Todd

Charley Douglas (1970-1972)...................... Michael Todd

Robbie Douglas II (1970-1972)..................... Daniel Todd

Fergus McBain Douglas (1971-1972)...... Fred MacMurray

Terri Dowling (1971-1972)........................... Anne Francis

Polly Williams Douglas (1970-1972)............. Ronne Troup

PRODUCERS   

Don Fedderson, Edmund Hartmann, Fred Henry, George Tibbles

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

369 Episodes

ABC

September 1960-September 1963   Thursday 9:00-9:30

September 1963-September 1965   Thursday 8:30-9:00

CBS

September 1965-August 1967   Thursday 8:30-9:00

September 1967-September 1971   Saturday 8:30-9:00

September 1971-December 1971   Monday 10:00-10:30

January 1972-August 1972   Thursday 8:30-9:00

FURTHER READING

Hamamoto, Darrell Y. Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy and Liberal Democratic Ideology. New York: Praeger, 1989.

Javna, John. The Best of TV Sitcoms: Burns and Allen to the Cosby Show, The Munsters to Mary Tyler Moore. New York: Harmony Books, 1988.

Jones, Gerard. Honey, I'm Home!: Sitcoms, Selling the American Dream. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1992.

Leibman, Nina. Living Room Lectures: The Fifties Family in Film and Television. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Highlights
Barry Livingston on how he got cast as a regular on My Three Sons and working with his real-life brother
03:41
Rocky and Irma Kalish on writing for My Three Sons; on Fred MacMurray
01:09
Barry Livingston on a typical production week on My Three Sons and accommodating star Fred MacMurray 
03:14
Jamie Farr on his guest appearances on My Three Sons
01:22
Gene Reynolds on directing My Three Sons
05:49
Fred de Cordova on directing My Three Sons and Fred MacMurray's shooting schedule 
04:57
Who talked about this show

Howard Anderson, Jr.

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Howard Anderson Jr. on creating the opening titles for My Three Sons
01:14

James L. Brooks

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James L. Brooks on writing episodes of The Andy Griffith Show and My Three Sons
00:28

Fred de Cordova

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Fred de Cordova on directing My Three Sons and Fred MacMurray's shooting schedule 
04:57
Fred de Cordova on My Three Sons producer Don Fedderson and working with William Demarest as "Uncle Charlie"
02:41

Ed Begley, Jr. with Emerson College

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Ed Begley, Jr. on his first acting job, on My Three Sons
01:36

Jamie Farr

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Jamie Farr on his guest appearances on My Three Sons
01:22

Frank Inn

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Frank Inn on training "Tramp," the dog on My Three Sons
02:59

Irma Kalish

View Interview
Rocky and Irma Kalish on writing for My Three Sons; on Fred MacMurray
01:09

Rocky Kalish

View Interview
Rocky and Irma Kalish on writing for My Three Sons; on Fred MacMurray
01:09

Barry Livingston

View Interview
Barry Livingston on how he got cast as a regular on My Three Sons and working with his real-life brother
03:41
Barry Livingston on his My Three Sons character "Ernie Thompson Douglas" and how he moved from the boy next door to adopted son
02:53
Barry Livingston on the premise of My Three Sons
01:21
Barry Livingston on joining an existing hit show when he joined My Three Sons
00:44
Barry Livingston on his My Three Sons character "Ernie Thompson Douglas'" strengths and weaknesses and how the character evolved
03:43
Barry Livingston on a My Three Sons storyline that co-worker Don Grady disagreed with - separate beds for his married character and his wife; on other censorship issues on the show
02:49
Barry Livingston on the look and wardrobe of his My Three Sons character "Ernie Thompson Douglas'"
01:25
Barry Livingston on a typical production week on My Three Sons and accommodating star Fred MacMurray 
05:11
Barry Livingston on dealing with the unusual production schedule on My Three Sons
02:46
Barry Livingston on working with My Three Sons creator Don Fedderson and the directors and producers
00:38
Barry Livingston on attending school on the set of My Three Sons and later returning to public school
03:58
Barry Livingston on working with the cast of My Three Sons
10:39
Barry Livingston on the atmosphere on the set of My Three Sons
01:19
Barry Livingston on the addition of three female characters to My Three Sons
01:21
Barry Livingston on how fans reacted to him when he was on My Three Sons
02:15
Barry Livingston on the appeal of My Three Sons
01:18
Barry Livingston on pressure to be a role model on My Three Sons
01:00
Barry Livingston on promotions for My Three Sons and whether or not he watched the show
01:21
Barry Livingston on not thinking about leaving My Three Sons and his favorite episodes of the show
01:51
Barry Livingston on working with Zsa Zsa Gabor on the "Ernie and Zsa Zsa" episode of My Three Sons and working with Rose Marie on another episode
01:07
Barry Livingston on why My Three Sons ended
02:45
Barry Livingston on his residual deal at the end of My Three Sons
01:13
Barry Livingston on the legacy of My Three Sons
01:36
Barry Livingston on Michael Douglas trying to develop a My Three Sons movie
02:18

Carroll Pratt

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Carroll Pratt on providing laugh track for Green Acres, Bewitched, Beverly Hillbillies, My Three Sons, and I Dream of Jeannie
04:26

Gene Reynolds

View Interview
Gene Reynolds on Fred MacMurray's unusual production schedule for My Three Sons
01:36
Gene Reynolds on directing My Three Sons
05:49
Gene Reynolds on the premise of My Three Sons
04:23
Gene Reynolds on Fred MacMurray as "Steve Douglas" on My Three Sons
03:13
Gene Reynolds on the child actors on My Three Sons
02:19
Gene Reynolds on the popularity of My Three Sons
00:52
Gene Reynolds on working with Don Fedderson on My Three Sons
00:16

Doris Singleton

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Doris Singleton on My Three Sons
02:50

John Strauss

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John Strauss on Fred MacMurray and his unique deal with Don Fedderson Productions for filming My Three Sons
01:42

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