From the moment that Walt and Roy officially launched the “Disney Bros. Studios” in 1923, Walt Disney strived to keep on his staff the brightest and most talented craftsmen he could. Walt demanded perfection and knew this lofty goal could only be achieved and maintained by employing the best individuals. Because of this pursuit for perfection, his studio set the tone for decades to come.
One of the “stars” in Walt’s stable was a veteran actor of who had appeared in more than 100 movies, an actor whose career bridged almost a half a century, from his start as a featured vocalist in 1930 with the Gus Arnheim Orchestra until his retirement in 1978.
Frederick Martin MacMurray was born on August 30th, 1908 in Kankakee Illinois to Frederick and Maleta MacMurray. Before his second birthday, the family moved to Madison Wisconsin, where his father taught music. Another move found the MacMurray’s moving to his mother’s birthplace of Beaver Dam. Fred attended school in Quincy Illinois. He attended Carroll College (Today Carroll University) located in Waukesha Wisconsin. He did not graduate college but did perform in many local bands, playing the saxophone. Many people today, especially the younger generations, probably will not recognize this iconic performer, but most Baby Boomers will remember him in the classic early ‘60’s sitcom “My Three Sons”.
Fred MacMurray’s acting scope covered a wide diversity of platforms. He was cast in light comedies, melodramas, and musicals. As the country entered the Great Depression, the expertise of his acting talents caught the eye of film directors Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. He worked with the top stars of the era, Marlene Dietrich, Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck. Some of his famous co-stars were… Claudette Colbert, beginning with The Gilded Lily (1935). He co-starred with Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams (1935), with Joan Crawford in Above Suspicion (1943), and with Carole Lombard in four productions: Hands Across the Table (1935), The Princess Comes Across (1936), Swing High, Swing Low (1937), and True Confession (1937). By 1943, MacMurray’s became of the Hollywood’s highest paid actors. By this time his salary rocketed to $450,000. He was the highest paid actor and the 4th highest paid person in the nation.
MacMurray was more often typecast as a “nice guy”, but he said his best roles were anti-type, I.E. a “bad guy” persona. His most famous “bad guy” role was in the 1944 film noir classic Double Indemnity, with Barbara Stanwyck. In the Edward Dmytryk modern day Mutiny on the Bounty theme, the “Caine Mutiny”, (1954) he played Lieutenant Thomas Keefer, a treacherous, contemptuous man who turned against the men whom he helped foster the mutiny. However, by the middle 1950’s Fred’s box office allure had lessened, and he began to star in many low-budget westerns. It was then that the magic of Walt Disney touched his career.
In 1959 Walt Disney tapped Fred to star in Disney’s first live-action comedy, “The Shaggy Dog”. The advertising billed it as… “A new kind of horror movie…Horribly Funny!” Walt got the idea from a novel by Felix Salten, the “Hound of Florence”. Producer Bill Walsh developed the concept for the big screen. At first, Walt had intended to develop the concept into a TV series for ABC, who at the time were clamoring for him to produce more programs. Walt ran down the proposal with ABC executives about a comedy series about a boy who intermittently turns into a sheepdog. However, the executives were uninterested in the concept. It was then Walt decided to produce a feature film. Another example of Walt Disney’s intuitive decisions…It turned out to be the highest grossing film of the year.
In the film, MacMurray plays a postman, although he is never shown in the movie to actually working as one, this was to explain his dislike for dogs when his eldest son (Because of an ancient curse) morph’s into a sheepdog. It was the success of this Disney classic that rocketed MacMurray back into superstardom. The following year, (1960) Fred stared in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”, as Jeff Sheldrake, a cheating corporate executive, with co-stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. At the time, the premise was a bit racy, but MacMurray received critical accolades for his performance. It was also in 1960 that he starred in one of the early sixty’s and seventies classic sit-coms, “My Three Sons”. This popular hit series ran from 1960 to 1965 on ABC, then moved to CBS until the end of its run on April 13, 1972. My Three Sons narrates the life of widower and aeronautical engineer Steven Douglas (Fred MacMurray) as he raises his three sons. Ironically, the show reunited Fred and Tim Considine, from the movie The Shaggy Dog. They even had a pet sheepdog, “Tramp” Mouseketeer Don Grady also starred as one of his three sons. Producer Bill Walsh quipped… “The same dog, the same kids and Fred,”
Thanks to this family-friendly show, most of the nation’s viewing audience still considered him a family friendly and lovable single father to his three boys; this was the image that Walt embraced so as to continue casting Fred in a future series of live-action comedies. Fred said this about his role in the movie, the apartment… “When our twin girls were 5 or 6, I took them to Disneyland. While they were on the merry-go-round, a woman came up to me and said, ‘Oh, Mr. MacMurray, I’ve enjoyed your movies through the years. I saw The Apartment last night. How could you? You spoiled the Disney image!’ And with that, she hit me over the head with her purse and stormed away,” Fred Chuckled.
Fred went on to make another six Disney comedies, the last one, “Charley and the Angel” in 1973. He fully retired in 1978. It was during an ABC Wide World of Entertainment special from 1973… Walt Disney: A Golden Anniversary Salute that Murray attended when he said… “I will say the seven pictures I made at the Disney Studio were the pleasantest times I’ve had in the picture business and I’ve been around quite a while,”
Fred also recalled during that Anniversary Salute… “The first picture I made at Walt’s studio was The Shaggy Dog. This was I guess about 10 years ago or maybe a little longer than that.” “I remember, during the shooting of The Shaggy Dog, Walt came on the set one day and said, ‘You know, Fred, I kinda like what you are doing in the picture and I’ve got another idea for another picture after this one if you’d be available.’ I said, ‘Oh, I’ll be available!’ Then I said, ‘What is it about, Walt?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s just an idea. I got. I was just over at the World’s Fair in Brussels. There was a Doctor Julius Miller who was giving a demonstration on atomic and nuclear energy.’ He said, ‘He does it in such an amusing way I think that maybe we can do a character for you patterned after Dr. Miller and make some kind of a picture out of it. We’ll see.’ So I went home that night and said to my wife, ‘You know, Walt is talking about another picture for me. I hope it comes out. I mean, I hope it comes true but I mean it probably won’t. It was just something he was talking about.’ But that is the way Walt worked.
“This is the way he did things,” MacMurray added. “The next day on the set, Bill Walsh, the writer, came out and said, ‘Well, I’ve got an assignment to do a picture for you.’ I asked, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘The one Walt was telling you about the professor.’ And that all turned out to be The Absent-Minded Professor, which was very successful. It kind of shows you the way how things came out of Walt’s head. Amazing.”
The story of how Fred became Disney’s first Legend is legend itself. In 1987 the Disney Channel had on tap a colorized version of the original Shaggy Dog and the 1976 sequel, The Shaggy D.A. to air in the fall schedule for 1987. Calling it “Shaggy Dog Month”, the idea of a “Disney Legends” award was imagined to help promote Shaggy Dog Month. Because Fred was the star of the original movie and appeared in 6 other Disney films, he was a natural choice. Disney invited Fred and his wife June Haver to Burbank, to the Disney Legends Promenade, a section of sidewalk in front of the Studio Theater in which Fred believed was a simple nod to the film with a handprint and signature aped by the ceremony at the Grauman Chinese Theater forecourt.
On October 13th, 1987, Disney employees and the press joined together to pay tribute to Fred. He arrived in the back of a 1915 Model T, the same kind he flew as Professor Ned Brainard in the Absent-Minded Professor. On hand to greet Fred was Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Disney President Frank Wells. Eisner made the opening remarks…, “The promenade has been established as a means to pay permanent tribute to individuals whose talents have made a significant contribution to the company’s proud heritage. We chose to establish it on the studio lot to share our rich past with the employees who will be part of our company’s future.” He continued… “Fred MacMurray is the epitome of what we hope the Disney Legends Promenade will come to represent,”
The Legends Promenade, in front of the Studio Theater eventually exceeded the 200 plus people since honored and was relocated to the New Legends Plaza, in front of the Team Disney building at the Disney Studios, now the handprints and signatures are reproduced as bronze plaques. So on that momentous date, Fredrick Martin MacMurray was inducted as the very first Disney Legend. Michael Eisner explored the idea that the ceremony is expanded into an annual event, to honor further Legends of the Company.
It was then that the Mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley proclaimed this day “Fred MacMurray Day”, and Frank Wells presented Fred a certificate signed by Mayor Bradley. Fred was of course very touched and honored by these accolades and thanked everyone by saying… “I just thought we’d come out here today,” he was obviously honestly surprised that the event was so large, “get a few pictures taken, maybe say ‘hello’ to the dog. This is much more than I imagined.”
Sadly, Fred was a life-long smoker and had endured throat cancer in the 1970’s, it was treated but returned in 1987. In addition, he had a stroke during the Christmas of 1988 but did recover from this also. Regrettably, Fred, weakened by his past illness’ and also battling leukemia for more than 10 years, he passed away in November 1991 at 83 years old. He and his wife, June Haver are entombed in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City California.
The list of Disney Movies that Fred made legendary are… The Shaggy Dog, 1959, The Absent-Minded Professor, 1961, Bon Voyage 1962, Son of Flubber 1963, Follow me boys! 1966, The Happiest Millionaire 1967, and Charley and the Angel, 1973.
Fred MacMurray is just one of the many talented and gifted men and women that Walt Disney had discovered, and thanks to their prowess, made the Walt Disney Company a leader in the industry, which continues on to this day.