He is best remembered as the affable dad on the long-running television series “My Three Sons” and for his good-natured characters in a string in Disney films. But Fred MacMurray had a rich and varied career that spanned over half a century.
Frederick Martin MacMurray was born on August 30, 1908, in Kankakee, IL. His father was a concert violinist, and young Fred initially followed his father steps into the music business. He worked as a saxophonist and vocalist to pay his way through college, eventually moving to Los Angeles and joining the California Collegians vocal ensemble. This led him cross-country to Broadway, where he was discovered by a Paramount scout, who brought him back to L.A. and film stardom.
MacMurray is widely considered one of the most underrated actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He held his own against some of the industry’s most talented actresses, including four films each with Barbara Stanwyck and Carole Lombard and seven with Claudette Colbert, as well as Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. His parts were usually that of the “nice guy;” however, his best roles came when he played against type as a “sleaze” in movies such as “Double Indemnity” and “The Apartment.”
In 1959, Walt Disney himself chose MacMurray as the lead in Disney’s first live-action comedy, “The Shaggy Dog.” The film was an unexpected hit, leading to six more Disney films, one of which resulted in his only major acting award nomination, a Golden Globe nomination for “The Absent-Minded Professor” in 1961. In 1987, MacMurray was the first person honored as a Disney legend.
During his Disney years, MacMurray also found success on the small screen. From 1960-1972 he played widowed dad Steve Douglas on the popular sitcom “My Three Sons.” His clout by this point was such that he could demand a provision in his contract that he only worked 65 days per year. All of his scenes were shot first, and had to be edited in with the rest of the scenes filmed later. This allowed him to continue to work in films and spend time on his ranch.
Not only was MacMurray a gifted actor, he was also a shrewd businessman and became one of the wealthiest celebrities in Hollywood. In 1943, he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood and the fourth-highest paid person in the nation. He had a reputation for being extremely frugal, and made several wise real estate investments. In 1941, he purchased land in Northern California that became a working ranch; that land is now a vineyard owned by Gallo, producing wines that bear the MacMurray Ranch label.
MacMurray had two successful marriages: his first to Lillian Lamont lasted 17 years until her death from cancer; his second to actress June Haver lasted 37 years until his death. He has four adopted children, with two from each marriage.
A lifelong smoker, MacMurray developed a series of health problems in his later years, including throat cancer, a stroke and leukemia. He died of pneumonia at the age of 83 on November 5, 1991. He left a legacy of film and television performances. A man of few words and rather shy, he rarely gave interviews. Many claimed that he was much like the characters he played on screen. Indeed, he once claimed that he was “a personality, not an actor.” He didn’t look to get into the film business, the film business found him. And how lucky for us that it did.
– Original text and gallery published in August 2019.