(b. 22 February 1907 in New York City; d. 10 January 1997 in Beverly Hills, California), actor, producer, director and cocreator of television series, including The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Born Sheldon Leonard Bershad, Leonard was the oldest son of Frank Bershad, a salesman of watchbands, electric mousetraps, and other odds and ends, and Anna Levitt, whose father had once served as a scribe in the court of Czar Nicholas II. Raised in the Bronx and lower Manhattan, Leonard took to acting early, starring in a number of high school productions. After graduating from Syracuse University, he landed a job with a brokerage firm on Wall Street, only to lose it after the stock market crash of October 1929. Following his wedding to Frankie Bober in 1931 (they would remain married until his death sixty-six years later), Leonard returned to acting and appeared in several Broadway productions during the 1930s. Because of his dark, brooding countenance, muscular build, and thick "New Yawk" accent, he was frequently cast as a villain, gangster, or other "heavy."
In 1939 Leonard made his film debut in Another Thin Man and, over the next two decades, appeared in more than fifty motion pictures, becoming one of the best "character actors" in the business. His performances in such movies as Tall, Dark, and Handsome (1941), To Have and Have Not (1945), and Guys and Dolls (1955) have often been described as "Runyonesque" and "quietly menacing." His turn as Nick the bartender in the Frank Capra classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is arguably his most memorable role.
During the 1950s Leonard accepted fewer acting jobs and, instead, began to focus his considerable skills and energy upon the new medium of television. In 1953 he became director for the Danny Thomas vehicle, The Danny Thomas Show (also known as Make Room for Daddy). He was later promoted to producer, and stayed with the show until its end in 1965. In addition, Leonard was associated, as either producer or director (or both), with a number of other shows, including Lassie (1954–1971), The Jimmy Durante Show (1954–1957), and The Real McCoys (1957–1963), earning plaudits from both his peers and the press for his work.
By the 1960s Thomas and Leonard had formed a partnership that would leave an indelible mark upon television, comedy, and American popular culture. Their company, T and L Productions, was responsible for two of the most critically acclaimed series of all time, The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show, along with such minor classics as My Favorite Martian; Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.; and The Bill Dana Show. The formula for these programs, or what some termed the "T and L trademark," was simple: good writing, believable characters, and stories that dealt with modern relationships without either cynicism or mindless slapstick.
The Dick Van Dyke Show, the brainchild of comedian Carl Reiner, debuted on 3 October 1961. It centered upon the private and professional lives of television comedy writer Robert Petrie, played by the irrepressible Van Dyke. Anticipating later comedies, such as Taxi, Cheers, and Friends, the show featured a talented ensemble cast, whose efforts to navigate a sometimes harrowing urban landscape resulted in what many consider some of television's funniest moments. The success of The Dick Van Dyke Show has been largely attributed to Leonard's unparalleled knack for recognizing comic genius (it was Leonard, after all, who suggested Van Dyke for the role of Petrie over Reiner, who stayed on as writer and featured performer) and for demanding solid work, week in and week out, from the show's gifted team of writers.
Premiering a year before The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show seemed light years removed from the urbanity and glitz of Leonard's other creations. Chronicling the exploits of a southern sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith), and his bungling yet well-intentioned deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), the show sympathetically and hilariously portrayed small-town American life without resorting to outdated stereotypes and exploitative humor. In an era when abusive and bigoted southern lawmen were making headlines, Sheriff Taylor appeared as a gentle voice of reason, treating even the town drunk Otis with dignity and respect. Leonard, who had recognized immediately the comedic potential of Griffith, and who, along with the star and Aaron Ruben, devised a majority of the storylines, told an interviewer years later: "I think the Andy Griffith Show maintained a higher level of quality than almost any other show I can think of … the performance, the direction, the editing, and the scoring were of a quality that has seldom been equaled." Considering the ever-growing popularity of the show in syndication, few could argue with this.
By the mid-1960s, following a full decade of mainstream success in the television industry, Leonard moved on to more risky projects. In the fall of 1965, his espionage thriller I Spy, starring Robert Culp and the comedian Bill Cosby, appeared on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). The series, which concerned the frenetic lives of two government agents, Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, appeared in a field flooded by similar programs. But what set I Spy apart from its competitors was its wry sense of humor, its exotic locales, and the fact that one of its leading men was African American—an unprecedented casting decision that Leonard feared would doom the show in the eyes of network executives and viewers below the Mason-Dixon line. He could not have been more wrong. I Spy became a critical and popular success, earning its stars and creator innumerable awards and wide acclaim.
During the latter half of the 1960s and early 1970s, Leonard produced a number of short-lived series, including Good Morning, World (1967); My Friend Tony (1969); the inventive and critically acclaimed My World and Welcome to It (1969–1970); Shirley's World (1971–1972); and TheDon Rickles Show (1972). In 1975 he returned to acting, playing the role of Eddie Smith, a hard-nosed sports promoter and former gambler, in the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) series Big Eddie. Although Leonard never again topped the success of The Andy Griffith Show or The Dick Van Dyke Show, his position as one of television's most innovative and talented producers and directors was secure. On 3 October 1992 he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, along with friend Andy Griffith and others. Leonard died at the age of eighty-nine and is buried at the Hillside Cemetery in Culver City, California.
For further reading, see Leonard's autobiography, And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Hollywood Adventures (1995); Richard Kelly, The Andy Griffith Show (1981); and Vince Waldron, The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book (1994).