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MacMurray, Fred(erick) Martin

MacMurray, Fred(erick) Martin

(b. 30 August 1908 in Kankakee, Illinois; d. 5 November 1991 in Santa Monica, California), film and television star whose career spanned forty-five years and eighty-five feature films.

MacMurray, the only child of Frederick MacMurray, a violinist, and Maleta Martin, a homemaker, was born during his itinerant father’s one-night concert engagement in Kankakee. The family soon moved to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, then to Gilroy, California, which MacMurray’s father used as a base while making concert tours up and down the West Coast. By the time MacMurray was five, his father had taught him to play the violin, his parents had separated, and he had moved back to the Midwest with his mother, where they lived a hardscrabble life for the next thirteen years. His mother was a poorly paid stenographer but managed to send Fred to a military academy in Quincy, Illinois. After his grammar schooling they returned to Beaver Dam. As a student at Beaver Dam High School, MacMurray played baritone horn in the American Legion band. Between terms he worked at a pea-canning factory, earning enough money to buy a saxophone, which he played in his own three-piece ensemble, Mac’s Melody Boys. He suffered from severe stage fright, never quite overcoming it, even during his later, deceptively laid-back acting career. The youngest in his class, he graduated at age sixteen, a “tenletter man” who also had the school’s highest scholastic average. He was awarded the American Legion Medal for his accomplishments and attended Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on an American Legion athletic scholarship. But he was so busy playing football and working as a musician six nights a week that he had little time to study, and he abandoned college in 1926 to move to Chicago. He nurtured an interest in becoming a newspaper cartoonist by enrolling as a night student at the Chicago Art Institute, supporting himself by selling golf clubs in a department store and playing tenor sax with Jack Higgins’ Royal Purples, a dance band out of Loyola University.

In 1928 MacMurray drove his mother and aunt to Los Angeles to visit relatives. A strapping, handsome lad—six feet, three inches tall, with black hair, brown eyes, and a prominent chin dimple—he was a natural for Central Casting, where he registered and occasionally got a day’s work as an extra, including the 1929 film Girls Gone Wild. He took a host of jobs to “keep the wolf from the door,” scraping paint off old cars and working as a freelance musician with the George Olsen Orchestra, the Gus Arnheim Orchestra, and the Warner Hollywood Theatre Orchestra. It was during the Warner stint that MacMurray’s first big career break occurred. He joined the renowned vaudeville band California Collegians, which featured his talents as vocalist, saxophonist, and clown.

The Collegians signed MacMurray to go to New York City and join them onstage in the Broadway cast of Three’s a Crowd (1930), which starred Libby Holman, Fred Allen, and Clifton Webb. During the course of each performance, the flirtatious Holman crooned “Something to Remember You By” to a self-conscious MacMurray. The band subsequently appeared in The Third Little Show (1931) and in the Jerome Kern hit Roberta (1933), in which MacMurray spoke a few lines and understudied for the lead, Bob Hope. On 20 June 1936 MacMurray married Lillian LaMonte, a dancer he had met in the show; they adopted two children. After the Broadway run MacMurray joined the road tour, and when he got back to New York he secured an appointment with the head of the Paramount movie studio’s talent department, who arranged for a screen test, which was sent to Hollywood. Word came back to “send him out,” and MacMurray was signed to a standard seven-year contract. It was several months, though, before he did any acting.

His inauspicious debut was in Friends of Mr. Sweeney (1934); his second film was Grand Old Girl (1935), made while MacMurray was on loan to RKO. Back at Paramount, the film that catapulted him to stardom was the romantic comedy The Gilded Lily (1935), the first of five films in which he costarred with Claudette Colbert. He stayed at Paramount for eleven years, with occasional work at other studios, annually grossing for Paramount between $30 and $40 million in four or five pictures a year. Although late in his acting career he was regarded as an icon of out-to-lunch affability, MacMurray established his movie stardom in films that were sexy little delights, films in which he starred with more of Hollywood’s glamorous leading ladies than did any other male star of the era. He made four movies with Carole Lombard, three with Barbara Stanwyck, and several each with Madeleine Carroll and Irene Dunne. Other costars of the period included Sylvia Sidney (Trail of the Lonesome Pine, 1936), Gladys Swarthout (Champagne Waltz, 1937), Alice Faye (Little Old New York, 1940), Jean Arthur (Too Many Husbands, 1940), Mary Martin (New York Town, 1941), Rosalind Russell (Take a Letter Darling, 1942), Marlene Dietrich (The Lady Is Willing, 1942), and Joan Crawford (Above Suspicion, 1943).

His busy schedule continued into the mid-1940s. In 1943 MacMurray was the year’s highest paid actor, with an income of $420,000. The man who fifteen years earlier had been subsisting as a movie extra was becoming one of Hollywood’s richest citizens, amassing a fortune through shrewd investment and thrift.

Charm and understatement characterized MacMurray’s acting style, on display in a wide range of roles during the Paramount years, including screwball comedies, Westerns, musicals, and historical dramas. It was shocking, therefore, when the director Billy Wilder cast the actor against type as the murderous insurance salesman in Double Indemnity (1944). MacMurray’s sympathetic portrayal of a rotter prompted Wilder to offer him another “heel” role sixteen years later in The Apartment (1960), as Shirley MacLaine’s boss and seducer. Both roles were among MacMurray’s most memorable.

In 1945 his Paramount contract expired and he signed with Twentieth Century—Fox, where he subsequently made a series of uninspired films. He was announced for, but never played, the role for which James Dunn eventually won an Academy Award in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). Incredibly, MacMurray was never nominated for an Academy Award or Emmy. His costar in the 1945 musical fantasy Where Do We Go from Here? was June Haver, seventeen years younger than he and being groomed to succeed Betty Grable at the studio. Haver’s career came to a well-publicized halt when, after the death of her fiance, she, a devout Catholic, entered a convent. She remained there for seven months, then left in 1953, which was also the year MacMurray’s wife died. On 28 June 1954 Haver became the Presbyterian actor’s second wife and they adopted twin daughters. They lived in a colonial-style Georgian home in Brentwood, California. Their marriage lasted until MacMurray’s death and by all accounts was a happy union.

Long before MacMurray’s film career slowed down in the mid-1950s, he hosted the radio show Hollywood Hotel (1934–1938) and starred in the radio comedy drama Bright Star (1952-1953). By the time his film career was in a slide he was making approximately twenty appearances a year as a regular on the George Gobel Show and as a guest on the Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Dinah Shore, Lucille Ball, and Ed Sullivan programs. In 1958 he starred in a television drama, One Is a Wanderer, based on a James Thurber short story.

MacMurray made two to three pictures annually in the 1950s, several of them “B” Westerns, but only one film has stood the test of time: The Caine Mutiny (1954), in which he plays the morally weak character who instigates the mutiny but ducks responsibility for it. Walt Disney rescued MacMurray’s film career, making him a top-grosser once more by starring him in a series of domestic comedies starting with The Shaggy Dog (1959), then the truly funny Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and its mediocre sequel, Son of Flubber (1963). All told, MacMurray made seven films for the Disney organization.

As he aged, the metamorphosis of Fred MacMurray, sex symbol, into asexual paterfamilias, reached its apogee in his being cast as the wise patriarch in the weekly television series My Three Sons, which ran from 1960 to 1972 first on ABC, then on CBS. (Twenty years later it was still running in syndication.) In retrospect, television historians ascribe sociological significance to the fact that the show was one of the first to feature a nontraditional household (all-male); feminist critics view the series as misogynistic. MacMurray viewed it as a cash cow, and the shooting schedule that he insisted on, whereby all of his scenes were done first—no matter who else was available—in sixty-five days, was dubbed the “MacMurray method” and adopted later by other stars in the industry, to the scriptwriters’ dismay.

After the show ended MacMurray went into semiretirement on his 2,300-acre California ranch, raising Angus cattle. Both he and his wife were fine cooks and he collected cookbooks. He also enjoyed fishing, sketching, and golf. In 1977 he won the Artistry in Cinema Award presented by the National Film Society (defunct as of 1982) of Canada and in 1986 the Golden Boot Award of the Motion Picture and Television Fund Foundation. He died of pneumonia at St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica, after having been admitted for cancer treatment. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.

For a movie star MacMurray led an unusual life, free from scandal and without much publicity. A genial family man whose affable personality and simple, unpretentious manner belied a fierce personal ambition and solid acting ability, Fred MacMurray is securely ensconced in the American popular-culture memory.

The clipping file on MacMurray at the New York Public Library of Performing Arts’s Billy Rose Theatre Collection is of tremendous value to the film scholar and fan. There is no biography, although there is an entry about him in virtually every biographical dictionary of film actors. One of the best appears in David Shipman, The Great Movie Stars, vol. 1 (1989). An extensive appreciation of seven American male stars, including MacMurray, is James Robert Parish, The All-Americans (1977); its filmography is the most reliable. Two magazine interviews reveal personal tidbits not mentioned elsewhere: Pete Martin, “I’ve Been Lucky,” Saturday Evening Post (24 Feb. 1962); and Dan Navarro, “The MacMurrays At Home: A Double Portrait,” American Classic Screen (Mar.—Apr. 1979): 13–16. For a unique perspective—that of costar William Frawley—on My Three Sons, the book to read is Rob Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg, Meet the Mertzes: The Life Stories of I Love Lucy’s Other Couple (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (6 Nov. 1991).

Honora Raphael Weinstein

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