Friday, October 8, 2010

Happy birthday, Herbert B. Leonard!

I know that I observed the 50th anniversary of Route 66’s television debut in yesterday’s post so you’ll have to take my word that this is not a repeat. It’s just that in glancing at the birthdays today I noticed that the creator-producer of that series—and, of course, Naked City—celebrates his 88th natal anniversary today.

Born in New York City, Leonard started his career at the Columbia Pictures studio in 1946 after being discharged in World War II—he served as a unit production manager for the studio, and worked on nearly a metric ton of Columbia’s chapter-plays including Batman and Robin (1949), Atom Man vs. Superman (1950) and Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere (1951). Screen Gems, Columbia’s television arm, promoted him to the producer’s chair in 1954 and his first hit was The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954-59), a children’s adventure series that featured the famed silent movie canine star along with Lee Aaker (as his boy, Rusty) and James Brown as Lt. Ripley “Rip” Masters. Leonard would go on to create and/or produce other series including Circus Boy, Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers and Rescue 8.

In 1958, he brought to the small screen the first of his two signature television shows—Naked City, which was based on the 1948 feature film of the same name. It broke new ground with its extensive use of on-location shooting, transforming what might have been a run-of-the-mill cop show into an exercise in cinema verité. With co-creator (and writer) Sterling Silliphant, Leonard premiered his other best-known program two years later in Route 66, which once again used extensive filming on actual locations. Both shows highlighted first-rate scripting and the crème de la crème of stage and film acting talent, and have since become among the best representations of television drama from that era.

After Route 66 wrapped, Leonard went on to try his luck in movies, producing films like The Perils of Pauline (1967), Popi (1969) and Going Home (1971)—he also directed Pauline and Going. He flirted with TV-movies and occasional productions like adaptations of Popi and Breaking Away—I remember liking a sitcom he had a hand in, Ladies’ Man (1980-81) which came and went without much fanfare. But with laurels like Route 66 and Naked City to rest upon, I don’t think I would have sweated the show’s cancellation. Leonard passed away at the age of 84 in 2006 and was described in many of the obituaries as a “visionary.” His truly amazing television legacy does not go unnoticed here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear—I just wish I had access to a photograph of him to commemorate his day…so I guess Tod and Buz will have to suffice.

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anniebreiter said...

Hey, my name is Anne Breiter Leonard, I'm Herbert B. Leonard's second to youngest daughter. I decided that today, on his birthday I would google him just to see what came up. Your article came up and I read it and it truly warmed my heart that He still lives on not only in the hearts of the ones who were closest to him but also in the hearts of his fans and admirers. Just wanted to take the time to thank you for making me smile on what is typically such a sad day for me. Thank you.

Jenny said...

Thank you for acknowledging not only a talented man but a decent human being. He felt he was the luckiest man alive to be able to do somethng he loved so much and get paid for it. He was special and we were luck to have had him in our lives. Jenny Leonard and his 6 girls.

Sophie Leonard said...

Thank you so much for remembering a great mans birthday. Im Sophie, Berts youngest daughter and seeing this has made all of his kids and grandkids very happy!! :)

Buz said...

Annie, Jenny and Sophie,

I have been researching your father's work on the Route 66 television series by going through the papers he left with UCLA. These papers have been endlessly fascinating for me as they reveal a side of the entertainment business that most of us don't get to see very often.

I wonder if any of you would care to contact me to briefly discuss your father? My e-mail address is crefract at


Ohio66 - Route 66 Filming Locations

Victoria said...

Dear Rick,

I can't tell you how much our family appreciates the time you took to recognize our father's work on your blog. We would be happy to provide you with images of him both on location during the filming of those shows as well as in his later years. His body of work is only part of his legacy, its the inspiration to those around him and the person that he was that I feel was his biggest accomplishment. The 14th of October will mark 4 years that he has been gone and there isn't a day that goes by that we don't miss him. In all, he fathered 6 girls and we all remain quite close. Your post would have elated our father, so I thank you.
You may email me at victorialeonardkelly at anytime. I know that any other of my sisters would be happy to correspond as well.



Buz said...

Thanks Victoria,

I have just written to you via your personal e-mail address. Let me know here if for any reason you do not receive the message.


anniebreiter said...

That's my email, feel free to contact me as well.


tony duggan-smith said...

My name is Tony Duggan-Smith and I was the set designer on the Rin Tin Tin remake in the 80's and 90's.
It was a pleasure working with Bert and we spent a fair chunk of time both getting the look of the show together and sharing stories about our lives. He shared tales of his friendship as a boy with DW Griffith and many of the adventures he had along the way. He also was incredibly focussed and passionate about what he was doing in the present. He worked harder than anyone trying to get things right and production meetings were a blast, as we all pulled each episode together. All constructive input was welcome and those meeting taught me a lot about the overall process of constructing a series.
I never had the chance to thank him properly for his generosity and I guess this is my belated thank you!
Best wishes to his family, he was a great guy and an original!

Anonymous said...

I see that Mr. Leonard was married to betty Kennedy at the time of his death, is there a reason that she is not mentioned in any obituary or article concerning his death, also how much younger was she than he was.
Thank You

KRW said...

K R Walker
I just ran across this blog and wanted to send my regards to Bert's family. I knew a couple of his daughters when they were very young.
My father was Robert G. Walker who directed dozens of Bert's shows including Rin Tin Tin, Circus Boy, and Tales of the Bengal Lancers. Dad also co-created Rescue 8 with Bert and produced and directed that series.
Personally I have a soft place in my heart for Bert as he and Stan Neufeld (his production manager) gave me my first job out of college as a PA. I was hired for a CBS TV series Bert created titled Freebooters which was going to shoot around the world. The series never got made but they kept me on as a PA and later I worked on Popi in NY and a movie of the week in Boston.
I grew up at Fort Apache on the Rin Tin Tin series. Lee Aaker and I are the same age and I use to love to go to the set and ride the horses. The '50s were quite a decade for me as dad went from one western to another until he retired in 1960. He had one more opportunity to direct when Bert called and asked him to come to NY to direct a few Naked City episodes. However, by that time dad had totally retired to Newport Beach CA and decided he couldn't go backward in his life.
I spent my career in production and retired some 20 years ago and live in Laguna Beach CA. I'd love to hear from any of Bert's children and share my fond memories. Bert was a prolific producer and Hollywood trailblazer. I'm grateful for all I learned hanging around the sets and working for him and Stan.
My best to all the family,

HeavenlyHund said...

Jordan and I just came across this we think of Bertrand often. Jordan thinks of nice chats with you Jenny. Hope this post finds you all well. Stevie and Jordan