Wednesday, September 29, 2010

“They got a dad/His name is Steve/He’s got a job/He’s really tough…”

As a young couch potato, My Three Sons was one of those shows that ran on our TV set like tap water—much in the same way as Gunsmoke, The Andy Griffith Show, Bonanza, The Lucy Show, Hazel, etc. always seemed to be available with the flick of a switch. Because my viewing tastes hadn’t become as discriminating as they are today (don’t think I can’t hear you snickering out there) I watched the show, but there was always this kind of underlying…blandness to the series. I remember how a friend of mine from high school used to riff on the Douglas family because he thought they were completely unrealistic—“The only crazy thing those kids ever did was that one of them let his hair grow long and bleached it. They never took drugs…nothing!

But the show was as cozy and unthreatening as a pair of bedroom slippers, and I remember watching a television special in 1977 at Thanksgiving that reunited the cast members of the series (along with the Partridge Family, something that still makes me scratch my head in bewilderment)…but things were slightly amiss. They brought back some guy named “Mike,” who apparently was the oldest son of the family (played by a guy I recognized as “Spin” from the Mickey Mouse Club’s Spin & Marty "serials"). This sort of floored me—I had always thought it was Robbie, Chip and Ernie…who was this “Mike” character? And for that matter…what was the deal with the guy named…”Bub”?

Well, it was about that time I began to read voraciously about television shows from the past and my research not only turned up the inalienable fact that before Ernie and Uncle Charley there was Bub and Mike…but that the show had been on ABC before CBS (I caught the tail end of the series on CBS along with the endless reruns) and had even (heaven forfend!) once been telecast in black-and-white. (And I don’t mean “we-don’t-have-a-color-television-set” black-and-white, the way I watched the CBS shows until 1976.) Viacom, the company that syndicated Sons, had removed the monochromatic Bub/Mike years from the television package…and it wasn’t until Nick at Nite brought the show back in its full black-and-white glory in 1985 that I got the opportunity to see how engaging a comic creation the show really was.

Fifty years ago on this date, My Three Sons premiered on network television—and by the end of its run in 1972, would become the second-longest live-action family sitcom in TV history (The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet is still the champ). In preparing a tribute over at Edward Copeland on Film, I rifled through a few episodes as a sort of “refresher” course (courtesy of the good people at Rootpegs R Us, because I’m boycotting the CBS DVD-Paramount releases) and found that it’s a lot funnier for which people give it credit. The early, black-and-white years are of course the best (it was Jaime Weinman who developed the since blogosphere-accepted theory that sitcoms are better in monochrome) and the first season in particular is ripe for rediscovery—all thirty-seven episodes were directed and produced by Father Knows Best veteran Peter Tewkesbury, who did some impressive things with what would otherwise be a run-of-a-mill sitcom (you should checkout the episode “Countdown,” one of Sons’ classic outings as an example; also written by Tewkesbury)—however, his deliberate way with the show’s material made him persona au gratin with the-powers-that-be and he was fired after the first season (he would later go on to direct 1963’s Sunday in New York and produced the short-lived but critically-lauded sitcom It’s a Man’s World). At the most—it’s an opportunity to remind yourself that William Frawley was one of the greatest comic actors that ever lived. So happy golden anniversary, My Three Sons!

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mndean said...

Don't have a single memory of the show in the Frawley era, I was just too young. The rather bland version afterward I remember, along with that irritating theme song, which made me think ill of Frank DeVol for years, until Fernwood 2Night. I had no idea how good a character actor Bill Demarest was until I got to see old films of his years later, his part on MTS wasn't exactly a good fit. I imagine that MacMurray, Frawley, and Demarest were all good friends from their Paramount days.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Demarest got the Sons gig because of his friendship with MacMurray -- but he and Frawley had a lifelong feud that intensified when Bill replaced Bill on the series. Frawley, who came back to the set periodically to visit, was finally told he was persona au gratin and asked not to come back because he made no bones about his displeasure with Demarest following in his footsteps.

mndean said...

Frawley wasn't in the best of health by them, was he? I only remember seeing him once on a brief cameo in The Lucy Show, never on MTS.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Frawley wasn't in the best of health by them, was he?

No, he wasn't. He was 77 years old at the start of the fifth season and since the production company couldn't find anyone who'd underwrite an insurance policy for him they let him go midway. I always thought it was tragic that the people who put together My Three Sons, Desilu, fired the one man who had helped bring the company into being as one of the four stars of I Love Lucy.