Thursday, May 21, 2009

Q&A with Fred MacMurray author, Charles Tranberg

1) Why did you decide to write a book about Fred MacMurray?

First of all because he has never had a book done on him before. I like writing about people who haven't been over-written about. It's fun to discover things. But the main reason is because I think he was one of the great film stars of the golden age. He was very popular for many years. In the forties he was among the highest paid actors in the movies. He was constantly sought out not only by his home studio, Paramount, but by other studios for loan outs. He was, like many of the other great screen actors--Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda--adept at working successfully in all kinds of genres. He was a wonderful light comedian--in films like THE GILDED LILY and HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE. He also made a great bad guy in films like DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE APARTMENT. He did war pictures, romantic dramas like ALICE ADAMS and TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE. He was a fine western actor with films like AT GUNPOINT and THE TEXAS RANGERS. He even did an ocassional musical. The man was versatile and durable. Thanks to Walt Disney he was able to extend his film career well into the sixties. Television, thru MY THREE SONS, gave him a new fan base.

2) He worked with all the great leading ladies in the business, too. Did he indicate if he had a favorite?

It's true he did work with nearly every leading lady of his era in films. He missed out working with Bette Davis and Ginger Rogers in films, but did work with them on radio. He teamed with many of the leading ladies more than once. He did, I think, seven films with Claudette Colbert, four with Carole Lombard, four with Barbara Stanwyck, at least as many with Paulette Goddard. He worked well with these high powered female stars without being overshadowed by them. Many of these actresses requested him as there leading man because they had such a good rapport with them and made them look good. But he was just as strong as any of them. Look at DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson is among her strongest films, but Fred dominates the movie. He's in nearly every scene. It really is his film. He was robbed of an Oscar nomination for that film. Bing Crosby got the Oscar for GOING MY WAY, a wonderful film, but Bing didn't do anything in that film he didn't do in any other film up to that time, except appear as a priest. He was still the same breezy, golf loving crooner. Fred was very different from his established persona in DOUBLE INDEMNITY and gave a strong performance. But getting back to your question--he was too much of a gentleman to say so publicly, but his two top favorites were Stanwyck and Lombard. He loved Lombard! He loved the fact that she swore like a sailor and yet was this beautiful very feminine woman. She was a great help to him in his early career.

3) Some people think he was at his best in more villainous roles--do you think so?

He was superb in films like DOUBLE INDEMNITY--where he falls under Stanwyck's spell and commits murder. He was equally good in THE CAINE MUTINY where he pretty much is the instigator of the Van Johnson character committing mutiny and then when he takes the stand proves to be a coward. The scene where Jose Ferarr throws the drink in Fred's face at the end is one of the most memorable in the film. He was wonderful as Sheldrake, the philandering boss in THE APARTMENT. He had another good one in PUSHOVER, playing a crooked cop who commits murder. Like I said his range was exceptional. I don't think you would ever see somebody like Gary Cooper or Clark Gable in any of those types of roles, it would go too far away from what there established personas were, but it worked for Fred, and he was still able to come back and play nice guys and ABSENT MINDED Professor's).

4) What was he like off screen?

He was a devoted husband. Marlene Dietrich tried to seduce him when they made a picture called THE LADYIS WILLING, Marlene was indeed willing, but Fred wasn't. He was married to his first wife, Lily, who he met while working in a Broadway show called ROBERTA (with Bob Hope). Mitch Leisen, who directed THE LADY IS WILLING, took Marlene aside and said, "Hands off--he's devoted to Lily, and won't even look at another woman." They adopted two children. By all accounts it was a happy marriage. She died in 1953 and his second wife was June Haver, and that was a happy marriage as well and they adopted two little red headed girls. A very close and loving family. I guess his biggest fault is that he could be a bit of a cheap skate. The book has tons of stories, mostly humorous, of his trying to stretch a buck. But all in all people liked him and he liked people. He in many ways remained the small town boy from Beaver Dam, Wisconsin that he was.

5) I understand he had a unique contract on MY THREE SONS--what was that?

Well the producer of MY THREE SONS, Don Fedderson, wanted Fred so much for this part that he gave him part ownership of the show and devised a unique schedule where Fred would be allowed to film all of his scenes for every episode within a sixty-day non consecutive period of time. This meant that they might film scenes at the breakfast table one day for six or seven different episodes. It was a nightmare for the other actors and the prop people, because when Fred was done doing his scenes he was gone and playing golf or something, then the other actors, guest actors included, would have to gather together months later and film the rest of the shows without Fred. Stanley Livingston, who played Chip on the show, said that often in close ups when he was speaking to Fred's character, he would actually be saying his lines to the script girl with somebody holding a mop to approximate Fred's height. He ended up calling that mop Fred McMop. But it kept Fred happy and he successfully made the transition to television. Other major movie actors like Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda tried television, but both of them failed. Fred found the perfect vehicle for his persona and the show ran for twelve years.

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