Milton Frome: What a Character!

As we continue looking at some of our well-known character actors, today we consider the career of Milton Frome. Frome was born in Philadelphia in 1909. He began acting in his mid-20s.

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His first major movie role was in Ride ‘em Cowgirl in 1939. Frome would go on to appear in 55 movies (including The Nutty Professor, Bye Bye Birdie, and With Six You Get Eggroll), as well as five made-for-TV movies. He also had a thriving television career beginning with Chevrolet Tele-Theatre in 1950.

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Appearing in 34 different shows during the fifties, he performed in a variety of genres including dramas, comedies and westerns.

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The Adventures of Superman

During that decade you would have seen him on I Love Lucy, Lassie, The Adventures of Superman, Playhouse Theater, The Thin Man, and The Gale Storm Show. He also worked with many comic legends on television, including Milton Berle, Red Skelton, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

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I Love Lucy

His career escalated in the sixties when he would accept roles in 48 programs. He showed up in dramas, including The Twilight Zone, 77 Sunset Strip, and Dr. Kildare. He also found his way into many westerns such as Bat Masterson, Death Valley Days, Gunslinger, Big Valley, Rawhide, and Wagon Train. However, he seemed to excel at comedies and during the 1950s you could have spied him in many sitcoms. He accepted parts in Bachelor Father, Pete and Gladys, The Jim Backus Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mister Ed, The Joey Bishop Show, I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, The Donna Reed Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, Bewitched, The Monkees, The Patty Duke Show, Petticoat Junction, and The Andy Griffith Show.

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The Monkees

Frome was never offered a permanent role in a series, but he did have a recurring role in The Beverly Hillbillies, appearing eight times as Lawrence Chapman, who managed Jed Clampets Mammoth Studios.

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His television career slowed down a bit in the 1970s and became nonexistent by 1983, but he did make appearances in shows like Ironside, Columbo, Here’s Lucy, The Streets of San Francisco, Sanford and Son, and Trapper John MD. He also appeared in two Love American Style episodes in 1971 and 1973. In the 1973 episode, “Love and the Anniversary,” he played “The Man” and his son Michael played a bellhop.

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The Jerry Lewis Show

At some point, Frome married Marjorie Ann Widman, but I could not verify when they married. I also could not verify if Michael was their son, or his son from another relationship.

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Batman

Frome passed away in 1989 from congestive heart failure.

While it is now easy to analyze and detail an actors professional career, it was very tough to find any information about Fromes personal life or his working relationships with other actors. It makes me sad that these hard-working actors who provided so much to our classic television-watching experiences are just not well known. Hopefully blogs like mine keep them in television viewers memories, and some day maybe I will have time to write a book about these unsung heroes of our pop culture history. Thanks for all you contributed to the golden age of television Milton Frome!

Nita Talbot: What A Character!

Continuing the “What a Character” series, today we look at the career of Nita Talbot. Born in 1930 in New York as Anita Sokol, Talbot had an almost fifty-year-long career. She began appearing in films in 1949 with It’s a Great Feeling (and would go on to make another 30), but it was in television that she had her greatest success. It’s a Great Feeling starred Doris Day and Jack Carson in a parody of what goes on behind the scenes of the making of a Hollywood movie.

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She was married to Don Gordon from 1954-1958 and to Thomas Geas from 1961 until sometime in the 1970s.  I could not narrow it down to any specific year. Both of her husbands were also actors. Her sister Gloria was the wife of Carl Betz who co-starred as Alex Stone on The Donna Reed Show.

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Joe and Mabel

Talbot began her television career in 1950 on Repertory Theater. Appearing in 32 different shows throughout the fifties, many of her appearances were in dramas, primarily shows with different plays weekly. Talbot had a recurring role on Man Against Crime starring Ralph Bellamy, appearing in 9 of the 123 episodes. Later in the decade she was cast in Joe and Mabel in 1956. Nita played the role of Mabel, a manicurist who was dating cab driver Joe. The show only lasted four episodes. At the end of the decade, she would have a recurring role on The Thin Man as Beatrice/Blondie Dane a con artist.

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Gomer Pyle

Nita would take on roles in 29 different shows in the sixties. This decade was her “western” season. She did appear in Gomer Pyle and The Monkees, but most of her roles were in westerns, including Gunsmoke, Maverick, The Man from Blackhawk, Rawhide, The Virginian, Daniel Boone, and Bonanza.

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During this ten-year period, she would be cast in three shows, one drama, and two comedies. In 1960, she could be seen in Bourbon Street Beat about a New Orleans detective agency where she played Lusti Weather. She co-starred in one sitcom this decade with Jim Backus in The Jim Backus Show. Backus plays Mike O’Toole, who struggles to keep his news service business afloat. Talbot played the role of Dora, one of O’Toole’s reporters. The show only lasted for one season.

At the end of the decade, Talbot was offered the role that she would become best known for. Although she only appeared in seven episodes of Hogan’s Heroes, she earned an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 1967-68 season for her role of Marya, a Russian spy.

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Hogan’s Heroes

One of her taglines was “Hogahn darlink.” While Hogan could charm most women, he never was certain when he could or couldn’t trust Marya, but he was often coerced to join forces with her against the Germans.

She continued her thriving television career during the seventies with another 26 shows; four of those would be permanent or recurring roles; however, none of them lasted very long.

In 1971, she was offered the role of Maggie Prescott in Funny Face starring Sandy Duncan. Duncan played a college student who worked part time as an actress and Talbot was her agent. When CBS picked up the pilot, they made several changes which resulted in Talbot’s role being dropped.

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Here We Go Again

1973 found her as part of the cast of Here We Go Again. The show portrayed life after divorce for two couples. It should have been renamed, There We Went because the show only lasted for 13 episodes before being canceled.

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The Monkees

In 1977 she joined the cast of Soap, playing Sheila Fine, who has an affair with Burt Campbell’s son Peter.

In 1979, Supertrain debuted. It was supposedly the most expensive show ever made. It was a “Love Boat” on the rails.  The supertrain traveled across the country and every week passengers found love and solved life problems on their journeys. The show was derailed after nine episodes.

In between these roles, she tended to appear primarily in crime shows in the 1970s such as Mannix, McCloud, Columbo, Police Story, The Rockford Files, Charlie’s Angels, and Police Woman.

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The Partridge Family

Her roles diminished a bit in the eighties with 13 appearances and 9 in the 1990s. She would be cast in one additional sitcom in 1988, Starting from Scratch. This show starred Bill Daily and Connie Stevens as a divorced couple. Stevens leaves her second husband to come back to her ex-spouse and two sons. Talbot played Rose. The show seemed to get good ratings and currently people are rating them 4.5-4.8 out of 5.0, so I’m not sure why it was canceled after a year.

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Talbot retired in the late 1990s and is hopefully enjoying a less-busy life. She had a long and successful career and certainly was a character!

Earle Hagen Whistles a Happy Tune

We don’t often notice music in the background of our favorite shows, but it has a significant impact on our appreciation for a series. One of my favorite CDs in the 1980s was the music from thirtysomething. I admit I didn’t often pay attention to the music while watching the show, but I loved listening to the soundtrack.

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Today we get to spend some time learning about one of the most prolific songwriters in the television industry: Earle Hagen. Earle was born in the Midwest in 1919, in Chicago, but moved with his family to Los Angeles. He began playing the trombone in junior high school.

At age 16 he left home to play with some of the best big bands in the country: Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Ray Noble.

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During his time with Noble, when he was only 20, Hagen composed the song “Harlem Nocturne” as a tribute to Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges. It would be recorded by numerous musicians over the years and later was adopted as the theme for both Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and The New Mike Hammer.

In 1940 Earle was hired by CBS as a staff musician. Like many of the composers we have been learning about, Hagen enlisted in the military for World War II. When he came home, he became an orchestrator and arrangement writer for 20th Century Fox. He worked on a variety of films including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Carousel.

In 1943 he married Lou Sidwell, a big band singer. They would remain married until she passed away in 2002 and produce two sons.

When Earle accepted the Irwin Kostal Tribute Award in 2000, he explained that “In 1953, the studios committed to large screen production and we went from 38 pictures a year to one. There were other pictures on the planning board but not immediate enough to support the huge studio staffs. So, along with 1199 other people, I migrated to television.”

The first show he worked on was a short-lived series, It’s Always Jan which was on the air from 1955-56.

Then Hagen met Sheldon Leonard. As he says, “There again my good fortune held. I teamed up with Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard at a time when they were starting a string of hits that lasted 17 years.” Earle wrote the theme for Make Room for Daddy.

Those 17 years were busy. Leonard initiated the practice of using original music for sitcoms, so a lot of background music was required. Hagen said that during that era, the composer was part of the creative team. His opinion was asked for and respected in pre-production, production, and post-production.

He loved working in television. He said that there was “something about the immediacy of TV that I enjoyed. It was hard work, with long hours and endless deadlines, but being able to write something one day and hear it a few days later appealed to me. I think a statistic of which I am most proud is that in the 33 years I spent in television I was associated with some three thousand shows. Every one of them was recorded in Los Angeles with a live orchestra.”

His work continued with Leonard, and he wrote the theme song for The Dick Van Dyke Show.

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Then Sheldon asked him to come up with a theme for a show about some gentle town folks and their sheriff. Earle said he struggled a while trying to come up with the perfect theme. As he described the process: It’s like “peeling an onion. Half of coming up with something good is throwing away what’s not.” Finally, he had a brainstorm and “he simply whistled the catchy tune which entered his head.” It’s the whistling of Hagen we hear on The Andy Griffith Show when we hear “The Fishin’ Hole.” Despite the difficulty of coming up with the theme song, Hagen enjoyed his time with The Andy Griffith Show. He said, “I guess my favorite show . . . was The Andy Griffith Show. It covered the spectrum from warmth to complete zaniness. It also was easy to write. Worthwhile, when you are doing four or five different series a week.”

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He went on to work on several shows in the 1960s, including The Bill Dana Show, That Girl, Accidental Family, Gomer Pyle USMC, Mayberry RFD, and The Mod Squad. Hagen based the Mod Squad theme on Schoenberg’s 12-tone scale which added some tension to the scenes, along with a jazzy theme song.

Hagen’s songs are some of the most recognizable ones in television. However, his most innovative and beautiful scores were done for a show that is not remembered much today, I Spy. Leonard wanted original soundtracks for each episode. This humorous spy show was filmed in locations all around the world, so the music had to vary as well.

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This was the first show to star an African American. Bill Cosby and Robert Culp were spies who took on assignments around the globe. I would like to say that the reason for the lack of the show being rerun is due to Bill Cosby and the poor personal choices he made which has resulted him being sentenced to jail and the shows he was involved with disappearing from television schedules. However, I rarely remember this show being available even before Cosby’s criminal trials, and I’m not sure why that is. In 2008, all three seasons of DVDs were released.

On the website earlehagen.net, we read that “During the run of the series he amassed one of the most comprehensive collections of ethnic music in existence at that time–some of it on commercial records bought in the countries he visited with the production team, but much of it taped live in situ with local musicians. These recordings containing priceless material of musical genres never before recorded, and in some cases, now extinct, were then mixed into the background music produced by the studio orchestra in Los Angeles.  The result was what has been deemed ‘the richest musical palette ever composed for any American television series.’ ”

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Sheldon relied on Hagen to literally scout the world for filming locations. The couple visited Japan, Hong Kong, Bangkok, India, Israel, Greece, Italy, France, and New York. Hagen discussed this trip. “Before the show started, at Sheldon Leonard’s invitation, Lou (my wife of 58 years so far), and I were invited to go on a `round the world trip with the Leonard’s scouting locations for the upcoming series, I Spy. On that 52-day trip we traveled first class, stayed in first class accommodations and at every airport were met by a car, driver, and interpreter, who stayed with us as long as we were in the country.”

Earle wanted viewers to remember that these were US spies so he named his music “semi jazz,” which fused local world cultures with American jazz music.

Deborah Young-Groves discusses the variety of music Hagen used in her article, Creating the Perfect Vibes for “I Spy.”

“And who could forget the frantic–almost joyous–chase across the University of Mexico in ‘Bet Me A Dollar’–Spanish brass–almost Copeland-esque (remember ‘El Salon Mexico’?), too loud to ignore but erratic and happy. And yet, like Copeland, Hagen only scored where he deemed appropriate. In that very same episode the child, who urgently seeks help for Kelly, runs in utter silence.  We hear only his pounding feet and his sobbing gasps.

But the two best episodes for music are ‘Home to Judgment’ and ‘The Warlord,’ for equally fascinating reasons. ‘The Warlord’ borrows heavy oriental imagery for the action sequences (always punctuated by that American jazz – but it works) using snare drums and brass.  How Hagen can get a trumpet to sound Asian simply by a jagged sequence of notes is still a mystery to me!

Then he changes completely and takes a plangent delicate note for the love theme between Chuang Tzu and Katherine, caught between their separate worlds.  It is somber, powerful and almost painful – one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard.”

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I Spy was on the schedule for three seasons. Hagen was nominated for an Emmy all three years for his work on the show, and he won it the last year the show aired. When asked about his favorite episodes, Hagen said, “Some of the shows of course stand out in memory: ‘Tatia,’ ‘Laya,’ ‘Home to Judgment’ ‘Warlord,’ and one of my favorites, ‘Mainly on The Plains.’ ”

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The music was so memorable on this show, that Hagen was able to record two albums from the series. The first album was recorded by Warner Brothers and the second was Capitol. He said he enjoyed the Capitol album more only because he was able to work on in the off season, so he had more time to devote to it.

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Earle would continue with his work on television throughout the 1970s, working on a variety of shows, including The New Perry Mason, Eight is Enough, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. In the 1980s, he worked on Dukes of Hazard.

During the last decades of his life he taught and wrote books on scoring and music arrangements. He wrote the textbook, Scoring for Films: A Complete Text. In 2000, he published his autobiography, Memoirs of a Famous Composer Nobody Ever Heard Of.

In 2005, he married his second wife, Laura Roberts. Hagen died from natural causes in 2008.

In 2011, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

Perhaps his website sums up his career best: “When one considers the vast range Earle Hagen’s career has covered, and just where he was at each stage in his life—playing trombone in the big bands during the 30s, writing arrangements for Frank Sinatra, working at 20th Century Fox during the reign of Alfred Newman, creating TV themes and scores for Sheldon Leonard shows, not to mention teaching brilliant young composers the art of scoring, and publishing the top texts in his field—it can truly be said that he lived through the best times in each of these worlds.”

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Earle Hagen was another one of the great pioneers in the golden age of television and he should be celebrated for his amazing career.

Sheldon Leonard: A True TV Pioneer

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The Depression changed the course of Sheldon Leonard’s life. He was born in Manhattan to Jewish parents. He went to Syracuse University on an athletic scholarship. While there, he was president of the dramatics club. His degree was in finance, and he landed a job at a prestigious brokerage firm. Then the Depression hit, and he was out of a job. He had to fall back on the only other skill he could think of which was acting.

In 1931 he married Frances Bober whom he was married until his death. They would have two children.

Acting was not quick money either though. It took five years until he landed his first major Broadway role in Hotel Alimony in 1934. It did not have a long run, but his next two shows were more successful: Having a Wonderful Time in 1937 and Kiss the Boys Goodbye in 1938.

 

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He then entered film work. He had several very small roles in a couple of movies and a couple of shorts, but in 1939 he was cast in Another Thin Man, the popular movie series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. That began his career as a heavy, often being cast as a gangster. He would appear in To Have and Have Not with Bogie and Bacall in 1944. In 1946 he was cast as the bartender in It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Because it has become a Christmas staple, it has brought Sheldon a lot of recognition. Sheldon would appear in 74 movies during his career, 69 of them by 1952.

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During this time, he also gave radio a try. He was working on both sides of the mic. He sold scripts to several shows including Broadway is My Beat. He also portrayed his stereotyped gangster role on many shows including as Grogan on The Phil Harris, Alice Faye Show. You could hear him on Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Duffy’s Tavern, the Halls of Ivy, and The Judy Canova Show, among others.

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It was only a matter of time before Sheldon took his talents to television. He appeared in four episodes of Your Jeweler’s Showcase in 1952. In addition, he was listed as producer and director for several of these episodes. He appeared in I Love Lucy in 1953 as vacuum salesman Harry Martin and several I Married Joan episodes in 1952-53. One of my favorites was his role as Johnny Velvet on Burns and Allen when he kidnaps Gracie but takes her back because she drives him crazy. In 1954 he co-starred in The Duke which lasted 13 episodes.  This show featured an artistic boxer who leaves the ring to open a nightclub. Sheldon also directed the pilot as well as some early episodes of Lassie and The Real McCoys.

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However, the show that made him a household name was his director/producer role on Make Room for Daddy, Danny Thomas’s hit sitcom. The show was in the top ten, and Sheldon even found time to appear on the show 19 times. The show continued from 1953-1964. Leonard had found his sweet spot. During his career, he would direct and produce shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, I Spy.

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Sheldon convinced Carl Reiner to step back from acting as Rob Petrie and produce The Dick Van Dyke Show. That conversation resulted in Dick Van Dyke accepting the role and 158 episodes. If you watch carefully, you will notice Sheldon appearing twice on the show in minor roles. The show was nominated for 25 Emmys and won 15.

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Sheldon also is credited with creating the spinoff. One of Danny Thomas’s episodes was set in North Carolina where he gets picked up for speeding in a rural town and has a run-in with Sheriff Andy Taylor. This episode turned into the long-running The Andy Griffith Show which was on the air from 1960-1968 netting 249 episodes. The show won 6 of the 9 Emmys it was nominated for.

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The spinoff was so successful he did it again, moving Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle from the gas station attendant on The Andy Griffith Show to his own show, Gomer Pyle USMC. That show was on the air for five years (150 episodes), and Sheldon would also make an appearance there as Norman Miles.

Thomas and Leonard (L&T Productions) were also behind the The Joey Bishop Show and The Bill Dana Show. Thomas and Leonard’s shows were notable for emphasizing the characters and relationships over slapstick or situation comedy. You cared about the characters even when they were a little kooky like Gomer Pyle or Barney Fife. They were committed to high-quality scripts. Many of the writers they employed went on to successful shows of their own including Danny Arnold for Barney Miller; Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson for The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy; and Bill Persky and Sam Denoff for That Girl and Kate and Allie. L&T Productions ended in 1965.

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In the mid-1960s Sheldon produced I Spy. He cast Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as secret agents.  This was the first series to star a black actor in a lead role. In a March 7, 2016 Modern Times article, David Fantle and Tom Johnson discussed Sheldon Leonard and I Spy. Leonard said he knew what he was doing. “Race was very much an issue at that time,” he said. “I was intellectually conscious of it, but emotionally unaware of it. When I say emotionally unaware, I mean I was free to think of Cosby as the man to fill the slot I needed. Intellectually I knew the problems I’d have to face to get him on the air.” I Spy was a humorous suspense show and was known for its exotic locations, filming in countries such as Hong Kong, England, Morocco, France, and Greece among others. The critics rewarded Leonard. The show was nominated for Outstanding Dramatic Series Emmy every year of its three-year run and earned Leonard an Emmy nomination for directing in 1965.

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Sheldon was also the producer behind Accidental Family and Good Morning World, both shows debuting in 1967 and ending in 1968 and My World and Welcome to It in 1969. Accidental Family was about a widower  who is a stand-up comedian. He buys a California farm which is managed by Sue Kramer who is also his son’s governess and his love interest. Good Morning World was about morning disc jockeys in LA. One is happily married, and one is a ladies’ man. Goldie Hawn was the next-door neighbor and Billy De Wolfe was their boss. On My World and Welcome To It, John Monroe is a married man with a daughter. He frequently daydreams and fantasizes about life. This show was unusual in that it included some animation along with the live action.

 

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In the Fantle and Johnson article referenced above, Leonard also talked about his favorite sitcom. He said his favorite might be the one that needed the most attention. “My favorite show was cancelled after the first year. My World and Welcome to It, based on the writings of James Thurber and starring William Windom. It won every award, and they cancelled . . . It was satire and above their (the network bosses’) heads. That show and I Spy are my favorites.”

In the early 1970s Sheldon would produce From a Bird’s Eye View and Shirley’s World. From a Bird’s Eye View was a sitcom about two stewardesses, Millie from England and Maggie from America. Millie was always getting into mischief and Maggie bailed her out. Shirley’s World starred Shirley MacLaine as a photographer who travels the world for her London-based magazine. The locales were similar to I Spy.

 

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In 1975 Sheldon starred in a new sitcom, Big Eddy which only lasted for ten episodes. He was Eddie Smith was the owner of the Big E Sports Arena in New York. He was an ex-gambler fighting the impulse to get back into it. He has a bunch of eccentric people in his life including his ex-stripper wife Honey and their granddaughter Ginger.

In the 1980s, Sheldon would continue to show up on various television shows, appearing in Sanford and Son, The Cosby Show, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and Cheers.

Along with author Mickey Spillane, Leonard was one of the first two people to become a Miller Lite spokesman. In his New York accent, he tells the audience, “I was at first reluctant to try Miller Lite, but then I was persuaded to do so by my friend, Large Louis.”

Sheldon Leonard passed away at the age of 89 in 1997. His wife Frances passed away in 1999.

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Sheldon Leonard is undoubtedly one of the greatest television producers. Most of his shows were consistently in the top ten. They are classic shows still seen today on Me TV and Antenna TV.  Sheldon required scripts that brought characters to life. He created spinoffs when he believed in the characters. He was not afraid to take risks. Besides casting Bill Cosby, he cast Lois Nettleton as divorced Sue Kramer on Accidental Family. This was in the mid-1960s and yet when Mary Tyler Moore’s show aired in 1970, the network refused to allow her to be a divorced character.

In the Mercurie Blogspot from November 10, 2013, Carl Reiner discusses Leonard: “Sheldon has mentored more people in our business than anyone else I know. He knew how to teach what he knew, and what he knew was situation comedy with the three-camera technique. Sheldon was a producing genius who understood comedy. He had four or five shows going, but he would walk in and give his intelligence and his time to every script that was being read for the week. And we always came away with a better script because we would discuss and argue and come to a better situation.”

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Garry Marshall was also quoted in this same article: “Sheldon was a sort of man’s man, yet he had all the creative sensitivity of the artist. No matter what story you were working on, he could help you fix it. He would never put down your idea. If I had to describe Sheldon in one word, it would be gentleman. He was a Renaissance man with a New York accent—and possibly a gun!”

 

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As a salute to Leonard, the writers of The Big Bang Theory, named their main characters Sheldon and Leonard in honor of Sheldon Leonard.

 

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Sheldon himself seems to explain his success best. After working on his memoir in 1995, And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Holiday Adventures, he said “I was driven by an urge to survive and being very self-indulgent. I never did anything for very long that I didn’t like or enjoy. I would survive only on my own terms. I had to enjoy what I was doing, and I would have done what I did even if nobody paid me. That’s the secret of success in any business: do it well and enjoy doing it.”

 

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He did it all well, and we all enjoyed it.