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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Photo: radiospirits.com

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, and 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, leading to 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 as 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 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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Photo: dga.com

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 on the air today.  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 discussed 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!”

The Herb Garden Germination

Photo: americanprofile.com

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.

Developing A Negative Perspective

We can all name a ton of shows featuring lawyers, doctors, and teachers.  Once you begin looking at other careers, it’s not easy to find more than one or two successful shows about each profession. Let’s look at a few series about photographers and see what develops.

 

Love That Bob – 1955-1959

Bob Collins (Bob Cummings) is a bachelor and a professional photographer. He lives with his sister Margaret McDonald (Rosemary DeCamp), a widow, and his nephew Chuck (Dwayne Hickman). Bob spends his time trying to get dates with his models while his sister spends her time trying to get him to settle down. Although he was not aware of it yet, we all knew the real love of his life was his assistant Schultzy (Ann B. Davis) who was obviously in love with him.

Not only did Bob get around, but his show followed suit. This show debuted on NBC for a half season and then moved to CBS for two years. Then it went back to NBC for two years and finally finished its life on ABC.

The opening of every show was Bob and his camera; he said “Hold It.  I think you’re going to like this picture.” Though Bob tried hard to be a playboy, he was so insecure we liked him in spite of himself and because of Schultzy.

Among the beautiful bevy of models on the show, we also got to know his best pal Harvey Helm (King Donovan) and his next-door neighbor Pamela Livingston (Nancy Kulp), an avid bird watcher.

The writers had a great perspective for the series because the show lasted five seasons for a total of 157 episodes.

The Box Brothers – 1956-1957

The Box brothers lived in San Francisco. They badly needed money and were offered a chance to buy a photography studio.  They developed more trouble than photographs. The brothers were total opposites. Mild-mannered Gilmore (Bob Sweeney) dated quiet Marilee Dorf (Nancy Hadley) while strong-willed Harvey (Gale Gordon) dated the self-assured Dr. Margaret Kleeb (Ann Morriss).

The show was one of the first series to feature a character who was heard off camera but never seen. Andy worked in the darkroom, so we never saw him in person.  The show also featured Howard McNear soon to run a barber shop in Mayberry and Barbara Billingsley who would dress in pearls and parent the Beaver.

After 26 episodes, the network had a flash of inspiration to cancel the whole thing.

Shirley’s World – 1971-1972

Shirley Logan (Shirley MacLaine) is a mod, young photographer who works for World Illustrated magazine based in London for editor Dennis Croft (John Gregson). She travels the world taking pictures, and the shows were filmed in England, Scotland, Japan, and Hong Kong, among other spots. She usually becomes involved in the lives of the subjects she is sent to photograph.

The show was a collaboration between British ITC and Sheldon Leonard.  It was expensive to film due to the traveling costs for shooting around the world and MacLaine’s salary which was reported as $47,500 per episode. This salary would be the equivalent of about $275,000 per episode today.

After 17 episodes, the network either ran out of money or changed its focus to cheaper production methods because this series was cancelled.

All’s Fair — 1976-1977

In 1976, Norman Lear created this sitcom about 49-year-old Richard Barrington (Richard Crenna) involved with 23-year old Charlotte Drake (Bernadette Peters).  He was a political columnist and she was a photographer, and they both lived in Washington DC.  That was about all they had in common.  He was conservative, lived in a luxurious townhouse, and was a gourmet cook.  She was liberal, lived cheaply, and was a vegetarian.  Most of the series centered around their generation gap and their political differences.

Jack Dodson, no longer living in Mayberry, played Senator Joplin, Barrington’s friend and Michael Keaton played President Carter’s aide.

The dialogue was fast-paced. One reviewer described it as “the best new comedy of the year” and the New York Times said, “casting is first rate and the finger-snapping pace of the show leaves just about everything looking easy and undemanding.”

Peters was nominated for a Golden Globe.  The only other well-known show to debut in 1976 was Alice.  I’m not sure if the writing quality was uneven or if the jokes just got tired and predictable, but after 24 episodes, the network decided it had been overexposed and moved on.

We’ve Got Each Other – 1977-1978

Mary Tyler Moore’s company produced this sitcom.  Stuart Hibbard (Oliver Clark) was a copywriter who worked from home and took care of the house and cooked the meals.  His wife Judy (Beverly Archer) commuted to Los Angeles for her career as a famous photographer’s assistant. Tom Poston played Damon Jerome the photographer.  He was great with a camera but a terrible businessman, so he relied on Judy for everything.

Stuart had to deal with their nutty neighbor Ken Redford (Martin Kove), and Judy had to put up with a self-centered model DeeDee Baldwin (Joan Van Ark). Damon’s secretary Donna (Red Woods) tried to keep peace between the women at work.

Thirteen was an unlucky number for this show which was cancelled after that many episodes. I guess Damon was a underexposed photographer whose contract was not renewed.

Whitney – 2011

We started with star Bob Cummings in this blog and we end with Whitney Cummings, no relation.  Whitney created and starred in this show about a photographer and her friends, a group of 20 somethings, who live in Chicago. Her boyfriend Alex Miller is played by Chris D’Elia.

Beverly D’Angelo from the Vacation movies played her mom in the original pilot, but was replaced by Jane Kaczmarek with all the scenes re-shot. The show did not garner great reviews.  The debut was watched by 6.8 million viewers in September, but by December only 4 million of them were still watching.

After 38 episodes, the network thought too large a time lapse had happened and ended the show.  Cummings also was the co-creator of 2 Broke Girls the same year.  That show had better luck, lasting five years, being cancelled this past May.

Obviously shows about photographers did not do too well over the television decades.  But if anyone can handle it, it’s these characters – after all they deal with negatives all day long.