‘Scuse me, how are you with your Chipisms these days? Are you currently up on your Chipese? Well Stan Livingston still remembers some of his from his hazy glory days as Fred MacMurray’s youngest son Chip Douglas on “My Three Sons”. Warm, affable, and soft spoken, but only in the most enthusiastic of senses, Stan Livingston will meet me for coffee at Victor’s Square and reminisce the show’s unique casting, his colorful friendship with William Frawley, and subtle parallels and perpendicularities between what was happening socially and politically vs. the flavor of classic TV (both on and off camera) by way of the innocent 50s to the age of Civil Rights through the Vietnam war. It is evident that Livingston is still in awe of “My Three Sons”, its writing, its direction, acting, and general production value and clearly something that inspired him to his current career.
I begin at the very beginning by asking how he began/got discovered as a child star…
Well, we lived in Hollywood. My parents moved here from Baltimore in 1947 and I came along in 1950… I had a cousin…who drowned—probably in the mid-forties. I never knew him…so my mom was afraid of me drowning and she wanted to make sure I had swimming lessons. There was a swim school on Hollywood Blvd… It was huge. A lot of people who lived in Beverly Hills didn’t have pools in those days… [So they] brought their kids there to learn how to swim; agents, managers, producers… There was an agent there and she saw me. I was pretty extroverted and kind of cute I guess…I don’t know… So she [said to my mom], “Let me send him out on something. He should be in show business,” …and they started sending me out on things. I think I worked as an extra for awhile. (laughing) I didn’t have any lines but I was with a bunch of other kids, and then one day I went out on an Ozzie and Harriet [episode] and I was an extra again but, for whatever reason, between one of the takes, Ozzie Nelson…came up to me and said, “I want you to say this line.” …So I just did what he said and I guess he liked it and I had the close-up and made the cut. He said he wanted to have me back again and he was true to his word… So I started on that show. He kept calling me back and my agent started getting me out on other things… [Then I] started doing movies. I was in a film called The Bonnie Parker Story which was like an earlier version of Bonnie and Clyde with a lady named Dorothy Provine who was a blonde bombshell… She was really pretty… She had a pretty good career going at that point in time and I had a really cool little scene. So that kind of broke [me] into the movie business, and next thing I knew I was doing Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies with Doris Day and David Niven… I did a couple of TV pilots, one for Jackie Cooper called Skippy …Skippy was a movie that he was in as a kid but he was an adult now, about 34 or 35, and had turned into a pretty good TV director and he cast me… He used to see me on the lot when I was doing Ozzie and Harriet and we’d talk… He was doing this show, People’s Choice and he had a dog on it named Cleo… I was an animal freak when I was a kid so I was always either on one soundstage next door where they used to shoot Mr. Ed… the guy’d let me brush him and pet him, [feed him sugar cubes] or I’d go and visit Cleo… That’s when Jackie Cooper saw me and started talking to me… He said, “Where’d this kid come from?” Next thing I did [was a] pilot for him…guess it would have been about the beginning of 1959… Then My Three Sons came along and I did the pilot for [it] but when it…was going to be picked up, I was still under contract to Jackie Cooper and he hadn’t sold the series yet. So my parents had to go to him and say, “Could you let him out of the series, ‘cause this other series is a definite go…” He let me out and we stayed friends all those years afterwards…
So I was the first person hired on My Three Sons… I was kind of known for crying…doing crying scenes, which is what Jackie Cooper was known for in The Champ [etc.]…anyway that was probably the reason I got hired for My Three Sons… It wasn’t quite as light a comedy [in the beginning] as it was later. The first year or two there were some pretty demanding scenes…and of course they knew they had Fred MacMurray. But we didn’t know who it was, all they would tell us was that it was a major star…and we were like, “Yeah? Wonder who that is.” So it took them awhile to cast the rest of the people and they ended up with William Frawley who had just finished I Love Lucy and then they got Tim Considine who had just gotten through doing a lot of Disney stuff; Spin and Marty…The Shaggy Dog–actually with Fred MacMurray… Tim had also done a movie with Red Skelton, when he was younger that was actually a redo of The Champ. It was about this kid and a circus clown who dies at the end. There’s this big emotional crying scene so he was kind of known for that too… The toughest part was finding the Robbie character. There was this series with Peter Graves called Fury [about] this kid and his horse Fury. The kid’s name was Bobby Diamond [and he was supposed to play Robbie but] right before we started to shoot they said, “He’s not doing it.” I don’t know what happened. The deal fell apart or something and so they started to look for somebody else… They got another actor…we started shooting. We shot for about a day or so. We stopped again and then they said, “This guy…can’t do comedy.” So my mom called Mary Grady, Don Grady’s mother, and said, “Hey they’re casting this thing again, you should get Don down here right now.” And they got Don in and he was another person that came from the Disney stable. He was one of the second tier Mousketeers… So Don came in, got hired and we started shooting again…
So your and Don’s families knew each other before.
Mary [Grady] was my agent…yeah… I started with this lady named Tina Hill. She was the one that discovered me at that Hollywood swim school, and kept bugging my mom about getting me into the industry… So anyway, we did the pilot for My Three Sons and it was pretty much sold from the get go…and we finally found out it was Fred MacMurray, which today doesn’t really resonate with younger people or maybe even people your age, but when Fred MacMurray came to do My Three Sons it was unheard of that a movie star of his caliber was going to be doing TV.
Like Tom Cruise or something…
It would be like…Tom Cruise…or Brad Pitt saying, “I don’t want to go do movies anymore. I’ve got kids and I just want to stay in Hollywood and I’m going to do a TV series.” Now that there’s so much content being produced, it’s not a big deal, but in those days there were three networks…so it was easy to keep track of all the shows, even the ones you didn’t watch; but the fact that Fred MacMurray was coming to this TV show was just…unheard of… ‘Cause it’s a lot of work. He’s got to be there, 8 in the morning to 6 pm…and in those days we shot 39 episodes a year. So it was a huge production schedule… That’s how we ended up with almost 400 episodes. I think there were 380 episodes produced ‘cause we were shooting so many in the beginning… The director we had the first year…Peter Tewksbury who was known for…and had just come from…Father Knows Best…? He was just a great director… He just cared about everything. He was…meticulous…and it was worth it for the first series ‘cause he set all the characters and we really understood our characters… He would work with you before a scene and if it was a big crying scene…he’d work with you emotionally… After that, none of the directors ever did that… Not to say that it got sloppy later but the shows were just so different because they were written by a [certain] caliber of writers… We had people like Neil Simon’s brother Danny Simon and I can’t even remember all the writers, but they were really amazing people and…just their ear for dialogue and stories…were just great… The show premiered…September 19th 1960… It was a huge hit and it was kind of novel because it was one of the few shows where there was no mother. That was the conceived end of the show. (laughing) You’ve got all these guys living together. That would be suspect now…probably. (laughing)
Hey, what’s going on with Fred MacMurray and…
(laughing) He’s gay… We were lucky ‘cause we used to know the guys from Bonanza. They shot [nearby]. We’d say, “I want to be in Bonanza ‘cause at least they have horses.” (laughing) “What the heck is this? I’ve got Bub– William Frawley!” But, that was the show. They had something for everybody. They had Bub who was the grandfather, Fred MacMurray…the available bachelor who was a tall, perfect looking guy. In fact, the cartoon character Captain America…in the Marvel comics was designed after him!
It’s Fred MacMurray’s face… Yeah…and then three pretty good looking kids, me…I think I was supposed to play about 7 years old but I was really nine going on ten. I just looked young, and then Don who was supposed to be about 14-15 but he was…already 17, and then Tim who had just turned 18. You had somebody for everybody there… So that’s all we did every week was date women or complain about women and…
(laughing) Like a regular bachelor pad.
Yeah like a regular bachelor pad…Fred’d be giving me advice… It was cute, it was very cute. The pilot episode was really funny ‘cause I had this girl who liked me and I just wasn’t…into girls yet…so I’d say…”Oh, she’s clunky.” And “Stay away…”
I remember that term “clunky”. And I used to use it ‘cause your show would be on Nick at Nite, when I was a teenager…
And they kind of made a big deal about the clunky and the words we used…
And that’s what I would always say about Super Model girls ‘cause I would say, “I’m cute. I’m 4’ 11 and Super Models are big and clunky. I’m compact,” and I would always defend myself that way.
…use a “Chipism”. (lauging)
A “Chipism”. Clunky was a great word. I never heard anybody say it in real life though. I have to say, it was kind of only on TV. It didn’t catch on like…if we were describing something that was ultra-cool, [it’d be] “Wow, that’s tough,” or “That’s boss.” You never heard anybody say, “clunky”.
(laughter all around)
It didn’t make it into the lexicon…
Well I did in high school in the 1980s! I said it.
Yeah you would only do it…as a punctuation to make a point!—in kind of a very retro way or something. But the [first] episode was funny…in that I had a situation where I get invited to [the interested girl’s] birthday but I don’t really want to go and this woman is sort of after [Fred MacMurray] like a bachelorette…and he doesn’t really want to go [out with her]. So…he’s not going to go and he’s telling me I have to go [to the party] and I point it out to him, “Well isn’t it sorta like the same thing?” And he’s caught. So he ends up going on this date…and he ends up escorting me to this dance with girls there… This woman goes with him and we ditch ‘em both at the end… (laughter) So it was very cute and the story telling was just so right on.
Good writing–and that is just key… That is absolutely key.
There’s another episode that is so clever in the beginning… They did one…and it was like a Twilight Zone where they had a female group and somehow we meet them but they’re [sort of in] a parallel universe. It’s like you’ve got a woman who’s really cute like…Fred MacMurray. Then you had the old crotchety mother…and these three daughters who were exactly our age…
The Brady Bunch—In a parallel Universe!
Yeah! So it kind of played off the My Three Sons thing…in the exact opposite. I thought that show was very funny. The other one I thought was really good…starts off with Tramp and he’s at a building site where they’re doing demolition…
Tramp, the dog… He brings a stick of dynamite home… And it’s the kind of dynamite where you don’t have to light the fuse…just BANG and it goes. He’s carrying it all through the house and dropping it. He goes down the stairs…it was so exciting. You’re just on the edge of your seat watching this show, ‘course we never had an episode where we got blown up!
(laughter) That could be one from a parallel universe in and of itself!
Yeah yeah…the shows that they came up with were very, very clever. There was another one where Fred goes to London and he sorta has this weird dream, but then he can’t call back to the United States for some reason, so he imagines all this stuff happening to us.
…And that’s just so interesting too because a lot of those scripts that you describe DO sound Twilight Zonish.
Yeah Twilight Zonish…and some of them are just good [in and of themselves] but they have a different feel. That’s the thing, if you watch our show in the beginning, it really has a 1950s sensibility. In fact, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie The Shaggy Dog–the original with Fred MacMurray. It’s a Disney Film. If you watch that, you’ll know exactly where they got My Three Sons from. They basically took–and this may have been conscious or maybe it was one of those…subconscious plagiarisms or something–but if I remember right, he’s a dad and he’s got three sons in it… It has that feel of Main Street Disneyland in a small Midwest town… And that’s what My Three Sons had in the beginning that I think it lost… It probably was impossible to perpetuate that beyond a certain point anyway with the encroachment of Civil Rights and Vietnam and…we never had any of that [on the show], although we did have a black person. Our producer [cast] a black guy… And it kind of caused a stink on our set [amongst] some of the crew guys, so he basically said to the crew guys, “You don’t like it? You’re fuckin’ fired!”
…And…it almost became an issue with the network like, “We can’t have a black guy…they’re supposed to be in the kitchen or be a janitor or something!” and he was just…a regular guy working—I think he played an engineer at the aeronautical plant… So yeah there were some things there that were kind of subtle behind the scenes that really were noteworthy that that happened.
And it’s so sociological how it…how TV mirrors society and how society mirrors TV. That’s such an interesting…astute observation that you’re saying, “Well it had a very 50s flavor and then the Civil Rights thing happened and then it changed our…”
We never had that. That never got injected into our [show]. We really kept that 50s flavor…[even though]…it was now the 60s: The Beatles [etc.]… There was just a smattering of that…cause we got older and the shows were kind of reflective…of our interests. I think when I started dating, I must’ve told someone… I liked this girl but she was about a year older than me… I think I was 11, she was 12, and so my mom had to go with me to pick her up, and we went to see Oceans 11 in Hollywood… So I was dating an older woman. (laughing) And I was…pretty cool. I remember sitting there and I wanted to put my arm around her and it took almost halfway through the movie before I finally did it, and then I didn’t want to take it down. I think my arm died up there. I must’ve told somebody this story and then it sort of found its way into an episode…kind of weird.
That’s so funny. When did it change from Black and White to Color? What year was that?
Between the fourth and fifth year. The show got sold to CBS. The first four years…we were black and white with ABC and when we went to CBS, they wanted color; came in and painted all the sets out and that was also the year Tim Considine left the show and my brother [Barry Livingston], who, by then, was playing my friend on the show, ended up getting adopted. They concocted some story that he was a foster child [but] we needed a third son in a hurry… It was decided it would be Barry and he was a known quantity. By then he was working a lot too. In fact we did an Ozzie and Harriet together and when I left, they kept him on the show as the neighborhood kid, and then he started doing movies; Errand Boy with Jerry Lewis and this film called Gigot…with Jackie Gleason… He did Dick Powell Theater, did an episode with Mickey Rooney. He did quite a few films and TV shows, so he was known to them as an actor… He had that unique look with his buck teeth and glasses… So they started to use him as my friend which was strange. I’m in a classroom and there’s this guy three years younger [in it with me]. I think they were trying to say he was like a genius or something. Either that or I was really stupid…
So…you’ve talked a great deal about the show but do you have any especially outstanding anecdotes of anything that happened on the set?
Well, probably my favorite person on the show was William Frawley–in the early years–‘cause I was a big I Love Lucy fan and used to play hooky all the time… I Love Lucy came on at 9:00 right when school started so…I’d always manage to be sick when I woke up so I’d stay home and watch that…and…we really kind of bonded. I never knew either of my grandfathers and he was very grandfatherly to me… After the fact, I saw that he hated kids and hated dogs but he liked me, so I’d eat lunch with him every day…at Nickodell’s Restaurant… He’d buy a drink for me and stuff…
He’d buy a drink for you? What kind of drink?
Fernet Branca…Whatever that is…bitters? It was awful… (laughing) [So] I’d eat…with him every day, but it sort of became my unofficial job to bring him back [to the studio] because he would have a liquid lunch practically. And…I remember the production manager said, “Y’know if you can get him going…we break at 12, we’re supposed to be back at 1. If you can get him up at ten of and walk him back, [that’d be great],” so that sort of became [part of my job] to walk this guy back to the set. Nobody else did. He’d just tell them,“Go fuck yourself!” …So he was a real character. I remember for my 14th birthday, I was into surfing, and I remember I walked into my dressing room…and there was a nine foot long Dewey Weber surf board from Bill… That was a big surf board back then… I don’t know how he found out about Dewey Webber surf boards. I have no idea how he went out, and got it, and brought it back to the sound stage, and had it put in my dressing room; but it says something, you know that he was listening to me…and was interested in what I was interested in and obviously wanted to make an impression. And I just, I think about that sometimes and it almost brings a tear to my eye. You just take so many things for granted and something like that is just so…way above and beyond the call of duty, but that’s how Bill was towards me. We were just such good friends and, I think it was the fourth year he didn’t come back. They couldn’t get him insured.
Insured for the year; because…we didn’t shoot like most shows, where you shoot an episode out. Because of Fred MacMurray’s schedule, we were shooting 3-4 shows a day to get his scenes in, and pick another group for the next day and that’s how the whole season was done.
I actually heard that Fred MacMurray would do all his scenes…leave, and then the rest would be shot with a ladder with his face on it for the cutaways.
Yeah…that’s how they lured Fred into the show. They said, “You won’t have to be there the whole time… We’re going to shoot every single scene [you’re in]… You’ll be there for about two months and then you can just go away for the summer. Then we’ll shoot all the scenes that you’re not in and then you’ll come back at the end for another two months and finish off the season,” which ultimately became the “MacMurray Method” of shooting. That’s literally called that. That’s how they got a lot of other pretty big stars to do TV shows…
But did you know if other shows really did adopt it and call it The MacMurray Method?
Later. In fact our own producer kind of cloned that… That’s how they talked Brian Keith into doing Family Affair with the same producer Don Federson. They also did To Rome with Love with John Forsythe. They did The Smith Family with Henry Fonda… It was a real good lesson for me …on how you don’t have to shoot something sequentially; you can shoot it completely out of synch. Start it backwards and work forwards if you want, it doesn’t really matter. Just put it together in the editing. And it worked…it worked…
So My Three Sons wasn’t like taped in front of a studio audience. It was a laugh track.
No; single camera–yeah. We had a laugh track… We had a lot of episodes and a lot of film.
And then William Frawley left, and you had Uncle Charlie.
He went in for his insurance physical… We all did just to make sure there was nothing wrong [and the doctor] said, “Hey, I can’t hear this guy’s heartbeat. He’s not gonna make it.” And because of the way we filmed…it’s not like you could shoot, say, three or four shows and then if he died [you could just write him out]…so they just let him go and we cast William Demarest… as Uncle Charlie who, I think, was a friend of Fred MacMurray’s, ‘cause they’d done..a lot of films together… So he came in, took over…and about 2-3 months later Bill dropped dead on Hollywood Blvd…
On Hollywood Blvd? He was just walking or…?
He was just walking. He had a heart attack… Yeah. Sad. It must’ve been big not to come back to the show and whatever the circumstances…Hollywood’s merciless… Looking at what happened, it was probably a good thing they didn’t [rehire him] from a production standpoint. But from the human side it was kind of a shitty thing to do.
And after William Demarest took over, how many more years did it run?
…He was probably in 7 years of it. So he was on longer than William Frawley anyway.
Wow that show ran a long time.
Well we ran 12 years. It’s the second longest running sitcom ever on TV. The longest one was Ozzie and Harriett, where I started out. That ran 14 years.
So now you’re obviously focusing on your own production company; and I know you said you started off doing commercials.
Yeah that’s how I got started. I’ve had some odd jobs over the years ranging from educational things to music videos; did a feature film a couple years ago called Checkers, and then freelanced as a a director too. I did a TV series. It was slated for PBS… It was a children’s show called Cory the Clown… In 2012 the 60th year of Cinerama was coming around so we decided to do this project, and actually shoot something in Cinerama for the Cinerama film festival. So we kicked off the festival in September of 2012 with this film called, In the Picture and we got a great review from Leonard Maltin. It was really cool. But we basically had to restore a camera to do it… So we restored a camera that was used to shoot How the West was Won which was kind of cool for me ‘cause I was in How the West was Won…
Wow! And–In the Picture, what was the concept?
Well, what we decided to do, since we were kind of emulating what was originally done with Cinerama…is a mock travelogue. But the real Cinerama films were going to like Vienna, and Switzerland, and Rome, and The Pyramids. We were in L.A. so it was…a little bit tongue in cheek. We went… from Angels Flight, to the Griffith Observatory, to these ships down in San Pedro Harbor… So it was more to show what Cinerama was, and how it looked ‘cause audiences today have no idea… Most people would say, “It’s a big screen. Oh like IMAX!” …No, IMAX is completely different. It’s a big screen but it’s flat… Cinerama wraps around so you have this whole peripheral vision thing going on. So when you’re moving through space, like in a car…you really have this sensation of motion. It’s very visceral.
And what was [feature film] Checkers about?
…It was an interesting film. A friend of mine wrote the script for it. It was everything that My Three Sons wasn’t. It was about a dad and his three sons, well actually four sons, who absolutely don’t get along… The dad’s coming down to visit…and it sounds like it’s going to be this really fun thing. He can’t wait to see his sons, [who are all in their] late forties/fifties, and from the second he arrives, it doesn’t go well. [None of the brothers want to take him and one brother’s calling the next brother saying] ”Are you trying to pawn Dad off on me?” “No, No I’m not pawning him off. I’m just busy…?” So you find out there’s this sort of deep dark family secret as to why these guys are having an issue with their dad. ‘Cause he seems pretty likeable, although maybe a little bit Alzheimery or something… But then as the story progresses, you find out more about this thing that went on with the family, and although this guy seems kind of nice and [like a] gentle guy, he was kind of a monster when they grew up. He was…a drunk, and beat the wife, beat the kids… [But] he’s an older guy now and just wants redemption…wants to reconnect with his sons but they’re all damaged goods… So they go back to this one brother’s house and that’s where…Checkers comes in… The only thing they all want to do together, where they [remember a moment of peace] is…play Checkers… So they have this Checker game and it also ends up causing this explosion where you see who the dad really was… It’s a good…touching film…. And what I liked about it, is it felt real. ‘Cause you know how…most of the movies, especially movies…for TV, always have a resolution and everybody gets along? [In Checkers] you have an understanding but not a resolution, where it’s like, “I hate you but you’re my dad so I’m still going to see you but we’re just never going to have what we could have had.” So it felt very, very real.
And what about future projects?
Just trying to get a film up…called The Quarry Men which is about the Beatles before they were The Beatles… It pays a little tribute to [that]…. Before there was the Beatles there was this band of neighborhood friends–the guys that John kind of enlisted the help of and made them, some reluctantly, join this band…that he was trying to put together and he didn’t even really know how to play guitar… But the ramification of it is that, without these guys, there really never would have been The Beatles. For this one summer, they got together and played and it was one of the guy’s mothers who went to bat for them at this church festival and got them a gig… It was another friend [who] brought Paul McCartney to that gig and introduced him to John! So you go, “Wow had these guys not been there, these childhood friends and high school friends…[putting] this initial band together, there would have been no Beatles!”
So we’ve got that, and we’ve got a horror film. I wrote it a long time ago but it still works and we’re trying to get some funding for that… I’ve got another project with Steve Railsback…he was the guy who played Charles Manson in Helter Skelter. He was also in a movie, The Stunt Man which is one of the best movies ever made. It was nominated for an academy award. Peter O’Toole, who starred in it with him, is nominated, the writer, the music everything about it… If you look at film critics lists it’s always on their top 100 list. It’s just an amazing film. Anyway he’s my partner on that. He’s [directing], I’m producing it and… So yeah I’ve got a number of projects… You just never know which one’s gonna go first in this economy and I’m thinking, IS another one going to go first? (laughing)
…And then I have this online project called The Actor’s Journey Project which is…done as a documentary but it’s really an educational thing for actors… It’s the only program I know about that really encompasses all the business elements… In other words, most actors go off and spend a ton of money…learning how to become actors, the art and craft of acting, but none of these colleges teach a business program… So I put about 100 people together from our industry; everything from directors producers, executive producers, show runners, agents, managers, casting directors… We have the president of the Screen Actors Guild, President of the Directors Guild of America, people who sit on the various boards; and I put this ten hour long program together for actors… ‘Cause it’s not been taught. It’s ridiculous… You’ve got people coming here and they know to get a resume and reel, try and get an agent and try and get into the screen actors guild: Well those are 5-6 things. We have 60 topics that you need to know…to get into the mainstream industry, otherwise you’re just going to languish in what I call “The Farm League”…y’know, no budget/low budget, student, grad films…and you can go out and work in that, but that has nothing to do with the mainstream industry.
So we did that program and then we did another five hour long program for the parents of child and teen actors. So the parents really learn…the business side of the industry…so they don’t get their kid in it and get ripped off… As far as I know [these are] the only two programs on the business aspect of being an actor…and I knew all these great people: Sherman Hemsley…when he was alive…and Henry Winkler, Melissa Gilbert… One of the directors who was involved was Richard Donner, and another director Richard Rush just amazing…people involved…nominated for Academy, Emmy Golden Globe awards… As opposed to getting the information from your acting instructor, you’re getting it from people who have a body of work and experience to back it up and getting it from the horse’s mouth!
[As of now] it’s an unlisted project and we just figured–“Oh Word of mouth”… As people find out about it they’ll turn other people on to it. But it really could make the difference between you languishing, or if you’ve just spent a ton of money on your education at a four year college…and you come out here and have everything just go up in smoke in three years it’s just sad. And the industry doesn’t care. It just doesn’t care. Somebody cares… I care. And I figured, I’m going to go do something about this!
All in all a very enlightening, historically sound and fascinating two hours of conversation…
To find out more about Stan Livingston’s wonderful memories, projects, and programs, please visit: