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For over four decades, actor Fred MacMurray embodied the Everyman in a string of popular comedies and musicals, including "Remember the Night" (1940) and "The Egg and I" (1947) as well as a series of well-loved Disney live-action films like "The Absent-Minded Professor" (1961) and the long-running family series "My Three Sons" (ABC/CBS, 1960-1972). A handsome, affable presence, he made an ideal onscreen romantic partner to some of Hollywood's biggest female stars, including Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard. So believable was MacMurray as upstanding young men that it seemed unlikely that he could play anything else, a notion that was dispelled by his chilly turn as a doomed murderer in Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" (1944). He proved equally successful in portraying the dark flipside to the Everyman, seduced by the lure of power, prestige and sex in "The Caine Mutiny" (1953) and Wilder's "The Apartment" (1960), though by the early 1960s, his status as America's favorite father figure was essentially complete. And if his versatility was often overshadowed by the vast number of audience-friendly pictures to his name, Fred MacMurray remained one of the screen's most likable personalities for...
For over four decades, actor Fred MacMurray embodied the Everyman in a string of popular comedies and musicals, including "Remember the Night" (1940) and "The Egg and I" (1947) as well as a series of well-loved Disney live-action films like "The Absent-Minded Professor" (1961) and the long-running family series "My Three Sons" (ABC/CBS, 1960-1972). A handsome, affable presence, he made an ideal onscreen romantic partner to some of Hollywood's biggest female stars, including Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard. So believable was MacMurray as upstanding young men that it seemed unlikely that he could play anything else, a notion that was dispelled by his chilly turn as a doomed murderer in Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" (1944). He proved equally successful in portraying the dark flipside to the Everyman, seduced by the lure of power, prestige and sex in "The Caine Mutiny" (1953) and Wilder's "The Apartment" (1960), though by the early 1960s, his status as America's favorite father figure was essentially complete. And if his versatility was often overshadowed by the vast number of audience-friendly pictures to his name, Fred MacMurray remained one of the screen's most likable personalities for decades, even long after his death in 1991.
Born Frederick Martin MacMurray in Kankakee, IL on Aug. 30, 1908, he was raised primarily in Beaver Dam, WI by his parents, Frederick and Maleta MacMurray. Equally talented as an athlete and musician, he won a full scholarship to Carroll College, where he supported himself by playing saxophone in various bands. MacMurray eventually made his way to the West Coast where, as part of the California Collegians, toured the vaudeville circuit before they headed to Broadway as part of a revue called Three's a Crowd which featured such up-and-coming talent as actor Clifton Webb and acerbic comic Fred Allen. That same year, he provided the vocals for the Gus Arnheim Orchestra's recording of "All I Want is Just One Girl." In 1933, the Collegians were cast in the hit Jerome Kern musical "Roberta," which made a star of its lead, a then-unknown Bob Hope.
The following year, MacMurray signed a seven-year contract with Paramount, which cast him as affable young men in a string of comedies, many for director Mitchell Leisen, as well as musicals and light dramas. There were occasional exceptions - he was Katharine Hepburn's upper-class beau in George Stevens' "Alice Adams" (1935) and Henry Fonda's rival for the hand of Sylvia Sidney in "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" (1936), Paramount's first Technicolor feature shot on outdoor locations. MacMurray was also a solid male lead for some of Hollywood's most popular female stars of the 1930s and '40s, including Carole Lombard, with whom he co-starred in several screwball comedies including "Hands Across the Table" (1935) and "The Princess Comes Across" (1936), as well as Claudette Colbert - his leading lady in seven films between 1933 and 1949, including the costume drama "Maid of Salem" (1937) with MacMurray as a swashbuckling adventurer. The actor was also twice paired with Barbara Stanwyck in two comedies, the Preston Sturges-penned "Remember the Night" (1940) and the Oscar winning "Take a Letter, Darling" (1942) before their later, more dramatic collaborations.
By 1943, MacMurray was among Hollywood's busiest and highest paid actors, commanding a salary of $420,000 per picture. He had achieved that status largely through lightweight roles that he regarded as larks, requiring little to no acting ability. Those factors may have influenced his initial reluctance to accept director Billy Wilder's request to play the lead in "Double Indemnity" (1944), a coal-black noir based on the novel by James M. Cain about a pair of amoral lovers who plan a killing for insurance money. Nearly all of the industry's leading men had turned down the role of Walter Neff, a gullible insurance salesman seduced into a murder pact by Barbara Stanwyck's sultry Phyllis Dietrichson; MacMurray felt that not only would the role be rejected by his fans, but that it would require him to actually invest himself in a character. He eventually acquiesced due to Wilder's incessant campaigning, and to his surprise, found himself on the receiving end of critical praise for his dramatic work. "Double Indemnity" proved to be a turning point in MacMurray's career, which soon balanced his steady diet of comedies and musicals with darker, more dramatic fare.
Blessed with a strong jaw and ramrod straight posture that inspired artist C.C. Beck to model the comic book superhero Captain Marvel after him, MacMurray made an ideal hero in rugged adventure-dramas like "Singapore" (1947) opposite Ava Gardner. But he was best used when playing against type: he was the self-serving, duplicitous naval officer behind the uprising that ruined Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) in "The Caine Mutiny" (1953) and an honest cop whose understandable lust for Kim Novak drove him to murder in "Pushover" (1954). Comedies, however, remained his mainstay, even after his career-changing turn in "Double Indemnity." He left Paramount in 1945 for Fox, where he starred in a string of breezy farces, including the fantasy musical "Where Do We Go From Here?" (1945), which featured not only a score by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, but actress June Haver, who became MacMurray's wife in 1954. His tenure at Fox was short-lived, and after moving to Universal in 1947, scored one of the biggest hits of his career with "The Egg and I" (1947), based on the best-selling novel about a young couple (MacMurray and Claudette Colbert) whose chicken farm was ground zero for a host of eccentric types, including Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride's rough-hewn Ma and Pa Kettle, who became the focus of a long-running series of wildly popular broad comedies between 1949 and 1957.
The uptick provided by "Egg" led to more comedies for MacMurray, but by the 1950s, the material was growing thinner: few people were queuing up for "Family Honeymoon" (1949) or "Father Was a Fullback" (1949). The TV parody "Callaway Went Thataway" (1951), with MacMurray as a TV adman forced to contend with an ornery ex-Western star (Howard Keel) on the comeback trail, was a high point, but after "Caine," the middle-aged MacMurray was hired largely to lend old-fashioned star power to a string of lugubrious dramas, from "The Far Horizons" (1955), a historically inaccurate version of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Douglas Sirk's heavy-handed "There's Always Tomorrow" (1956), which reunited him with another '40s star on the wane, Barbara Stanwyck. By the end of the decade, he had become a staple of low-budget Westerns like "Good Day for a Hanging" (1959), which pitted his reluctant sheriff against accused killer Robert Vaughn.
However, MacMurray's career caught its second wind in 1959 when Walt Disney Pictures signed him to the lead in "The Shaggy Dog" (1959), a comedy-fantasy about a teenaged inventor transformed into a sheepdog by a magic ring. MacMurray played the boy's father in the film, which became the highest-grossing release of the year. The following year, he landed one of his best "against type" roles as a straight-arrow office executive who used Jack Lemmon's flat for extramarital affairs in Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning "The Apartment" (1960). MacMurray completed his trifecta of career-reviving choices by taking the lead role in "My Three Sons," a genial family comedy about a widower who balanced his engineering career with raising his three boys.
"Sons" proved to be a sizable hit for both networks, landing firmly in the Top 20 Nielsen-rated programs for the majority of its 12-year run. Despite being top-billed on the program, MacMurray's contract allowed him to complete all of his scenes for each season in two marathon blocks of month-long shoots, which allowed him to devote the remainder of the year to other films. Such an arrangement forced the producers to film entire seasons out of sequence, often to the consternation or confusion of MacMurray's castmates, but in doing so, he was able to maintain his presence in Disney features, which resumed in 1961 with "The Absent-Minded Professor," which netted him a Golden Globe nomination, and continued for the next half-decade. However, hits like "Son of Flubber" (1963), the sequel to "Absent Minded Professor," soon yielded to expensive flops like "The Happiest Millionaire" (1967), and by 1968, MacMurray had given up his screen career to focus on "Sons."
"Sons" was felled by declining ratings in 1972, to MacMurray's great disappointment. He returned briefly to the Disney fold for "Charley and the Angel" (1973) before settling into semi-retirement. One of the wealthiest actors in Hollywood, thanks in part to his notorious frugality, MacMurray spent much of the 1970s pursuing his hobby of golf and maintaining his ranch in Northern California, where he raised prize-winning cattle. He appeared infrequently in commercials for Greyhound, but eventually cut back his appearances to recover from throat cancer. In 1978, he gave his final screen performance in Irwin Allen's big-budget disaster epic "The Swarm," which gained notoriety as one of the worst films of the decade. MacMurray's throat cancer returned in 1987, the same year he was named the first Disney Legend in a handprint and signature ceremony that became a yearly event for the studio. The cancer would eventually contribute to his death from pneumonia on Nov. 5, 1991, leaving Haver a widow.
By Paul Gaita
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