Day Five of Noirvember: Fred MacMurray — Amiable Villain

I remember, many years ago, a friend of mine saw Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. She didn’t like his performance – she was unable to get past the idea that the actor she knew only as Steven Douglas on My Three Sons was committing murder and spitting out the word “baby” on a regular basis.

I couldn’t relate.

I, too, first knew Fred MacMurray from his television work, but I never had a problem accepting him as the crafty, cold-blooded insurance agent Walter Neff. For me, it was perfect casting. He looked like an upright, law-abiding, run-of-the-mill Joe, but lurking beneath that white bread façade was a guy just itching to take a walk on the wrong side.

Twenty-six years ago, on November 5, 1991, MacMurray died of pneumonia Santa Monica, California, at the age of 83. Today’s Noirvember post celebrates the life and career of this star of my favorite film noir.

Young Fred.

Frederick Martin MacMurray was born in Kankakee, Illinois, the son of a concert violinist. Young MacMurray was taught the instrument from an early age and made his debut when he was five years old, playing a duet with his father. (“I loathed every second of it,” MacMurray later recalled. “But I did it.”) When his parents divorced, MacMurray and his mother eventually settled in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, where he attended high school and played the baritone saxophone in the American Legion band. He also formed his own orchestra, Mac’s Melody Boys, and added singing to his repertoire, despite suffering from the same stage fright that had plagued him since he was five. “I had to lean on a piano, propping myself up with one hand,” MacMurray said. “My other hand was shoved in my jacket pocket so convulsively that I couldn’t get it out even to make gestures.”

MacMurray’s musical prowess ultimately led him to Hollywood. Because of a union regulation that required musicians to live in the state for six months before being allowed to work, he registered with Central Casting, and made his film debut in a 1929 Fox comedy. He signed a contract with Paramount a few years later, and was soon seen in such popular features as The Gilded Lily (1935) with Claudette Colbert (“Kissing Claudette before the crew, the props, and the electricians had me so embarrassed I didn’t know what I was doing,” the actor said), Alice Adams (1935) with Katharine Hepburn, and Swing High, Swing Low (1937), with Carole Lombard, in which he got a chance to display his musical aptitude.

He was perfect as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity.

Over the next few years, MacMurray’s fame increased as he made his name appearing in mostly lightweight comedies and romances. But his career took a detour when he was cast in Double Indemnity in 1944. According to director Billy Wilder, MacMurray wasn’t exactly the first choice for the role, though.

“I went around from leading man to leading man. I even asked George Raft to play the part. He turned me down, “Wilder said in a 1983 interview. “I stumbled on the idea of Fred MacMurray . . . I pleaded with [him], ‘Look the time has come for you to do something that will be more serious, more demanding.’ He said, ‘I’m only a saxophone player. I can do a little comedy and I get away with it. Don’t shove me. Don’t ruin my career.’ I was persuasive enough to make him do it.”

As the insurance salesman driven to murder because of his passion for an uber-sexy, unhappily married housewife, MacMurray was lauded by several critics, including the reviewer for Variety, who wrote that the actor “has seldom given a better performance.” And despite his initial misgivings over playing the role, MacMurray would later confess that both the film and role were his favorites.

With Kim Novak in Pushover.

During the remainder of his film career, MacMurray was seen in such popular features as The Egg and I (1947), a comedy co-starring Claudette Colbert; The Caine Mutiny (1954), where he played a Navy lieutenant who encourages the uprising of the film’s title, but disavows his responsibility during the resulting military trial; and The Apartment (1960), a Billy Wilder-directed hit in which he played an adulterous cad. He was also seen in his second and final film noir, Pushover (1954), where he played a police detective who falls for a bank robber’s girlfriend, played by Kim Novak. Although the film suffered in comparison to the vaguely reminiscent Double Indemnity, MacMurray turned in another first-rate noir performance of a man whose desire leads to murder.

The Shaggy Dog marked the beginning of MacMurray’s Disney period.

In strong contrast to his roles in The Apartment and Pushover, MacMurray starred in a series of Disney comedies, beginning with The Shaggy Dog in 1959, where he played a befuddled father whose son is transformed into a sheep dog. Some of his other Disney features included The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Follow Me Boys (1966), and The Happiest Millionaire (1967). While these features were popular family fare, the critics weren’t impressed – one reviewer labeled Follow Me Boys as a picture that “represents the depths of boobery and the heights of gooey,” and another declared that The Happiest Millionaire was “a contender for the worst Hollywood film of the year.”

Meanwhile, MacMurray had been seen on the small screen since the mid-1950s on shows like The Jack Benny Show and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. Then, in 1960, he landed the role of widowed patriarch Steven Douglas in My Three Sons. The show was an immediate success, hailed by one critic as “an amazingly unexpected . . . intelligent domestic situation comedy.” Initially, though, MacMurray was reluctant to sign on for the series – “I just kept saying that I didn’t want to work that hard,” MacMurray later recalled. “A lot of people enjoy working until their rumps drag. I don’t.”

As Steven Douglas, MacMurray created one of his best-loved characters.

The film’s producer, Don Fedderson, persisted, eventually working out an arrangement where MacMurray would only have to work a few months a year. “I’d be a chowder head to duck it,” MacMurray said. “I said ‘O.K.’ and I’ve never regretted it. My Three Sons is work, but no more wearying than shooting a movie. I just change my ties, shirts, and suit faster.” MacMurray would be seen in the show for the next 12 years – viewers tuned in faithfully to watch as his television sons grew up and Douglas became a grandfather to triplets, remarried, and adopted his second wife’s daughter.

In his private life, MacMurray was married for 17 years to Lillian Lamonte, who he’d met while the two were appearing in the 1933 Broadway musical Roberta. The couple adopted two children; after years of frail health, Lamonte died in 1953. The following year, after a whirlwind romance, MacMurray married actress June Haver, who was 17 years his junior. They later adopted twin girls, and remained married until MacMurray’s death nearly 40 years later. By all accounts, the MacMurray-Haver union was a happy one (“People who know June know why I like to come home at night,” MacMurray once said).

MacMurray and June Haver.

MacMurray appeared in several made-for-TV movies in the 1970s and made his last big-screen appearance in 1978, in The Swarm, alongside such Hollywood veterans as Olivia deHavilland, Richard Widmark, and Lee Grant. During the following decade, MacMurray took on only a few roles, but he was seen in the American Film Institute tributes to Frank Capra in 1982 and Billy Wilder in 1985. A few years after the Wilder tribute, MacMurray contracted pneumonia and died on November 5, 1991.

While Fred MacMurray was labeled throughout his career as “big and awkward and cheerful and happy” and “as down to earth as applesauce,” it is his portrayals of villains in Double Indemnity, The Caine Mutiny, and The Apartment that out as true indicators of the actor’s talent. MacMurray himself once provided a key to his success in these stand-out roles.

“Whether I play a heavy or a comedian, I’m always the same fellow when I start out,” MacMurray said. “If I play a heavy, there comes a spot in the film when the audience gets the message that I’m really a heel. I start out Smiley MacMurray, ‘a decent Rotarian type.’

“Then I do or say something and people know I’m a bastard.”

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~ by shadowsandsatin on November 5, 2017.

7 Responses to “Day Five of Noirvember: Fred MacMurray — Amiable Villain”

  1. It’s still amazing to think that Fred MacMurray became Walter Neff. What a casting coup! But unlike Dick Powell and John Payne, it didn’t change the trajectory of his career.

  2. I also knew him from My Three Sons first–and William Demarest too! One of my favorites of his is Remember The Night, also Too Many Husbands. Hard not to like him, even as a heavy. Baby.

  3. Fred MacMurray was an absolute treasure! He’s one of my favourites. Aside from Double Indemnity, my other favourite MacMurray film is The Princess Comes Across with Carole Lombard 🙂

  4. Haha! I love MacMurray’s description of the “decent Rotarian type”.

    Great tribute to Fred MacMurray. “Double Indemnity” was the first film I saw him in, but I can imagine how surprised folks would be if they had only seem him in comedies. A truly gifted actor – loved his performance in “The Caine Mutiny”.

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