It was one of the longest running situation comedies. It started out in black and white before coming to you in living color, and ended with only one of the original three sons.
There were many changes in 12 years, but Fred MacMurray was still the logical and supportive dad.
When My Three Sons premiered in 1960, television was loaded with family sitcoms. TV dads were in big supply. They wouldn’t become totally befuddled and have a quarter-sized brain until the 1980s.
In 1960, the family-centered series were: Leave it to Beaver, Dennis the Menace, Father Knows Best, Dobie Gillis, Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Bachelor Father and The Flintstones. Outside of Dobie Gillis and The Flintstones, pretty conventional programming.
In the first year, MacMurray’s Steve Douglas was sometimes befuddled, what father with three boys and only a grandfather to help navigate a crazy world, wouldn’t be slightly challenged? Besides keeping up with three boys, widower Steve was catnip for many available women, and he proved to be out of practice with dating. In those days, single fathers, and mothers, were widowers since divorce was socially unacceptable for television. Steve didn’t yell very often, he usually found a logical way to resolve situations that erupted in his house.
The show centered on the Douglas family and their home life, with few of the episodes about the dad. The comedy was somewhat broad and physical at times. At times, the show veered into a more serious subject but overall it was light and airy. One of the episodes I screened recently focused on a conflict between oldest son Mike, and middle son Robbie, each competitive and head-strong, and who would not speak to each other. The mediator was Steve, who had to find a way to bring the boys back together.
Steve had Bub (William Frawley), the boys’ maternal grandfather, to take care of the house and provide a watch over the boys. Bub got mixed up in the PTA and social activities related to the boys that normally a mother would do. Bub was abrasive and opinionated, and Steve had to step in and fix situations that went sideways. Bub gave up his life to help out with the boys and despite his complaints would do anything for his grandsons.
In the 1964-1965 season, Bub was written out of the show due to health issues. William Demarest joined the show as Uncle Charley, a merchant sailor who comes to take care of the family. Charley is as gruff as Bub, but shows his refined side as a cello player.
Sons Mike, Robbie and Chip varied greatly in age. Mike was in high school when the show started and would become a college student, and get married, before leaving the show. Tim Considine, played Mike, after years of working on Disney projects (Spin and Marty, Hardy Boys). Mike was earnest, idealistic but mostly level-headed. He would get into his share of trouble and get lectures from his dad. At times, Mike could stretch the boundaries, probably more so than any other Douglas son. Mike’s character did not play for laughs and he was probably more serious than the other sons.
Robbie (Don Grady) changed the most in the course of the show. The middle brother in the beginning, he was like a teenage surfer, riding the waves of being a kid. In the early years, Robbie would be the silliest at times and prone to getting into trouble because of his naivety. He was quick to jump on the latest styles. By the end of the show, he was the most serious of the brothers, married, kids and a responsible job. Grady found the character limiting, and asked to leave the show, yet was involved in filming a spin-off show focused on his family unit, but it did not find a buyer.
Chip (Stanley Livingston) was the youngest member of the cast, the kid that got his dad into trouble at times, just being a kid. Chip was an even-keel character, one of two characters to span the entire run of the show. Chip was a pretty benign character through the first ten seasons. It was only when he met and married Polly that he emerged into a character with deeper textures. After Robbie left the show, Chip was the eldest, and his life underwent a lot of change. Being married was a huge turn for his character, who had to confront more adult characteristics, yet was only a college student and went through some conflicts about his future. Chip was the most grounded of the sons through the series.
Ernie (Barry Livingston) joined the cast before Mike was written out of the show, and eventually adopted by Steve. Ernie was a friend of Chip’s (in addition to being his real life brother) that eventually joined the family. From his first episode to the last, Ernie didn’t change much. He was still the easy-going, confident young adult that he was as a kid. The very last episode focused on Ernie, as a role model for another high school student. Ernie offered sage advice like it was no big deal.
Season 12, which covered the 1971-1972 program season, found Steve Douglas married to widowed teacher Barbara (again, divorce was not an option) and adopted her young daughter. The sons now consisted of Robbie, Chip and Ernie. Robbie married Katie, several years earlier and had triplets (his three sons). However, Robbie was not seen in the last season, Don Grady left the show to pursue a musical career. Katie and the boys moved back in with Steve and family. Robbie was an engineer supposedly working out of the country. Chip married Polly and was studying engineering, but wanted to be a musician.
The show hit a slump in the late 1960s but earned its rating points back as the family changed with additions and subtractions. CBS moved the show for the 1971-1972 season and viewers abandoned the show. Twelve seasons and 380 episodes is remarkable.
MacMurray stayed the affable dad, sorting through kid problems, offering sobering advice and on occasion, actually being the focus of an episode. Once in awhile, he encountered a potential love-interest or was the subject of a story-line dealing with his job, but normally he stayed in the background. His contract with the network provided for his scenes to be filmed together, in two, one-month blocks. His scenes were filmed for episodes not even shot yet, so he could have ten months of the year free to do movies or other things. In the last season, it seemed that his character received more screen-time than in past seasons, and even mixed a few light comedic moments with his serious father lectures.
By the later seasons, the show was more of a “dramedy.” that awkward coupling of a dramatic them with comedic tones to lighten it. It was really a light drama now. The young daughter might do something funny, or Uncle Charley would grouse about people walking on his freshly waxed floor, or Steve would have trouble keeping his dress clothes clean for a big meeting, but these were slice-of-life moments, not a deep comedic experience. More than ever, the show mirrored what you would find around your house.
By 1971, society was much different than when the show premiered in 1960. Even Ernie was hipper, wearing bell-bottoms, print shirts and parted his hair down the middle. Ernie had to give advice to the parents of a fellow student and the subject of long hair and pot-smoking were mentioned in the story. Chip was contemplating quitting his engineering studies to become a rock guitarist. The fashions by the women on the show were decidedly 1970s.
The most significant change to the show was the introduction of Barbara, Steve’s new wife. She brought an energy and warmth to the cast and really became the hub of the show. Without her, I’m convinced the show would have ended sooner.
All in the Family, Maude and Sanford and Son were all on the air in 1972. These were hipper, more controversial shows. Even more conventional shows like Mary Tyler Moore and Doris Day were playing to younger demographics and embracing the times. The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch were the new model for kid-centered sitcoms. Coming up, Good Times and One Day at a Time, would change the model yet again.
My Three Sons, despite the freshened-up changes, was rooted in a previous generation, and it tried to span multiple generations, which is even more challenging. While it tried to embrace the emerging 1970s, the show felt like it was straining at it’s conceptual boundaries.
I was never a huge fan of the show, it was just on television throughout my younger years. By the time it ended, I thought it had grown out of touch with what was going on in America. Over the years, I caught it in syndication, and what I was drawn to were the early years, in black and white. Those were the episodes I hadn’t seen since the beginning, and those episodes were pretty hip for those simpler times.
My renewed interest in the show happened because I get up about the time there is an episode on television, as I am getting ready for work. The past couple of years I’ve seen many of the 380 episodes. One thing that stands out during the series were the end credits that rolled over Steve driving a new Ford automobile. Every year it was the newest model, the ultimate in product placement. Ford supplied the cars and paid a fee for the show, in return, they got a one minute commercial at the end. Funny times.
Twelve seasons is a long time in television years, and yet, it has never been off the air in sixty years.