My Three Sons or The Absent Minded Professor, these are the images that most people have of Fred MacMurray. He actually had a film career that began in the 1920s, gained featured parts in the mid-1930s and was once the highest paid film actor.
MacMurray started as a saxophone player, something that would reappear in his later roles. Like many actors, he worked his way up from supporting player to film lead. An affable personality, MacMurray played a variety of likable characters in many comedies. A product of the studio system, he worked regularly in whatever he was assigned.
Occasionally, MacMurray would take on a very uncharacteristic role. Think Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s film noir about an insurance swindle and murder. MacMurray played the gullible insurance agent played by Barbara Stanwyck and takes the fall for her husband’s murder.
MacMurray showed he could dig deep into a vulnerable personality as Walter Neff, twisted around by Stanwyck’s devilish character. In the end he develops a consciousness and confesses the entire story.
MacMurray’s next tour de force was in The Caine Mutiny. An officer on the Caine, he encourages Lieutenant Maryk (Van Johnson) to relieve the Captain (Humphrey Bogart) of the ship’s command. Maryk is then tried for mutiny. The seed for the action against the Captain begins with MacMurray’s character who provided amateur psychiatrist findings on the Captain’s behavior, and then leaves Maryk to face the court martial alone. MacMurray’s character is the most unsympathetic of the cast. Like Walter Neff, this character has feet of clay and begins to regret his involvement.
In 1960, MacMurray reteamed with writer/director Billy Wilder for a supporting role in the multi-Academy Award winning film, The Apartment. MacMurray plays the married personnel manager who is having an affair with Miss Kubelik, and never really intends to leave his wife. Tired of being strung along, Miss Kubelik attempts suicide and MacMurray’s character is celebrating Christmas with his family and unable to respond to her condition. MacMurray’s performance was cold and self-centered, devoid of real feeling and empathy for anyone else.
MacMurray was already beginning his next career phase. In 1959, he began a series of films for Walt Disney. The Shaggy Dog (1959), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963) and Follow Me Boys (1966) were the best of his Disney films. This coincided with his role as Stephen Douglas in 380 episodes of My Three Sons (1960-1972).
MacMurray was a smart man and evolved his career accordingly. He knew when to shift gears, moving to television and family roles. His My Three Sons contract allowed him ample time to star in films and his other ventures.