Fred MacMurray: The First Disney Legend

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

“I will say the seven pictures I made at the Disney Studio were the pleasantest times I’ve had in the picture business and I’ve been around quite a while,” smiled actor Fred MacMurray in the ABC Wide World of Entertainment special from 1973, Walt Disney: A Golden Anniversary Salute.

I was recently trying without much success to re-organize my video collection since I have several Disney television specials like this one that were never rerun and seem to have been “lost” over the years.

It really is a shame that this special has disappeared because it was well written by author Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz. What makes it special is that it doesn’t include the popular “flavor of the month” musical acts (that are quickly forgotten years later) but concentrates instead on showing appropriate film clips (including the storyboard and concept art for the then upcoming animated feature Robin Hood) and clips of the Disneyland park.

In addition, the special is filled with commentary from people who knew and worked with Walt including the usual suspects like Julie Andrews, Annette Funicello and Ward Kimball but also the only known on camera appearances of people like writer-producer Bill Walsh and actor Fred MacMurray sharing their Disney memories.

It is always intriguing to me that someone could be highly successful in their area of expertise and well known throughout the world and yet a decade or more later can be completely unknown to a new generation.

MacMurray built a successful film career as the ultimate “Mr. Nice Guy” in a series of films in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet, he was also riveting and critically lauded for his bad guy performances in films. MacMurray was so popular and heroic in an average man kind of way that artist C.C. Beck claimed he used the actor as the model for his comic book superhero, Captain Marvel.

By the 1950s, MacMurray’s box office appeal had lessened and he appeared in a lot of low budget Westerns. His career revived with his appearances in several popular Disney live-action films beginning in 1959 as well as a successful television series that ended in 1972.

He disappeared from films for a few years but resurfaced in another Disney comedy, “Charley and the Angel” in 1973. After a pair of made for television movies, MacMurray made one last feature, “The Swarm” in 1978, before officially retiring.

However, roughly a decade later, he was pulled out of retirement briefly to become the very first Disney Legend.

Because The Disney Channel had scheduled the newly colorized version of the original Shaggy Dog film to air October 18 and 25 (as well as a 1976 sequel, “The Shaggy D.A.”) on their Fall 1987 line-up, a “Disney Legends” award was conceived as an additional promotional push for “Shaggy Dog Month.”

MacMurray was selected for the promotion not only because he was the star of the original film and friendly to the Disney Company, but because he had appeared in seven popular Disney films—so he had quite an impressive Disney track record.

His first Disney film was The Shaggy Dog (1959). The advertising campaign claimed that it was “A new kind of horror movie…Horribly Funny!”

The idea for the film came from a novel The Hound of Florence (set during the Renaissance) written by Felix “Bambi” Salten and developed for the screen by Bill Walsh.

Walt initially planned to develop The Shaggy Dog as a television series for ABC that was continually pressing him to produce more programs for the network. When Walt pitched the idea of a family comedy series about a boy who occasionally turns into a sheepdog, Jim Aubrey and the other ABC executives were visibly under whelmed (Aubrey even excused himself from the meeting after Walt’s pitch of the idea) and Walt decided to make a feature film out of the story. It turned out to be the highest grossing film of the year.

Writer/Producer Walsh wondered if the success of the film provided a springboard for the concept of the My Three Sons television series.

“The same dog, the same kids and Fred,” Walsh remembered.

The film was the first live-action comedy made by the Disney Studios and, to save costs and help hide the primitive special effects, it was made in black and white. Although the character MacMurray plays is said to be a postman, he is never once shown working. Apparently, he was made a postman to help explain his dislike for dogs which adds to the humor when his oldest son—thanks to an ancient curse—transforms into a sheepdog in a twist on the teenage werewolf idea.

Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran, who played MacMurray’s youngest son in the film, remembered that “I think Walt saw himself in Fred to a great extent and Walt saw something about Fred that again was a bigger version of every man. He was one of the most underestimated actors of all time.”

Songwriter Richard Sherman agreed, “Actually Walt did identify with Fred and especially the characters he played like the Absent Minded Professor. That was exactly what Walt did.”

The following year, MacMurray appeared on screen and received critical acclaim for his performance as the callous adulterer in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”. Fortunately, that same year he also appeared in the first season of the television hit My Three Sons (with Disney actor Tim Considine and Mouseketeer Don Grady as two of the sons). So, most audiences still thought of him primarily as the lovable and family friendly single father, Steve Douglas, making it easy for Disney to continue to cast him in a series of popular live-action comedies.

“When our twin girls were 5 or 6, I took them to Disneyland. While they were on the merry-go-round, a woman came up to me and said, ‘Oh, Mr. MacMurray, I’ve enjoyed your movies through the years. I saw The Apartment [in which MacMurray played a philandering boss] last night. How could you? You spoiled the Disney image!’ And with that she hit me over the head with her purse and stormed away,” MacMurray said with a laugh.

“The first picture I made at Walt’s studio was The Shaggy Dog. This was I guess about 10 years ago or maybe a little longer than that,” said MacMurray in that television special. “I remember, during the shooting of The Shaggy Dog, Walt came on the set one day and said, ‘You know, Fred, I kinda like what you are doing in the picture and I’ve got another idea for another picture after this one if you’d be available.’ I said, ‘Oh, I’ll BE available!’ Then I said, ‘What is it about, Walt?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s just an idea. I got. I was just over at the World’s Fair in Brussels. There was a Doctor Julius Miller who was giving a demonstration on atomic and nuclear energy.’ He said, ‘He does it in such an amusing way I think that maybe we can do a character for you patterned after Dr. Miller and make some kind of a picture out of it. We’ll see.’ So I went home that night and said to my wife, ‘You know, Walt is talking about another picture for me. I hope it comes out. I mean, I hope it comes true but I mean it probably won’t. It was just something he was talking about.’ But that is the way Walt worked.

“This is the way he did things," MacMurray added. "The next day on the set, Bill Walsh, the writer, came out and said, ‘Well, I’ve got an assignment to do a picture for you.’ I asked, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘The one Walt was telling you about the professor.’ And that all turned out to be The Absent-Minded Professor, which was very successful. It kind of shows you the way how things came out of Walt’s head. Amazing.”

In 1961, MacMurray starred in The Absent-Minded Professor and repeated that role in Son of Flubber in 1963. In between he starred in Bon Voyage (1962). The last two films he did while Walt was alive were Follow Me Boys (1966) and The Happiest Millionaire (1967). His final film for the Disney Company, as previously mentioned, was Charley and the Angel in 1973.

So, to help promote “Shaggy Dog Month” on the Disney Channel, MacMurray and his wife, actress/dancer June Haver, were invited out to Burbank for what was thought to be a simple in-house celebration with a handprint and signature in a cement square inspired by the famous ceremony at the Grauman Chinese Theater forecourt.

It was Michael Eisner who thought that the ceremony could be expanded into an annual event and become more than just a one-time publicity event.

Disney Legends Promenade, a section of sidewalk in front of the Studio Theater was to contain the handprints and signatures of all honorees, Eventually, the Legends Awards outgrew the area (since more than 200 men and women have since been honored) in front of the Studio Theater, and were relocated to the newly named Legends Plaza facing the Team Disney building in Burbank, where handprints and signatures are now reproduced as bronze plaques

Tuesday, October 13, 1987 at noon, hundreds of Disney employees and press representatives gathered to honor MacMurray as he arrived, sitting in the back of a 1915 Model T Ford reminiscent of the one he flew as Professor Ned Brainard in the Disney film The Absent-Minded Professor

He came with Haver and a sheepdog representing the original Shaggy Dog (and in true Hollywood tradition, the dog was wearing sunglasses). In, 1945 MacMurray met Haver when they co-starred in Where Do We Go From Here? They married in 1954 and were both at the opening of Disneyland in 1955 and introduced to television audiences by host Art Linkletter.

Michael Eisner and Frank Wells greeted MacMurray and his wife who both sat in director’s chairs in front of the decorated theater.

Eisner then said, “The promenade has been established as a means to pay permanent tribute to individuals whose talents have made a significant contribution to the company’s proud heritage. We chose to establish it on the studio lot to share our rich past with the employees who will be part of our company’s future.”

Then he explained that the Selection Committee chooses only those people whose time honored body of work epitomizes the Disney product, and whose contributions have enhanced or secured Disney’s place in entertainment history.

That first selection committee included Roy E. Disney (Disney Family), Sharon Harwood (Disney University), Dave Smith (Disney Archives), Stacia Martin (Disney Film Club), Erwin Okun (Corporate Communications), Doris Smith (Corporate Affairs/Relations), Art Levitt (Corporate Projects), Arlene Ludwig (Walt Disney Pictures), Randy Bright (Walt Disney Imagineering), Jack Lindquist (Walt Disney Attractions), and Shelley Miles (Disney Consumer Products).

“Fred MacMurray is the epitome of what we hope the Disney Legends Promenade will come to represent,” Eisner said .

Wells announced that Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley had proclaimed the day “Fred MacMurray Day” to acknowledge this Disney award and Wells handed MacMurray a framed certificate signed by the mayor.

MacMurray thanked everyone.

“I just thought we’d come out here today,” he was obviously honestly surprised that the event was so large, “get a few pictures taken, maybe say ‘hello’ to the dog. This is much more than I imagined.”

After sharing a few memories of Walt and the studio, and accepting a commemorative plaque from Eisner (the current Disney Legends award featuring Mickey’s hand holding the wand had yet to be designed), the guest of honor stepped over to a square of wet cement and knelt, pressing in his hand prints and writing his signature as the first-ever official Disney Legend. Cameras flashed. Questions were shouted by the media.

There was a photo location featuring the Shaggy Dog, Goofy and Pluto and prizes for Disney cast member trivia contest winners Louise Helbert, Rhonda Miller and Carol Cotter.

“You know, in talking to Walt, I remember I was quoted once when somebody had asked me: ‘What about Walt?’ And I said you could be talking to him and it was like he wasn’t listening to you," MacMurray said. "And then I went on to say that about a month or so later, he’d come up and say, ‘Remember that time you said so and so?’ He knew everything you said but he had a million other things about the park and the thing in Florida and all this to think about but he’d remember everything you said to him.”

It was nice that the Disney Company remembered MacMurray, as well. It was the last year that a single person was honored. The following year, all “Nine Old Men” (Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball , Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman and Frank Thomas), as well as Ub Iwerks, became Disney Legends.

Fred MacMurray died at the age of 83 on November 1991 of pneumonia as a result of contracting chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He was one of Hollywood’s wealthiest citizens thanks to good investment deals and carefully watching his money by doing things like bringing his own brown bag lunch to work. 

The Shaggy Dog proved Disney's biggest box-office hit of the time, earning more than $8 million in its first domestic release. The studio re-released the film in 1967 and in 1976 produced a sequel, The Shaggy D.A, directed by Robert Stevenson and starring Dean Jones and Tim Conway.

Several made-for-television films followed, included 1987's The Return of the Shaggy Dog with Gary Kroeger as Wilby Daniels and 1994's The Shaggy Dog, which starred Ed Begley Jr. In 2006, Buena Vista released a remake of The Shaggy Dog directed by Brian Robbins and starring Tim Allen and Kristin Davis.