"The producer has to present a series of playable scripts, a bunch of literary material, that's got to be ready to shoot week after week. And, it's got to have the integrity of character from one script to another. You have to respect the history of the show. It's a very complicated thing."
About This Interview
In his two-and-a-half hour Archive interview, Sheldon Leonard (1907-97) shares his fondest memories about the pioneering programs he produced such as The Danny Thomas Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show and I Spy. He also speaks highly of the talented group of people he worked with, like Danny Thomas, Mary Tyler Moore, Bill Cosby, Dick Van Dyke, Carl Reiner and Andy Griffith. Not only is Leonard's interview significant to the Archive because of his death just six months after the interview but because of the warmth, candor and vivid storytelling apparent throughout the interview as well. Sam Denoff conducted the interview in Beverly Hills, CA on July 11, 1996.
For nearly two decades, from the early 1950s through the late 1960s, Sheldon Leonard was one of Hollywood's most successful hyphenates, producing--and often directing and writing--a distinctive array of situation comedies, of which three justly can be considered classics (The Danny Thomas Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show). Although he assayed the hour-long espionage form with conspicuous success as well, the sitcoms remain the Leonard hallmark. Long before Taxi, Cheers, and MTM Productions, Leonard was overseeing the creation of literate, character-driven ensemble comedies that blended the domestic arena with the extended families of the modern workplace.
Like many independent producers in television's formative years (Bing Crosby, Desi Arnaz, Jack Webb, Dick Powell), Leonard began his show business career in front of the cameras. After six years acting on Broadway--during which time he also took his first stab at directing, for road companies and summer theater--in 1939 Leonard made the move to Hollywood, where he would go on to appear in fifty-seven features over the next fourteen years. It was not long before the actor was equally busy in radio, with regular roles on several programs (The Jack Benny Show, The Lineup and Duffy's Tavern, to name only a few), and guest parts on dozens of others. Although Leonard played a variety of characters in both media, the Brooklyn-toned actor--described as "Runyonesque" in most biographical sketches--is best remembered for his incarnations of quietly-menacing gangsters.
As the 1940s wore on, Leonard decided to take up writing for radio, selling scripts to such anthology shows as Broadway Is My Beat. Already demonstrating the business savvy befitting a future producer, Leonard retained the ownership of his radio scripts after production, thus building a library of salable properties. It was not long before Leonard turned his writing talents to the new medium of television, writing teleplays (some adapted from his radio scripts) for the filmed anthologies. Next Leonard tried his hand at directing some installments, an experience that signaled a new chapter in his show business career.
His apprenticeship behind him, Leonard signed on as director of the Danny Thomas series Make Room for Daddy in 1953. He was promoted to producer in the show's third year, remaining its resident producer-director for six more seasons. Between 1954 and 1957 the energetic director also found time to produce and direct the pilot and early episodes of Lassie and The Real McCoys (which was produced by Thomas' company), write and direct installments of (fittingly enough) Damon Runyon Theatre--as well as act in a 1954 summer replacement series, The Duke. In 1961 Leonard became Executive Producer of the Thomas series (titled The Danny Thomas Show), at which time he and the comedian teamed up to form their own production firm.
T and L Productions would go on to make a lasting mark on television comedy. At its peak in 1963, T and L had four situation comedies in prime time, with Leonard serving as Executive Producer on all four: The Danny Thomas Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Bill Dana Show. Through their own separate companies Leonard and Thomas also owned an interest in a fifth sitcom, The Joey Bishop Show, although Leonard had no creative role in the series after directing the pilot. To complete the T and L comedy empire, the partners each owned an interest in My Favorite Martian by virtue of Thomas' financing and Leonard's direction of the pilot, and also owned The Real McCoys syndication package. Although the Bishop and Dana programs were short-lived, Danny Thomas, Dick Van Dyke, and Andy Griffith were all certifiable Top Ten Nielsen hits.
As the titles suggest, the foundation of the T and L formula was the comic performer, around whom a premise was formed and an extended "family" of kin and co-workers built. There were certain clear resemblances among the series, notably the reflexive Van Dyke and Joey Bishop shows, which followed the Danny Thomas model by focusing on the professional and private lives of people in show business (a TV writer in the first case, nightclub performers in the others). The Andy Griffith Show is in some ways antithetical to the noisy, urban sensibility of show-biz shows, though the slow-paced rural realism of The Real McCoys could not have been far from Leonard's mind when he created the premise. Yet all the programs had something more in common, something Television magazine called the "T and L trademark": "It's good clean comedy with a small moral," in the words of one 1963 observer--or, as a Television reporter put it, "a combination of comedy and sentiment." While this mix was certainly not unique to the T and L sitcoms during the 1960s, it underlines their emphasis on characters, relationships, and emotion over situation and slapstick. One need look no further for proof of this than Mayberry Deputy Barney Fife, who, in even his most outrageously broad moments, is underlined with a humanity that keeps him believable.
Leonard's influence on television comedy is bound up in the T and L hits, but it also transcends them. Credit him for spotting the potential of bucolic raconteur Andy Griffith and (with writer Artie Stander) transforming him into wise and gentle Andy Taylor, sheriff of a fictional town called Mayberry. It was Leonard who recognized the story and character quality in a failed pilot written by and starring Carl Reiner, and resurrected it by casting Dick Van Dyke in the lead role--retaining Reiner's writing talents. The excellence of the T and L programs is surely due in no small part to Leonard's commitment to the quality of the scripts, exemplified by his cultivation of writing talent, his promotion of writers to producers, and the extremely collaborative nature of the writing process on all the shows. Indeed, Leonard had an equally profound impact on the medium through the writers he mentored, notably Danny Arnold (Barney Miller), and the teams of Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson (The Odd Couple, Happy Days, etc.), and Bill Persky and Sam Denoff (That Girl, Kate and Allie).
Leonard's impact on television is attested to by the long-standing popularity of the Griffith and Van Dyke programs in syndication. Just as significant in terms of industry practice, Leonard pioneered the strategy of launching new series via spin-offs, thereby avoiding the expense of pilots. Both the Andy Griffith and Joey Bishop shows began with "back-door pilots" (directed by Leonard) aired as episodes of Danny Thomas; similarly, Bill Dana's "José Jimenez" character began as a recurring character on the Thomas show before setting out on his own series. While the Dana and Bishop vehicles were flops, Leonard scored a long-running success with another spin-off in 1964 when he and Griffith producer Aaron Ruben sent a popular resident of Mayberry off into six years of military misadventures on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
Leonard and Thomas parted company in 1965, and Leonard shifted generic gears, mounting the globe-trotting espionage series I Spy. Among a spate of spy shows popular in the mid-sixties, I Spy distinguished itself for its mix of humor and suspense, and its exotic locales (Leonard and company spent several months each season shooting exteriors around the world in such faraway places as Hong Kong, England, France, Morocco, and Greece). But the most significant aspect of the series was Leonard's decision to cast African-American comedian Bill Cosby opposite Robert Culp as the series leads. If the move seems less than startling in retrospect, one need only look back at the Variety headline announcing the Cosby hire, dubbing the actor "Television's Jackie Robinson." Thanks to sharp writing and the chemistry of its leads, I Spy was hip without being campy, as witty as it was exciting. The series was nominated for Outstanding Dramatic Series Emmy every year of its three-year run, and earned Leonard an Emmy nomination for directing in 1965.
Leonard returned to the sitcom form in 1967 with the short-lived Good Morning World (written and produced by Persky and Denoff), another reflexive, quasi-show-biz format in the Van Dyke vein, concerning a team of radio deejays, which also anticipated the ensemble comedy style of the MTM shows of the 1970s. The producer shifted genres again in spring 1969 with the lighthearted mystery My Friend Tony, but it was not renewed after its trial run. Leonard's most innovative comedy project came along in the fall of that year, My World and Welcome To It, a whimsical comedy based on the stories of James Thurber, and interspersed with animated versions of Thurber's cartoons. Despite critical acclaim and an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series for 1969, the series was not a ratings success, and was canceled after one season. Leonard's final forays into situation comedy were less prestigious: Shirley's World, a Shirley MacLaine vehicle in the Mary Tyler Moore mold, and The Don Rickles Show, an ill-fated attempt to package the master of insult comedy in a domestic sitcom.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Leonard had continued to take on the occasional acting job, recreating his radio role as the racetrack tout on Jack Benny, appearing as Danny Williams' agent on Danny Thomas, and doing a gangster turn in a Dick Van Dyke episode. Still typecast after almost forty years, Leonard acted the tough guy yet again in 1975 as the star of the short-lived series Big Eddie (as a gambler-turned-sports promoter), and once more in 1978 in the made-for-TV movie The Islander (as a mobster). That same year Leonard discharged Executive Producer duties and acted in the TV movie Top Secret, a tale of international espionage starring and co-produced by Bill Cosby. More recently, Cosby recruited Leonard to fill the Executive Producer slot on I Spy Returns, a 1993 TV-movie sequel that reunited Culp and Cosby as the swinging (and now seasoned) secret agents.
Few individuals have had the longevity in the television business that Sheldon Leonard has, and with a string of hits spanning nearly two decades, even fewer have had such long-run success. Fewer still have had the remarkable impact on the medium, both creatively and institutionally. It might be an exaggeration to say that without Sheldon Leonard there would have been no spin-offs, and no Cosby, but it is certain that both phenomena hit the screens of America when they did through Leonard's efforts. Certainly without him neither Rob and Laura Petrie (and Buddy and Sally et. al.), nor Mayberry would exist as we know them. At the end of his 1995 autobiography Leonard vows a return to do battle with the networks on the field of television creativity. In the meantime, his contribution to the literature that is American television comedy continues to play out in syndication, and may well do so forever.
SHELDON LEONARD. Born Sheldon Leonard Bershad in New York City, New York, U.S.A., 22 February 1907. Died 10 January 1997. B.A., Syracuse University, 1929. Married: Frances Bober, 1931; one child: Andrea. Began career as actor in Broadway plays, 1930-39; acted in films, 1939-61; numerous radio roles, 1930s-40s; radio scriptwriter, 1940s; screenwriter, 1948-57; director of television from 1953; producer of television from 1955; guest appearances as actor on television, 1960s-70s; president of T and L Productions; partner, officer, Mayberry Productions, Calvada Productions, Sheldon Leonard Enterprises. Member: vice president and trustee, Academy of TV Arts and Sciences; national trustee, board of governors, vice president Directors Guild of America; Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Recipient: Christopher Award, 1955; Emmy Awards 1957, 1961, 1969; Best Comedy Producer 1970 and 1974; Golden Globe Award, 1972; Sylvania Award, 1973; Cinematographers Governors Award; Directors Guild of America Aldrich Award; Man of the Year Awards from National Association of Radio Announcers, Professional Managers Guild, B'nai B'rith; Arents Medal, Syracuse University; Special Achievement Award, NAACP; Special Tribute Award, NCAA; TV Hall of Fame, 1992. Address: Sheldon Leonard Productions, 2121 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles, CA 90067-5010.
TELEVISION SERIES (director)
1953-56 Make Room for Daddy (and producer from 1955) 1953-62 General Electric Theatre 1953-65 The Danny Thomas Show (and exec. produced) 1954-71 Lassie 1954-57 The Jimmy Durante Show 1954 The Duke (summer replacement series) 1955-56 Damon Runyon Theatre 1957-63 The Real McCoys 1960-68 The Andy Griffith Show (packaged & exec. produced) 1961-66 The Dick Van Dyke Show (packaged & exec. produced) 1963-65 The Bill Dana Show (and exec. produced) 1963 My Favorite Martian (directed pilot only) 1964-70 Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (executive producer) 1965-68 I Spy (executive producer) 1967 Good Morning, World 1969 My Friend Tony 1969-70 My World and Welcome to It 1971-72 Shirley's World 1972 The Don Rickles Show 1975 Big Eddie (star)
1978 The Islander (actor) 1993 I Spy Returns (executive producer)
Another Thin Man, 1939; Buy Me That Town, 1941; Tall, Dark and Handsome, 1941; Rise and Shine, 1941; Tortilla Flat, 1942; Street of Chance, 1942; Lucky Jordan, 1942; To Have and Have Not, 1944; Her Kind of Man, 1946; It's a Wonderful Life, 1946; Zombies on Broadway, 1945; Somewhere in the Night, 1946; The Gangster, 1947; Violence, 1947; Sinbad the Sailor, 1947; If You Knew Susie, 1948; My Dream is Yours, 1949; Take One False Step, 1949; Iroquois Trail, 1950; Behave Yourself, 1951; Here Come the Nelsons, 1952; Young Man with Ideas, 1952; Stop You're Killing Me, 1952; Diamond Queen, 1953; Money from Home, 1954; Guys and Dolls, 1955; Pocketful of Miracles, 1961.
The Jack Benny Show; The Lineup; Duffy's Tavern.
"The World is His Back-Lot," As told to Morris J. Gelman. Television (New York), April 1966.
And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Hollywood Adventures. New York: Limelight, 1995.