Created by Don Fedderson and Leave it to Beaver alumnus George Tibbles, My Three Sons was one of television's longest running and most influential domestic comedies. The program was conceived originally as a television vehicle for Fred MacMurray, (who owned 50% of the program), when Fedderson was approached by Chevrolet to develop a program that was "representative of America." During its twelve year run, the program averaged a respectable, but not spectacular 22.2 rating and a 35% share, and underwent enormous narrative and character changes. It is most significant for its development of a star-friendly shooting schedule and for its redefinition of the composition of the television family.
Before he agreed to his contract, Fred MacMurray queried veteran television performer, Robert Young, about Young's workload. Upon Young's complaint about television's time-consuming schedule, MacMurray insisted on a unique shooting plan that was to be copied by other top actors and christened "the MacMurray Method." This so-called "writer's nightmare" stipulated that all of MacMurray's scenes were to be shot in 65 non-consecutive days. All other actors had to complete their fill-in shots while MacMurray was on vacation. Practically speaking, this meant the series had to stockpile at least half a season's scripts before the season ever began so that MacMurray's role could be shot during his limited work days. The repercussions of this schedule were enormous. Guest-stars often had to return nine months later to finish filming an episode; MacMurray's co-stars had their hair cut weekly so as to avoid any continuity discrepancies (MacMurray wore a toupee); and any unforeseen event (a sudden growth spurt, a guest-star's death) could cause catastrophe. Often times, the producers were forced to film MacMurray in scriptless episodes, and then construct a script around his very generalized monologues. Frequently, to avoid complication, the writers simply placed his character "out of town," so that there are an inordinate number of episodes in which Steve Douglas communicates to his family only by telephone. Despite the hardship on writers, directors and co-stars, the MacMurray method was adapted by a number of film stars (Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda) as a conditional requirement for their work in a television series.
The program's narrative concept has proven equally influential. Until 1960 most family comedies were centered on strictly nuclear groupings--mom, dad and biological children. While an occasional Bachelor Father, or The Bob Cummings Show might focus on the comedic exploits of an unmarried adult raising a niece or nephew, most programs, from I Love Lucy to Father Know Best, depicted the humorous tribulations of two-parent households and their biological offspring. My Three Sons initiated what was to become a popular trend in television--that of the widowed parent raising a family. While initial director Peter Tewksbury called the premise a truly depressing one, producers Tibbles and Fedderson chose to ignore the potential for pathos and flung themselves wholeheartedly into the comedic consequences of a male-only household. Ironically (some might even say with more than a touch of misogyny), the bulk of the program's first five years did not focus on the stereotypical male ineptitude for all household chores, but instead continually reinforced the notion that males were, in fact, far domestically superior to the "hysterical" female guest stars.
During the course of its twelve year run, My Three Sons functioned, in essence, as three successive programs with different casts, writers, and directors. For its first five seasons, the program was shot in black and white, aired on CBS and focused on Steve Douglas (MacMurray), aerospace consultant, who, along with his father-in-law, Bub O'Casey (William Frawley) has struggled for the past seven years to raise Steve's three motherless sons--18 year old Mike, 14 year old Robbie and 7 year old Chip. The show was directed and produced by Father Knows Best alumnus Peter Tewksbury. The first year of the program is by far the series' darkest, dealing explicitly with how a family survives, and even thrives, in the event of maternal loss. In its second season, George Tibbles took over, moving the program more toward situation comedy and inserting multiple slapstick-type episodes into the mix. From the third season onward, Ed Hartmann's role as producer redirected the program yet again, to a heavily moralistic, but lighthearted look at generational and gender conflicts. In addition, Hartmann's long-standing friendship with members of the Asian community contributed to an unusual number of episodes dealing with the Chinese and Japanese friends of the Douglas family, granting television visibility and respect to a previously neglected minority group.
When ABC refused to finance the series' switch to color production, the program moved to the CBS network, losing two cast members in an unrelated series of events. First, in the midst of the 1964-65 season, terminally ill William Frawley's $300,000 insurance policy was canceled and Don Fedderson was forced to replace Bub O'Casey with "Uncle Charley," a role played by William Demarest for the program's remaining seven years. Next, an argument with Don Fedderson over Tim Considine's desire to direct resulted in the actor's departure from the program. As eldest son Mike was written out of the series with a fictionalized "move to California," the producers chose a new third son, Ernie, as a replacement. With no regard for narrative plausibility, the producers created a three-part episode in which Chip's best friend Ernie loses his parents in a car crash, suddenly becomes two years younger, and is adopted by Steve as the youngest member of the Douglas family.
Two years later, the program experienced its third incarnation when the Douglas family moved from the fictional Bryant Park to Southern California. Here, Robbie was to romance and wed Katie, and Steve was to end his long-term widowerhood by marrying Barbara and adopting her small daughter. For the program's remaining years, the narrative focused on blended families, Chip's romantic escapades and eventual elopement, and Robbie's triplets, where the premise of three sons promised to continue indefinitely.
The series' influence was demonstrated by the quick succession of single-parent households that were to dominate television's comedy schedule for the next decade. Family Affair, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Flipper, Nanny and the Professor all featured eligible bachelors burdened with raising their own (or relative's offspring) with the help of an adept elderly man or desirable young woman. All of these series worked to erase the necessity of the maternal, as the family operated in an emotionally secure and supremely healthy environment without benefit of the long since dead mother. While there were occasional widow-with-children programs (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Julia), these women were not granted the same versatility of their male counterparts, and were forced to turn to strong male figures (dead ship's captains and doctors, respectively) for continual guidance.
While the 1980s witnessed a regeneration of television's nuclear family, the legacy of My Three Sons dominated, and for every Cosby, there was a Full House, My Two Dads or Brothers. By the 1990s one would be hard-pressed to find any family show that wasn't a single-parent family, a family with adopted children, or a blended arrangement of two distinct families--all configurations which owe their genesis in some way to My Three Sons.
Steve Douglas...................................... Fred MacMurray
Mike Douglas (1960-1965)........................ Tim Considine
Robbie Douglas (1960-1971).......................... Don Grady
Chip Douglas .....................................Stanley Livingston
Michael Francis "Bub" O'Casey (1960-1965)................................................... William Frawley
Uncle Charley O'Casey (1965-1972)...... William Demarest
Jean Pearson (1960-1961)...................... Cynthia Pepper
Mr. Henry Pearson (1960-1961)................. Robert P. Lieb