Over the years, Fred MacMurray told interviewers he was “a personality, not an actor.” Billy Wilder, who directed Fred in such films as Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck and The Apartment with Shirley MacLaine, called him “everybody’s nice fellow.”
“Fred MacMurray,” Wilder said, “gives people the feeling that he’s kind to dogs, children, mothers and widows.”
A versatile actor, Fred played roles ranging from screwball comedy to romance to film noir. Yet to Disney fans, he is probably best remembered for the befuddled characters he made famous in such films as The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber, in which he played Professor Ned Brainard of Medfield College.
Some who knew Fred say his bewilderment on camera actually reflected his innate shyness off camera.
Born August 30, 1908, in Kankakee, Illinois, and raised in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, Fred was the son of a concert violinist. After high school, he worked as a band saxophonist and vocalist to pay his way through Carroll College in Wisconsin.
In the late 1920s, Fred moved to Los Angeles, where he joined the California Collegians vocal ensemble. He traveled with the group to appear on Broadway in such shows as Three’s a Crowd with Fred Allen, and later was cast as Bob Hope’s understudy in Roberta. A Paramount talent scout spotted the blue-eyed Fred and arranged for a screen test, which won him a studio contract. In 1935 he became a movie star, virtually overnight, when he played opposite Claudette Colbert in The Gilded Lily.
Walt Disney personally cast Fred in the Studio’s first live-action comedy, The Shaggy Dog. Released in 1959, it was one of the biggest and most unexpected film successes in Disney history. Fred appeared in seven Disney feature films in all, including Bon Voyage with Jane Wyman, Follow Me, Boys! with Vera Miles and Kurt Russell, and The Happiest Millionaire with Greer Garson. This proved to be the last live-action movie supervised by Walt before his untimely death in December 1966. Fred’s last Disney film was Charley and the Angel with Harry Morgan, released in 1973.
Fred played leading roles in more than 80 movies during his prestigious career and won a faithful television following as well, playing widower father Steve Douglas in My Three Sons from 1960 to 1972.
Fred MacMurray passed away in Los Angeles in November 1991.