My Three Sons is an American sitcom. The series ran from 1960 to 1965 on ABC, and moved to CBS until the end of its run on April 13, 1972. My Three Sons chronicles the life of widower and aeronautical engineer Steven Douglas (Fred MacMurray) as he raises his three sons.
The series originally featured William Frawley (who had first co-starred with MacMurray 25 years earlier in the movie Car 99) as the boys' live-in maternal grandfather and housekeeper, William Michael Francis "Bub" O'Casey. William Demarest, playing Bub's brother, "Uncle Charley", replaced Frawley in 1965 due to Frawley's illness. In September 1965, eldest son Mike (Tim Considine) married fiancée Sally Ann Morrison (Meredith MacRae), and his character was written out of the show. To keep the emphasis on "three sons", original youngest son Chip's friend Ernie was adopted. In the program's later years, Steven Douglas remarried and adopted his new wife's young daughter Dorothy ("Dodie") (Dawn Lyn).
The series was a cornerstone of the ABC and CBS lineups in the 1960s. With 380 episodes produced, it is third only to The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (14 seasons, 1952–1966, 434 episodes) and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (13 seasons) as television's longest-running live-action sitcom. Disney producer Bill Walsh often mused on whether the concept of the show was inspired by the film The Shaggy Dog, as in his view they shared "the same dog, the same kids, and Fred MacMurray".
During the 1964 fall season, William Frawley, who played Bub, was declared too ill to work by Desilu Studios, as the company was informed that insuring the actor would be too costly. Frawley continued in the role until a suitable replacement could be found at midseason. He was replaced by William Demarest, who played his hard-nosed brother (great) Uncle Charley part way through the 1964-1965 season (the last on ABC). According to the storyline, Bub returns to Ireland to help his Aunt Kate celebrate her 104th birthday. Soon after, brother Charley visits and stays on. Charley, a cello-playing merchant sailor, was a soft-hearted curmudgeon, who proved to be a responsible caregiver. Frawley left the series before the end of the 1964-1965 season.
Peter Tewksbury directed the first season. The succeeding director, Richard Whorf, took over the reins for one season and was in turn followed by former actor-turned-director Gene Reynolds from 1962 to 1964. James V. Kern, an experienced Hollywood television director who had previously helmed the "Hollywood" and "Europe" episodes of I Love Lucy, continued in this role for two years until his untimely death in late 1966, aged 57. Director James Sheldon was also contracted to finish episodes that had been partly completed by Kern to complete that season. Fred De Cordova was the show's longest and most consistent director of the series (108 episodes) until he left in 1971 to produce The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Earl Bellamy rounded out the series as director of the show's final year.
My Three Sons moved to the CBS television network for the 1965-1966 season after ABC declined to underwrite the expense of producing the program in color. Along with the change in networks and the transition to color, Tim Considine (who had earlier worked with Fred MacMurray on The Shaggy Dog), playing eldest son Mike, had chosen not to renew his contract due to a clash with executive producer Don Fedderson over Considine's wish to direct but not co-star in the series. (Considine did, however, direct one of the last black-and-white episodes for ABC.) In an August 1989 interview on the Pat Sajak Show, he explained that he was also devoted to automobile racing, which his contract forbade. His character was written out, along with Meredith MacRae, who had played his fiancée Sally, in a wedding episode that was the premiere of the 1965–1966 season on CBS. After this episode, Mike is mentioned briefly in only four succeeding episodes (including one in which Ernie becomes adopted), and is never seen again, even at Robbie and Steve's weddings. (Steve explains briefly in one of these episodes that he has another son, but "He lives away from home".) In the episode "Steve and the Huntress" (first aired January 27, 1966), Mike is specifically mentioned as teaching at a college. MacRae joined Petticoat Junction the following year, the last of three actresses to play Billie Jo Bradley.
To keep the show's title plausible, the show's head writer, George Tibbles, fashioned a three-part story arc in which an orphaned friend of youngest brother Richard (Chip, played by Stanley Livingston), Ernie Thompson (played by his real-life brother, Barry Livingston), awaits adoption when his current foster parents are transferred to the Orient. Steve offers to adopt Ernie, but faces antagonism from Uncle Charley, who finds Ernie a bit grating, and forecasts major headaches over both the boy and his dog. It also transpires that a law requires a woman to live in the home of an adoptive family. A likable female social worker supervises the case, and the Douglases speculate that Steve might marry the woman, to make the adoption possible, but they both agree this is not reason enough for them to be married. The family also does not need to hire a housekeeper, since Uncle Charley already has things running smoothly. The family soon appears before a judge who researches the law, and determines that its intent is to ensure a full-time caregiver is in the household. With Charley meeting that role, and having had a change of heart about Ernie, Charley assents to a legal fiction declaring him "housemother" to the Douglas family.
While the three sons were always central to the storyline, several major changes took place by the late 1960s. In the spring of 1967, the ratings for the series began to sag and My Three Sons finished its seventh season in 31st place in the Nielsen ratings. It was decided that the 1967-1968 season would bring the program not only a new time slot, but also new storylines to spice up the ratings. In the fall of 1967, CBS moved My Three Sons to Saturday night at 8:30 pm. In the season-premiere episode, "Moving Day", the Douglas family and Uncle Charley relocate from the fictional town of Bryant Park in the Midwest to Los Angeles. Robbie (Don Grady) marries his classmate/girlfriend, Katie Miller (Tina Cole). Tina Cole, in fact, had appeared in different roles on three previous episodes of My Three Sons: "House For Sale" from the fourth season (February 13, 1964), "The Coffee House Set" from the fifth season (November 19, 1964), and "Robbie and the Little Stranger" from the sixth season (February 17, 1966). At the end of the 1967-1968 season, the ratings had improved from the previous year with the series placing at 24th in the Nielsens. The following season, the newlyweds discover that Katie is pregnant, and she gives birth to triplets named Robert, Steven, and Charles. Originally played by sets of uncredited twins, these babies were later played uncredited by Guy, Gunnar, and Garth Swanson. The most familiar triplets in the show's last two seasons are played by Michael, Daniel, and Joseph Todd.
The following year in the tenth season, 1969–1970, Steve remarries, taking widowed teacher Barbara Harper (Beverly Garland) as his wife; she brings with her a 5-year-old daughter, Dorothy "Dodie" (Dawn Lyn), so Steven now had a stepdaughter whom he also subsequently adopts. (Dodie is wary of Steve at first, believing that he wants her to simply forget her late father, until he explains that he wants her to always remember and love him, but since he's no longer alive, Steve wants to raise her in his place, and hopes she'll come to love him also.) Also, the last year-and-a-half of the series feature fewer appearances of both Don Grady and Stanley Livingston. Grady's character was written out of the show at the end of the 11th season, which allowed for his wife Katie and their triplet sons to remain within the Douglas household the following season (as a structural engineer Robbie was working on a bridge construction in Peru). Chip and his teenaged wife Polly (Ronne Troup) (who eloped after Polly's disciplinarian father refused to sanction their marriage) move into their own apartment.
At the end of the 1970-1971 season (the show's 11th year), My Three Sons was still garnering healthy ratings. By the spring of 1971, it had finished in 19th place. A 1971 television pilot with Don Grady and Tina Cole called Three of a Kind, then retitled Robbie—about Robbie, Katie, and the triplets moving to San Francisco—was filmed but not picked up as a series. The final episode of the 1970-1971 season, "After the Honeymoon", actually set up the premise for this pilot. The guest stars were Richard X. Slattery and Pat Carroll, who were featured as the landlords of the apartment block into which Robbie and Katie move. However, Don Grady had informed the producers of his intention to leave the series and pursue a new full-time career as a composer, which he ultimately did.
For the series' 12th (and ultimately, final) season, CBS moved My Three Sons to Monday nights at 10:00 pm. In addition to the time changes for the 12th season, a new four-part story arc is introduced with MacMurray in a second role, that of his cousin, the Laird (Lord) Fergus McBain Douglas of Sithian Bridge. The voice of English actor Alan Caillou is awkwardly dubbed over MacMurray's. The plot centers around Lord Douglas's arrival in Los Angeles from the family's native Scotland, in search of a woman to marry and return with him to Scotland.
He finds Terri Dowling (Anne Francis), a waitress at the Blue Berry Bowling Alley. While initially reluctant to give up her life in America and return to Scotland as nobility, she finally accepts. This storyline is a continuation of a plot idea that originally began in the fourth season, when the Douglases visit Scotland on the pretense of having been told they had inherited a castle in the Highlands.
With a later time slot, the show finished the season outside the top 30. To save the series, CBS moved it in midseason back to Thursday nights at 8:30 pm, its old time slot. Nevertheless, My Three Sons ended its primetime run in the spring of 1972 after 12 years on the air. CBS also aired daytime reruns starting in September 1971 (only the CBS color shows), for about one season.
- Fred MacMurray, Steve Douglas (1960–1972)
- William Frawley, William Michael Francis Aloysius "Bub" O'Casey (1960–1965)
- William Demarest, Charles Leslie "Uncle Charley" O'Casey, Bub's brother (1965–1972)
- Tim Considine, Mike Douglas (1960–1965)
- Don Grady, Robbie Douglas (1960–1971)
- Stanley Livingston, Richard "Chip" Douglas (1960–1972)
- Barry Livingston, Ernie Thompson/Douglas (1963–1972)
- Meredith MacRae, Sally Ann Morrison Douglas (1963–1965)
- Tina Cole, Katie Miller Douglas (1967–1972)
- Beverly Garland, Barbara Harper Douglas (1969–1972)
- Dawn Lyn, Dorothy "Dodie" Harper Douglas (1969–1972)
- Ronne Troup, Polly Williams Douglas (1970–1972)
- Michael, Daniel, and Joseph Todd, playing Robbie, Stevie, and Charley Douglas respectively (1970–1972)
- Cynthia Pepper, Jean Pearson (1960–1961)
- Peter Brooks, Hank Ferguson (1960–1963)
- Cheryl Holdridge, Judy Doucette (1960–1961)
- Ricky Allen, Hubert 'Sudsy' Pfeiffer (1961–1963)
- Hank Jones, Pete (1964–1966)
- Bill Erwin, Joe Walters (1962–1964)
- Doris Singleton, Helen Morrison (1964–65) and Margaret Williams (1970)
- John Howard, Dave Welch (1965–1967)
- Joan Tompkins, Lorraine Miller (1967–1970)
The series' cast had several music connections. MacMurray began his career as a saxophone player during the 1930s, and sometimes played it on the series, as well as clarinet. Frawley had been a vaudeville actor and sang in the 1929 short film Fancy That as well as in the 1936 film The General Died at Dawn and in several episodes of I Love Lucy. Actress Tina Cole (Katie) was born into the King Family, a popular 1950s–1960s group. Ronne Troup (Polly) was the step-daughter of singer Julie London and daughter of musician/composer Bobby Troup (who wrote the song Route 66 and also starred in the TV program Emergency! along with wife London), and Dawn Lyn is the younger sister of 1970s pop idol Leif Garrett. Don Grady (Robbie) composed and produced music, having created successful Las Vegas venues for Phantom of the Opera star Michael Crawford and pop star David Cassidy.
Grady also played drums in the '60s pop group Yellow Balloon. Musical arranger Frank De Vol, who did the toe-tapping theme, scored over thirty motion pictures and arranged for such vocalists as Sarah Vaughan, Jack Jones, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Vic Damone, Dinah Shore, Doris Day, and Jaye P. Morgan.
My Three Sons had 36 episodes each in the first two seasons. The series had more than thirty episodes in each of the first eight seasons; the episode output then decreased by two episodes until the eleventh season, which had twenty-four episodes, along with the twelfth season. The first five seasons were filmed in black & white, then after the move to CBS, it was filmed in color for the remainder of its run.
The series was initially filmed at Desilu Studios in Hollywood, but at the start of the 1967–68 season, the cast and crew began filming the series at the CBS Studio Center in Studio City, California. The reasons behind this move concerned the sale of actress-comedian Lucille Ball 's studios to the Gulf + Western conglomerate, which owned Paramount Pictures, so Don Fedderson Productions, who produced My Three Sons (along with Family Affair starring Brian Keith), had to quickly make other arrangements for filming. The move also necessitated moves in the show's storyline as well, hence the family's move from the fictitious town of Bryant Park (in the Midwestern United States) to North Hollywood, California, although the town is never officially mentioned, simply just the city of Los Angeles.
Fred MacMurray was the only actor to appear in every episode of the series. Reportedly, MacMurray's contract stipulated that he work only 65 days per year. His scenes for each season were produced in two blocks of filming. He would report to the Desilu-Gower lot in late May and work 35 days (five days per week, weekends off), then take off for 10 weeks. He would then return to complete his remaining 30 days of shooting and was finished altogether around Thanksgiving. MacMurray's ten-week hiatus in the middle of each season's production schedule freed up the actor to follow other pursuits, while the filming of scenes with the other cast members continued. In short, all episodes were filmed out of sequence. Evidence of this is very apparent in several episodes, where plotlines had MacMurray's character on a business trip (e.g. "Small Adventure") or spending much of his time at the office (e.g. "Soap Box Derby"). This allowed him to seemingly take part in the entire episode with limited or no interaction with the other regulars during filming. This sometimes produced noticeable continuity problems onscreen, especially as the boys grew and changed styles.
Although Don Fedderson gets the credit, My Three Sons was created by George Tibbles and produced by Don Fedderson Productions throughout the show's run, with MCA Television co-distributing the series during its 1960–65 ABC airing. When the series moved to CBS in 1965, the latter network assumed full production responsibilities (in association with Fedderson Productions) until the end of the series in 1972. CBS now holds the series' copyright. CBS Television Distribution presently owns distribution rights to the entire series (including the more widely seen and aforementioned 1965–72 CBS episodes). The show did not get syndicated until September 1976, when Viacom Enterprises assumed off-network distribution (although CBS did air reruns of the show in its daytime lineup from December 1971 until the fall of 1972), and even then, only the CBS color episodes aired, while the black and white ABC episodes did not air on broadcast TV at all. At the time, the first half of season 11 was in the same syndication package as seasons 6-10, while season 12 and the second half of season 11 was distributed with seasons 1–5.
Nick at Nite aired My Three Sons from November 3, 1985 to October 28, 1991 with episodes from Seasons 1–5, the second half of season 11, and season 12. The Family Channel also aired only the black and white episodes from September 7, 1992 to July 30, 1993. The Seasons 1–3 episodes had the original Chevrolet closing credits. The Seasons 6–10 (and the first half of season 11) episodes were later aired on TV Land in the late 1990s. Odyssey ran all of the color episodes in the early 2000s. They also briefly aired the black and white episodes. In 2000, TV Land briefly aired the black & white episodes again, using the same syndication episode rights that were on Nick at Nite during the 1980s. In 2006 the Retro Television Network broadcast the show. Only seasons 6-10 and the first half of season 11 were aired.
Since fall 2004, the standard US syndication package has been Seasons 6-10, though very few stations air the show anymore.
In 2009, FamilyNet began airing the program as a lead-in for its Happy Days and Family Ties program block, which ended in February 2010. From 2012-14, and also from October 2015-February 2016, MeTV aired the Season 6-10 episodes in heavy rotation, and most closing credits included the original sponsor tags, such as those for Kellogg's. In 2016, Decades began airing the CBS (color) episodes in its "binge" blocks on some weekends.
MeTV began airing the black and white episodes on May 29, 2017, the first time the black and white episodes have aired on broadcast television since their original ABC airings. MeTV aired all episodes in order until August 3, 2018, when the series' last episode aired; this marks the first time a U.S. broadcast television network aired the entire series in full. On August 6, 2018, MeTV re-aired the entire series.
MacMurray and most of the cast took part in Thanksgiving Reunion with The Partridge Family and My Three Sons, which aired on ABC on November 25, 1977. The retrospective special looked back at the history of My Three Sons and The Partridge Family (other than featuring single parents with a large family, the two series had no narrative, or even a studio, link). The special was notable for featuring footage from early black and white episodes of My Three Sons that, at this point in time, were not in syndication. While most of the collected casts gathered in a studio to reminisce, Demarest appeared in a brief pre-taped segment.
In most episodes, the soundtrack was edited to remove the background musical score, which were originally stock music from the Capitol Records library; the licensing agreement with Capitol only covered broadcast rights, not home video rights, and clearing the music for home video release with the individual composers who worked on the Capitol recordings was deemed cost-prohibitive. The Capitol scores were replaced instead with more modern, synthesized music. The original theme tune by Frank DeVol has been left unaltered; his musical scores in later seasons of the show, written specifically for the series, would less-likely be affected by licensing problems if the later seasons were released on DVD.