Disney: A Legendary Day with Fred MacMurray
I only met Fred MacMurray once. I won’t say once was enough, but I’ll take it.
The brief visit was all I’d hoped…I’ll always remember his self-effacing humor. He was also, it turned out, a much better conversationalist than the Shaggy Dog.
But maybe I should explain.
October 13, 1987 was the inauguration of the Disney Legends Promenade at The Walt Disney Studios, and MacMurray was the very first Legend to be honored. Although his late-career portrayal of Professor Ned Brainard in The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963) may have endeared him to Disney fans, it was his first Disney feature role that led to his “Legendary” selection.
In 1959, MacMurray was cast as Tommy Kirk’s befuddled father in The Shaggy Dog, a canine comedy caper (and surprise hit) that also showcased young Disney veterans Tim Considine, Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran, and Annette Funicello. Because The Disney Channel had scheduled the film (and 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.” So, MacMurray and his wife, actress/dancer June Haver, were invited out to Burbank for the ceremony.
When told about the award idea, then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner – to his credit – felt the concept, if given the right attention, could be much more lasting and impactful, something it has clearly become over the past 20+ years.
But back to 1987, MacMurray, and the dog.
I was on studio property that mid-October day in a dual capacity, representing the Disneyland Resort’s weekly newsletter, The Disneyland Line, and their short-lived Cast Communications Network (“CCN: Coming to a Break Area Near You!”). With me were Jimmy McGraw, the graphic artist for the Line, and Tom Meslovich, one of Disneyland’s hardworking “AV Guys.”
In addition to writing a short Line feature on MacMurray and the Legends Award program (click on the Line page to the left to read the whole article), I’d been assigned to shoot a CCN video report as well. So, bursting with credentials, I joined the local media to the right of the Studio Theater entrance, and MacMurray arrived at the ceremony site a few minutes later. Riding in an open-top Model T roadster alongside Haver and a “next generation” pooch, he waved happily to the crowd. Both Michael and COO Frank Wells spoke before MacMurray stepped to the podium.
“I just thought we’d come out here today,” he shared good-naturedly, clearly a little surprised by the large studio crowd, “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 Michael (the current Disney Legends award featuring Mickey’s hand holding his Fantasia wand had yet to be designed), the guest of honor stepped over to a square of wet cement and knelt, leaving his hand prints and signature behind (Sid Grauman-style) as the first-ever “official” Disney Legend. Camera bulbs flashed. Questions were shouted by us media types.
A few minutes later, as he finished wiping the wet cement off his hands, I stepped back over to him and asked if he still played the saxophone (his musical skill was what originally brought him to Hollywood). He laughed and put his hand on my shoulder. I checked my blazer to make sure he hadn’t left any cement residue.
“Imagine a young man like you remembering that,” he said, a little surprised again.
[Authors note: This was more than 20 years ago. I WAS young]
Holding up his right hand, he indicated the ring finger with his thumb. It bent in at an unusual angle, and had made a much deeper indentation in the wet cement than the rest of his fingers.
“No, I can’t really play anymore,” he answered, smiling a little wistfully, “this [finger]’s just gotten too arthritic to work the thing the way I want to.”
We chatted for a couple more minutes, and I thanked him for his work in the Disney films and on a childhood television favorite, the long-running My Three Sons, where he appeared as widower (and erstwhile father figure) “Steve Douglas” alongside Considine (who played “Mike Douglas” from 1960-65) and former Mousekateer Don Grady (who played “Robbie Douglas”).
Soon, it was time for him to join Haver (whom I also met briefly) and the dog in the Model T for a ceremonious exit. But before he left, he was kind enough to sign his name across the top of the Disney Legends press release I had with me (detail below).
A few minutes later, the Model T driver returned with the dog so we could shoot some bookends (an open and close) for the video piece. For those shots, I sat behind the wheel of the car with the dog at my side, saying something like, “This is Craig Hodgkins, and the Shaggy Dog, at the Disney Legends Awards at The Walt Disney Studios.”
Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly what I said, because I no longer have a copy of the video footage or the finished piece. No, the only visual evidence I have that I was actually there (other than the article I wrote) is this photo (below) which surfaced a few years later. I never found out who took it, but I’m thankful they did.
That’s me in the blue blazer, leaning against the car, intently discussing a shot with Tom (with the video camera on his shoulder), who is mostly obscured by Jimmy (who stands with his back to the photographer). The dog, patient as ever, awaits his cue. He was thoroughly professional, but didn’t say a word to me the entire time we were together.
In the Spring of 1988, I left Disneyland to begin a new job at the Disney Studios. One of my favorite things to do during my years there was walk around the property after eating a quick lunch in the commissary, frequently stopping by the Legends Promenade, where MacMurray’s prints were soon joined by other Disney greats.
Eventually, the Legends Awards outgrew the area in front of the Studio Theater, and were relocated to the newly-named Legends Plaza facing the Team Disney building, where hand prints and signatures are now reproduced as bronze plaques.
Fred MacMurray passed away on November 5, 1991.
A few days later, I returned to the the Studio Theater to pay my respects. It must have rained the night before, for some water remained in the deep imprint left by his right ring finger.
I smiled, remembering our brief conversation, and for a moment imagined that I heard a lone saxophone off in the distance, softly playing the My Three Sons theme song.
PS: I you need or want a little fatherly Fred MacMurray in your life, My Three Sons: Season One (In two volumes) has just been released on DVD for the first time ever. Enjoy every episode from the 1960-61 season in glorious black & white!
PPS: If you want to see a more dramatic (or sinister) Mr. MacMurray, check out his work in Double Indemnity (1944), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and The Apartment (1960). For his flair for comedy in early, non-Disney roles, try Murder, He Said (1945), The Egg and I (1947), and Father Was a Fullback (1949).