One morning this week Mister Boomer was heading to work. It looked like, as Paul McCartney might say, “just another day.” But nearing the end of his commute to his office, a ripple altered the wavelength of space-time. A man walked passed Mister B, just as zillions of people pass each other every day. Only this time the first sight of this man stopped Mister B in his tracks. Involuntarily, he found himself half-whispering, “Uncle Charley!”
Now, Mister Boomer does have an Uncle Charlie living in another state, but this man looked nothing like him. Rather, this man was a dead ringer for the actor who played Uncle Charley on My Three Sons — William Demarest!
The brain is a wondrous bowl of gelatinous magic. It stores our boomer memories in neat little rows; oft-needed memories are close at hand, but others, those we rarely access or haven’t thought about in years, reside in the back rooms, like dusty volumes in a library’s stacks. The shock of seeing “Uncle Charley” was like the exact Dewy-decimal card jumping out of long wooden drawers and into his hands. A librarian took the card and, in a flash, visited the stacks, found the volume, blew the dust off the top and spine, and delivered it to Mister B. All that happened in the split second he was suspended in his forward motion at the sight of a man who reminded him of a character who hadn’t been top-of-mind in years. What else could Mister Boomer think of this encounter, other than it was a sign to write about Uncle Charley and My Three Sons?
While Father Knows Best (1954-60), I Love Lucy (1951-57), Leave It to Beaver (1957-63) and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66) pictured two-parent families, My Three Sons (1960-72) was a sitcom that centered around a widowed man named Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray) who was raising his three sons — Robbie (Don Grady), Mike (Tim Considine) and Chip (Stanley Livingston) with the help of his father-in-law (William Frawley, who boomers will remember as Ed Mertz on I Love Lucy). The show’s single-dad theme (plus precocious kids and a hoot of a character housekeeper/nanny) was later adapted by sitcoms of the late sixties into the ’70s like Petticoat Junction (1963-70), Family Affair (1966-71), Nanny and the Professor (1970-71), The Tony Randall Show (1976-78), and Diff’rent Strokes (1978-86), to name a few.
The show explored the trials and tribulations of single-parenthood from the male perspective. It was a revolutionary idea in 1960 that a man might be able to raise a family without a wife, because a family without women meant chaos. Indeed, with aerodynamics engineer Steve Douglas always away for work, domestic help was needed in the form of Bub O’Casey (William Frawley). When Frawley became seriously ill in 1965, his character was replaced by the brother of Frawley’s character, “Uncle Charley O’Casey” (William Demarest). Stereotypical portrayals of clumsy men working the domestic arena formed a foundation of My Three Sons humor.
Charley was a retired sea captain, a crusty curmudgeon with a heart of gold. Demarest looked every bit the part of a salty dog with his rough exterior. It was the type of role he was used to playing in his career. Demarest started out in Vaudeville and appeared in some of the very first talking films. He appeared in more than 100 films, including The Jazz Singer (1927) and also The Jolsen Story (1946), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.
In My Three Sons, Uncle Charley could be the font of wisdom on occasion, but mostly he was comic relief. He was the guy pictured ironing shirts while wearing a frilly apron, or cooking a meal like he was still onboard a ship. His movie-tough guy delivery and school-of-hard-knocks mannerisms made him the perfect cap in an all-male household.
The series underwent several cast changes in its 12-year run. The first was Demarest replacing William Frawley. The show sent Frawley packing by having his character head back to Ireland. Next, Tim Considine, who had been a child actor with Disney, decided he wanted more time to act in films, pursue his love of auto racing and he also wanted to try his hand at directing. The show’s producers wouldn’t accommodate him, so he left in 1965. The series explained his absence by having his character, Mike, get married and move away. His character married his fiancee Sally (Meredith MacCrae, who went on to join the cast of Petticoat Junction).
After Mike moved away, the show was in need of a third son. They found the character in the guise of Ernie, who already regularly appeared on the show. The storyline had Ernie as a next-door neighbor and Chip’s classmate. Ernie was a foster child, but his foster parents were transferred to a job out of the country, so Steve Douglas adopted Ernie and he became the new third son. In real life, Barry Livingston (Ernie) was Stanley Livingston’s (Chip) brother.
In 1967 Robbie (Don Grady) married his girlfriend Katie (Tina Cole) who had previously been written into several episodes, then in 1969 dad Steve (Fred MacMurray) remarried, taking widow Barbara Harper Douglas (Beverly Garland) as his bride. Mister B has read that, ten seasons into its run by then, a lot of people thought the show jumped the shark when good old dad remarried.
Mister Boomer can recall and recite lines from many sitcoms of the 1960s. However, My Three Sons is not one of them. His family did watch it on their black & white TV, but Mister B doesn’t remember much at all about that show other than the great cartoon-sneaker opening and recognizable theme song. That is what made it so remarkable that a visualization of “Uncle Charley” should rocket the memory of a character from a show that aired fifty years ago into his consciousness.
How about you, boomers? Do you recall Uncle Charley and My Three Sons?