Cline column: Leonard an unsung TV hero

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 23, 2012

By Mike Cline
For the Salisbury Post
Sheldon Leonard was a television pioneer.
He cut his teeth in the entertainment business as an actor, starting way back in 1934 as a supporting player. In fact, that’s how he made a living for nearly 20 years.
His name wasn’t as recognizable as his face. Leonard played mostly gangsters and thugs in close to 100 feature films, usually not living until the last reel of most of the movies.
Sheldon’s knowledge of comedy began when Jack Benny added him to his radio, and later, TV family. Leonard would pop up on occasion as a character who would give Benny a tip on what horse to place a bet whenever Jack would visit the track to watch the ponies run.
Out of intimidation, Benny always did what this stranger told him and always lost at the pay window.
Today, Leonard’s most-remembered movie appearance is probably as Nick, the bartender who isn’t sympathetic to Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Leonard wanted to expand his talents in show business and, like some others, saw the future impact of the little box called television.
He joined forces with Danny Thomas, a nightclub comedian whose movie career had stalled in mediocrity. Danny was anxious to get on TV, and in the fall of 1953, “The Danny Thomas Show” (aka “Make Room For Daddy”) premiered on ABC.
Four years later, the show shifted to CBS and became one of TV’s highest-rated programs. Eleven years and 343 episodes later, Thomas voluntarily ended the show at the end of the 1963-1964 season.
By 1959, Leonard and Thomas had become interested in a Southern talent via a few movies, a Broadway show and comedy recordings. They both thought this Andy Griffith fellow was a natural for television.
I attended a seminar in Los Angeles back in 1995 in which Leonard was the guest speaker. Then 88, Mr. Leonard was in great physical condition and sharp as the proverbial tack.
“It didn’t take a genius to see that Andy Griffith could be a very successful television performer,” Leonard told us. “The key was finding the right format for him.”
Leonard and Thomas found it. Actually they developed it. We know how it turned out now, but in late 1959, it wasn’t a sure bet. The plan was laid out to shoot an episode of “The Danny Thomas Show” with Griffith as a small-town Southern sheriff. Danny and his TV family are hauled into the courthouse because Danny is caught speeding by this “hayseed” lawman.
There we are introduced to Sheriff Andy Taylor and the little hamlet of Mayberry.
This one-shot episode aired on CBS Feb. 15, 1960. The show had a built-in audience due to the Thomas show’s popularity, and the audience response was extremely favorable. CBS gave the green light for a weekly series to begin in the fall of 1960.
Leonard, Thomas and Griffith went to work on the format. Some of the material used in the “pilot” episode was retained, some things were changed.
The “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” episode had been shot on a soundstage using the Desi Arnaz three-camera system. The new series would be filmed with one camera, using both soundstages as well as shooting outdoors.
Actress Frances Bavier had appeared in the pilot show, not as Aunt Bee, but as Mayberry citizen Henrietta Perkins. Seems her husband had recently passed away. He didn’t have a suit, so the widow Perkins rented one for his viewing and funeral service.
Unfortunately, the mortician failed to remove the suit before the burial, and the widow was now being charged 50 cents per day for the suit rental. The rental fees had become more than it would have cost to buy the suit outright. So she came to Sheriff Andy Taylor for his help. Naturally, the situation was resolved.
They all liked Bavier in the part, so she was retained for the series and became Aunt Bee Taylor, the new housekeeper in the first episode of the series, which they aptly titled “The New Housekeeper.”
Another pilot episode cast member they all liked was 5-year-old Ronny Howard, who appeared as Opie Taylor, the widower sheriff’s only child. Opie appears in a scene, distraught because his pet turtle has died. Andy gives him one of those soon-to-be familiar talks about losing someone close (he refers to his deceased wife) and promises to give the expired reptile the greatest burial any turtle ever had.
Young Howard continued as Opie Taylor.
Whatever became of that kid anyway?
Mayberry had a town drunk in the Thomas/Griffith episode. He turned himself in and locked himself up just as Otis Campbell did later in the Griffith series. But in the pilot, it wasn’t Otis Campbell, and it wasn’t actor Hal Smith. It was actor Frank Cady, who recently passed away at 96. He is now best-remembered as Sam Drucker of “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres.”
“They didn’t ask me back for the series,” Cady said in an interview a few years ago. “But it worked out well for all of us in the long run. Hal created a great character in Otis, and I did all right with Sam Drucker.”
“The Andy Griffith Show” premiered on CBS the night of Oct. 3, 1960, and unless you have been in a daze for the last 52 years, you know how things have gone for the series.
In terms of popularity during its original run of eight seasons, TAGS never finished lower than the seventh highest-rated show on television. During its final season, when Andy personally pulled the plug, it was television’s number one-rated show, one of only three shows in TV history to quit in this position. (“I Love Lucy” and “Seinfeld” are the others.)
TAGS, itself a “spinoff” from another program, spawned its own “spinoff” with “Gomer Pyle USMC” and its own sequel in “Mayberry RFD.”
Don Knotts won five Emmy awards during the eight seasons (he appeared regularly in the first five) for his now-legendary performance as Deputy Barney Fife.
But no one is more responsible for “The Andy Griffith Show” than New York City born Sheldon Leonard. He gave it birth.
The same can be said for “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Leonard put that show on the air as well.
And in 1965, he broke barriers when he cast an African-American actor in a successful action/espionage series. The actor was Bill Cosby. The series was “I Spy.”
For his producing-directing work in television, Sheldon Leonard received five Emmy awards. He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. In 1995, he was given a lifetime membership into the Directors Guild of America, for which he joked, “Giving a lifetime membership to a guy 88 years old — big ******* deal, but I thank you nonetheless.”
Eagle Scout Sheldon Leonard (born Leonard Sheldon Bershad) is honored to this day by the television industry. Two characters on the hit CBS sit-com “The Big Bang Theory” are named SHELDON Cooper and LEONARD Hofstadter.
Guess where they came up with those names.
Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents all the movies played in Rowan County theaters from 1920 through 1979.