Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sheldon Leonard: What a Character!

When most people think of Sheldon Leonard as an actor, it is his role as Nick the bartender in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) that probably comes to mind. If his role as Nick doesn't immediately spring to mind, then they will most likely think of one of the many heavies he played in movies over the years. And while Mr. Leonard did play an inordinately large number of heavies over the years, it was not the sum total of his career. While most people know that he was one of the greatest producers of television shows in the history of the medium, not many know that he actually played a wider array of roles in film, on radio, and on television than the heavies for which he was so well known. Indeed, Mr. Leonard even provided the voices for characters in Warner Brothers cartoons!

Sheldon Leonard was born Sheldon Leonard Bershad on 22 February 1907 in New York City. He attended Stuyvesant High School in New York City.  He went to Syracuse University on an athletic scholarship. Mr. Leonard was not only a good athlete, but a good scholar as well. He was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honour society. According to Turner Classic Movies he made his film debut in The Overland Stage in 1927, which would have been even before he graduated from Syracuse University in 1929. Following his graduation from Syracuse University he went to work on Wall Street. Unfortunately, he started working on Wall Street in late October of 1929, the very time that the Stock Market crashed. As might be expected, his career on Wall Street was a short one. It was then that Mr. Leonard decided to become a professional actor.

The year 1934 would prove to be a significant one in Sheldon Leonard's career. It was that year that he made his debut on Broadway in the comedy Hotel Alimony. It was that same year that he would also have his first significant role in a film. In the comedy short "My Mummy's Arms" (starring Shemp Howard before he became one of The Three Stooges) Sheldon Leonard played Abdullah, an Egyptian guide who curiously has a Brooklyn accent! He appeared in another ethnic role in another comedy short, "Gem of the Ocean" that same year, as well as a bit part as the "Third Department of Justice Representative" in the gangster movie The People's Enemy. Sheldon Leonard would spend much of the rest of the Thirties on Broadway, where he appeared in such productions as The Night Remembers, Fly Away Home, Having Wonderful Time, Siege, and Kiss the Boys Good-bye.

It was in 1939 that Sheldon Leonard returned to film, and it would be in a role that would largely determine the course of the rest of his career. In Another Thin Man Mr. Leonard played Phil Church, an ex-convict and an all around dodgy character. It was a role Sheldon Leonard played very well, so it should perhaps not be surprising that he played a similar in his very next film--gangster Pretty Willie Williams in Tall, Dark, & Handsome (1941). Over the years Sheldon Leonard would play many similar gangsters in such films as Lucky Jordan (1942), The Gangster (1947), and, perhaps most famously, Guys and Dolls (1955). Mr. Leonard was so identified with gangsters and similar roles that he often parodied them in comedies, including the horror comedy Zombies on Broadway (1945),  the Bowery Boys film Jinx Money (1948), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951).

While he may be well known for playing gangsters, Sheldon Leonard played many other heavies besides gangsters. In fact, one of his better known roles is from To Have and Have Not, in which he played Captain Renard's assistant Lt. Coyo. He even appeared in Westerns, including Blackie in Frontier Gal (1945) and Chief Ogane in The Iroquois Trail from 1950 (despite the fact that he had no Native American blood whatsoever).  In Violence (1947) he played part of a neo-Fascist organisation. He even appeared as a heavy in a pirate movie, playing one of Captain Kidd's crew in Captain Kidd (1945).

Of course, Sheldon Leonard played many roles beyond heavies. Indeed, his most famous film role of all time was not a heavy. In the primary timeline (the one in which George Bailey was born) of  It's a Wonderful Life Nick is good hearted, caring, and loyal to both Mr. Martini and George. He also played police officers on more than one occasion. His best known role as a police officer may be in the cult film Decoy (1946), in which he played Sgt. Joe Portugal. He also played  Detective Joe Marruci in Street of Chance (1942),  Detective Sgt. Mike Frontelli in Open Secret (1948) and Detective Pacciano in Take One False Step (1949).

While Sheldon Leonard is well known for playing heavies in feature films, it is not as well known that he provided voices for characters in Warner Brothers' animated shorts. He provided the voice for Dodsworth in the shorts "Kiddin' the Kitten" and "A Peck of Trouble". Dodsworth is unlike any role Mr. Leonard played in feature films. He is an overweight, tuxedo cat who is always trying to get others to do his work for him. His voice could best be described as Sheldon Leonard doing a W. C. Fields impersonation, or vice versa. He also provided the voice of Kid Banty, the boxing rooster, in the Foghorn Leghorn short "Sock-a-Doodle-Do". His work on Warner Brothers theatrical shorts would not be the last time that Sheldon Leonard did voice work for cartoons. He was also the voice of King Linus on the Sixties, Saturday morning television cartoon Linus the Linus Hearted.

Sheldon Leonard also did a good deal of work on radio. He may be best known as the Tout on The Jack Benny Programme, who was always giving Jack Benny dubious advice about betting at the racetrack. Mr. Leonard also played various roles on The Adventures of Maisie, starring Ann Southern (most frequently that of Maisie's boyfriend). He was also a regular on such varied radio shows as The Lineup (a CBS police drama), The Martin and Lewis Show, Johnny Fletcher (an NBC police comedy on which Mr. Leonard played Johnny's partner Sam), The Judy Canova Show (on which he played Judy's boyfriend Joe Crunchmiller), and The Damon Runyan Theatre (where he most often played, you guessed it, gangsters). He also appeared on such radio shows as The Adventures of the Saint, Burns and Allen, Old Gold Comedy Theatre, Richard Diamond Private Detective, and Screen Director's Playhouse.

As a successful character actor on both film and in radio, Sheldon Leonard naturally moved into television. He made his television debut on Your Jeweller's Showcase before going onto a memorable guest shot on I Love Lucy as Harry Martin, the fast talking, door to door salesman for the Handy-Dandy” vacuum cleaner. As one might expect, he reprised his role as the Racetrack Trout on several episodes of The Jack Benny Programme. He also had a recurring role as agent Phil Brokaw on Make Room for Daddy (more on his connection to that show in a little bit). He was a regular on the show The Duke. As an actor on television Sheldon Leonard's output would slow with the Sixties, although he found time to guest star on such shows as I Spy, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., My World and Welcone to It, and Sanford and Son. He was the lead on the short lived sitcom Big Eddie in the Seventies. In the Eighties he guest starred on The Cosby Show, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and Cheers. His last appearance on a television show was in an episode of Dream On in 1992.

Of course, when it came to television Sheldon Leonard's best known role may have been as a producer rather than an actor. Indeed, he could justifiably be considered one of the greatest television producers of all time. Not only was he fairly prolific, but he also produced some of the most successful, best loved shows of all time. Sheldon Leonard became a television producer by way of Make Room for Daddy, also known as The Danny Thomas Show. Mr. Leonard had broken into television directing with episodes of G.E. Theatre and Your Jeweller's Showcase. With the first season of Make Room for Daddy he was one of the show's regular directors. By the third season he was promoted to the role of producer for the show. It was the beginning of a successful new career for Mr. Leonard.

Indeed, Sheldon Leonard would produce some of the most legendary shows in the history of television. He served as executive producer on The Andy Griffith Show and even played a pivotal role in its creation. When Carl Reiner's pilot Head of the Family failed, Carl Reiner’s agent, Harry Kalcheim took it to Sheldon Leonard, who took on the project and recast it. Ultimately Head of the Family became The Dick Van Dyke Show. Over the years Sheldon Leonard would produce such shows as The Bill Dana Show, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.I Spy, Accidental Family, Good Morning World, My World and Welcome to It, and Shirley's World.

Here it must be pointed out that Sheldon Leonard was not simply a successful television producer, but he was also one who was willing to take chances. It was Sheldon Leonard who cast Bill Cosby as Alexander Scott on I Spy, making him the first African American lead on an American drama series. While NBC supported Sheldon Leonard in the casting of Bill Cosby, some of the network's affiliates baulked at airing a show featuring a black man in the lead. Mr. Leonard stuck to his guns and I Spy not only went on to be a hit, but it established Bill Cosby as a star. Sheldon Leonard would also take a risk with the short lived, now largely forgotten sitcom Accidental Family. One of the two leads was Lois Nettleton as divorceé Sue Kramer. It was the first American sitcom to feature a divorced woman as one of the central characters, and hence the first American sitcoms to deal with the issue of divorce.

The last show Sheldon Leonard produced was The Don Rickles Show in 1972. He made his last appearance as an actor in a guest appearance on Dream On in 1992. He also served as executive producer on the I Spy reunion film I Spy Returns in 1994. He died at age 89 on 22 February 1907.

Sheldon Leonard was much more than Nick in It's a Wonderful Life. He was also much more than a heavy in several feature films. He was even much more than one of the most successful television producers of all time. Sheldon Leonard was one of those rare individuals with talent in multiple fields: acting, directing, and producing. As an actor his career spanned several different media, including stage, film, television, radio, and even animated cartoons. And while he is best known for the heavies he played, Mr. Leonard could play much more. He could be a kindly bartender. He could be a dodgy racetrack tout. He could be a slick vacuum cleaner salesman. He could even be an incredibly lazy cat. In fact, the only thing I would possibly change about Sheldon Leonard's career is that I wished he had appeared in more comedy films. He had a real flair for the genre, whether it was playing the parodies of the heavies he played so often in Jinx Money and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man or the race track tout on The Jack Benny Programme or Phil Brokaw on Make Room for Daddy. Among many other things, Sheldon Leonard could be a very funny man.

Of course, Sheldon Leonard is also remembered as a legendary television producer. There can be no doubt that he produced some of the best loved, most successful shows of all time. More than fifty years after they have debuted, The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show are still aired around the world. What is more, Mr. Leonard not only had an eye for what could be successful, he also had an eye for quality. Both The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show received sterling reviews when they debuted and now they are counted as two of the greatest shows of all time. And, as pointed out above, he was also a producer who was willing to take chances. He cast an African American actor in a lead role on I Spy at a time when the casts of some shows were entirely white. He produced the first sitcom to feature a divorced women as one of the leads and as a result the first sitcom to deal with divorce. It should be little wonder, then, that Sheldon Leonard should be one of the most successful television producers of all time.

In the end, it is perhaps fitting that Sheldon Leonard's best known role is that of Nick in It's a Wonderful Life. A talented actor in multiple media who would become a successful producer of television shows, it can truly be said he had a wonderful life.


Citizen Screen said...

WOW! Fantastic post, Terry! What a career Leonard had!! While I recognize most of the productions and roles you list in the post, I am one of the ones who immediately think "heavy" when I picture Leonard.

Thanks so much for submitting this for the blogathon.


Caftan Woman said...

Great choice for the blogathon and full of terrific information. Sheldon Leonard was quite the incredibly busy and influential man, wasn't he? Audiences have a lot to be grateful to him for. Personally, I don't know if I find him more fun as a cop or as a gangster, but he always looks like he was having fun with all his roles.

Vienna said...

Excellent commentary on this performer. Well known for his gangster roles, it had been a pleasure to find the few films where he was on the right side of the law!
Can't think whey he never got star billing. he could easily have carried a film.
The voice was wonderful.

FlickChick said...

I grew up with this actor on TV, so I am always delighted to come across him in the movies. And I confess that I get a huge kick out of the fact that the 2 main characters on the wildly successful sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" are named Sheldon and Leonard. I am sure it is a tip of the hat to a great character.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

Oh my, I had forgotten that Leonard played in Its a Wonderful Life! I always do associate him with television and his "heavy" roles..he had that perfect gangster face. He was quite an accomplished author I heard too, and he penned a book with Andy Griffith in more recent years. This post was a great read..Thanks!


Yeah, he WAS much more than Nick the bartender! How cool to know that his voice was used in Warner Brothers cartoons.
I learned a lot with this post. THe biggest knowledge I have of Sheldon Leonard's importance was that he was the inspiration to name the two leads of TV show The Big Bang Theory.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Unknown said...

Mr Leonard was AAA rated as a person as an investor in California municipal bonds. I worked with him as his financial advisor on
the selection of top quality minis for a 10 year period-1985-1995. He preferred keeping his bonds in his own "safe keeping"
and I looked forward to my many visits to
his home on Loma Vists Drive. He was a regular guy who sounded and acted as he was portrayed on TV, radio and the movies
One of my late father's favorite life moments was when he listened in to a phone conversation (on an extension) I had with Mr
Leonard. He was my dad's favorite actors.
We both graduated from Syracuse University-him in 1928 and myself in 1964 but he was Phi Beta Kappa and I wasn't. A true pioneer in the entertainment business