6 things you never knew about Fred MacMurray of My Three Sons

Image: The Everett Collection

To people of a certain age, Fred MacMurray seems like a surrogate dad. His show My Three Sons became the second-longest-running live-action sitcom in television history, runner-up to Ozzie and Harriet. Boomers watched it during its original run from 1960–72, and their kids continued chuckling along for years as it aired in reruns. 

Many also remember MacMurray from his Disney roles, especially The Shaggy Dog

These cheerful family comedies should not overshadow the actor's range. Long before those roles, he was a tough Hollywood leading man, starring in gritty masterpieces like 1944's Double Indemnity.

His acting career spanned half a century. Let's take a look at some surprising facts you might not know from his life.


He was the first person ever named a "Disney Legend."

The ranks of Disney Legends includes names like Jim Henson, Hayley Mills, Phil Collins, Elton John, Tim Conway, Betty White, Robin Williams, Christina Aguilera, Dick Van Dyke, Annette Funicello and dozens more. The House of Mouse began bestowing the honor in 1987. Just one actor earned the title that year. It was Fred MacMurray, beloved for his starring roles in Disney gems The Absent-Minded Professor and The Shaggy Dog. As you can see here, he even rode in the ceremony with a rather cool shaggy dog.

Image: AP Photo / Lennox McLendon


He was once the highest-paid actor in Hollywood — and fourth highest-paid in America.

MacMurray was a massive star long before Disney or My Three Sons came calling. In 1943, he reached an enviable peak, becoming the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. The Wisconsin native raked in $420,000 that year. (That adjusts to about $6.3 million today, which shows how much more entertainers make these days.) That income also made him the fourth highest-paid American in 1943, according to his obituary in The New York Times.

Image: The Everett Collection


The superhero Captain Marvel was modeled after him.

Fawcett Comics asked cartoonist C.C. Beck to design a new hero for its title Whiz Comics in 1939. He became known as Captain Marvel, though you might think of him as Shazam, thanks to the magic word that give him the powers of Greek gods. Beck looked to Fred MacMurray, who had been headlining a handful of films for Paramount at the time, such as Men with Wings and Café Society. Even when Beck brought the character to DC Comics in 1973, seen here, there was still a resemblance, don't you think?

Image: Shazam No. 1, 1973 / DC Comics


He was an expert leather craftsman.

In 1936, MacMurray had a bit of a breakout year, thanks to lead roles in successful Westerns like The Trail of the Lonesome Pine and The Texas Rangers. While he is better remembered for his work in film noir and comedy, the Midwesterner still had a good deal of cowboy in him. That breakout year of '36 also saw MacMurray profiled in a Screen Snapshots newsreel. The short film focused on the actor's leatherworking skills. He had the skills to make a holster and a saddle!

Image: The Everett Collection


He was the first choice to play Perry Mason on TV.

Perry Mason had been a hero of pulp fiction, Thirties movies, and Forties radio. In 1957, at last, the ace attorney made it to television. Raymond Burr will forever be associated with the role — but he was not the first choice. "Apparently Fred MacMurray is the person who will probably be selected," Perry creator Erle Stanley Gardner wrote in a 1956 memo. Oddly, Gardner did not know quite who MacMurray was. Can you have imagined how different television might have looked in the early 1960s if the studio had stuck with MacMurray as Perry Mason?

Image: The Everett Collection


He promoted Korean finger math in the Seventies.

Chisanbop is a counting method that utilizes your fingers like an abacus. It allows simple calculations with your digits, as well. The hand technique was developed in Korea in the 1940s. MacMurray tried to sell American parents and children on chisanbop in a series of 1970s commercials. "Though it makes learning math fun, it's not a game," the actor declared in an ad.