Obituary: Sheldon Leonard

One of the most fascinating characters in Jack Benny's radio show during the 1940s and early 1950s was a sleazy type who would buttonhole Benny in various locations. Out of the corner of his mouth, and in a thick Brooklyn accent, he would offer advice in the furtive manner and argot of a racetrack tipster. One of these surrealistic encounters began:

"Psssst! Hey, bud!"

"Yes?"

"Come here a minute."

"Who, me?"

"Sure. Where ya goin'?"

"Just to buy some chewing gum."

"Yeah? What kind?"

"Why, spearmint."

"Nix on that! Take my advice - get bubble-gum."

"Bubble-gum? Why?"

"It's great in the stretch."

This unlikely tout was played by Sheldon Leonard, a tall, dark character actor with a vast number of film roles to his credit, most of them as criminals. Later, Leonard would become enormously successful as a television producer and director, selling an unprecedented 17 shows to the American networks.

Born of lower middle-class Jewish parents, Leonard attended Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, where he began acting in plays. He went on to study at Syracuse University, which boasted a superb Performing Arts department, and he soon resolved to become a professional actor, making his Broadway debut in a play called Hotel Alimony (1934). The critic Burns Mantle wrote: "Out of an inherent sense of decency, I was tempted to ignore Hotel Alimony as though it had never happened. Reviewing it is a dirty job, but someone has to do it." Mantle and his fellow critics were, however, kind to Leonard, and he went on to play a lecherous millinery salesman in Arthur Kober's play Having Wonderful Time (1937) and an even more lecherous movie producer in Clare Boothe's comedy Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1938).

Hollywood soon beckoned, and Leonard sneered his way through more than 140 films, including To Have and Have Not (1944), in which he played a Vichy French policeman who tried to shoot Humphrey Bogart, and It's a Wonderful Life (1947), in which he played Nick, the surly bartender, who threw James Stewart into the snow one Christmas Eve.

Bored with typecasting, he turned to directing and producing for television, launching the long-running sitcom The Danny Thomas Show (1953-57). That Leonard wrote and/or directed various episodes of the television series The Damon Runyon Theatre is highly appropriate; as an actor he later played in four films based on Runyon stories: Money From Home (1954), Stop, You're Killing Me (1955), Guys and Dolls (1961) and Pocketful of Miracles (1978).

He may even have invented the television spin-off. Having developed a sitcom for Andy Griffith, in which the rural comedian would play a sheriff in a small southern town, Leonard saved the expense of making a pilot programme by introducing Griffith and the other characters of his town in The Danny Thomas Show. The trial episode involved Thomas's being stopped for speeding in the North Carolina hamlet of Mayberry and arrested by Sheriff Griffith. Before the half-hour was finished, the sheriff's friends and relatives were also introduced, and, as a result, The Andy Griffith Show got the green light and ran for eight years. In 1964 there was a spin-off from the spinoff; Jim Nabors, who played a gormless filling-station attendant in the Griffith show, was given his own series, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. Gomer's adventures in the Marine Corps continued for six years.

Leonard watched an unsuccessful television pilot about the professional and home life of a comedy writer, and thought it had promise. Carl Reiner had written it as a vehicle for himself, but Leonard persuaded Reiner to let him cast Dick Van Dyke in the lead. Next, came the search for an actress to play Van Dyke's wife. Luckily, Danny Thomas remembered an actress who had auditioned for his own series, and asked, "How about that kid with three names?" Leonard auditioned Mary Tyler Moore, who passed with flying colours, and the world was suddenly a better place. The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) received 21 Emmy Awards and was nominated for 64. What with Pyle, Griffith, Van Dyke and Danny Thomas, Leonard now had a record four Top Ten shows on the same network.

In 1965 he helped to develop I Spy, whose protagonists were a tennis champion (Robert Culp) and his trainer (Bill Cosby). Travelling around the world for various tournaments gave them the opportunity to engage in espionage for an unnamed agency of the American government. Leonard stubbornly resisted CBS's timorous objections, making Cosby the first African/American to star on US television in a dramatic series. Unfortunately, Leonard's My World and Welcome to It wasn't as successful. Despite winning the Emmy Award as Best New Show of the 1969-70 season, this stylish series, based on the work of James Thurber, was cancelled after only 26 episodes.

The hugely successful film and television producer Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, Happy Days, Mork and Mindy) worked for Leonard as a writer on the Danny Thomas and Dick Van Dyke shows. In his autobiography, Marshall recalls asking Leonard, "Sheldon, exactly how does a person become a television producer?" The reply was: "Always say something. Make a dec-ision, right or wrong, because most of the people in show business are afraid to make a decision."

Sheldon Leonard Bershad (Sheldon Leonard), actor, writer, director, producer: born New York City 22 February 1907; married 1931 Frankie Bober (one son, one daughter); died Beverly Hills, California 10 January 1997.

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