My Three Sons is an American sitcom. The series ran from 1960 to 1965 on ABC, and moved to CBS until its end on April 13, 1972. My Three Sons chronicles the life of widower and aeronautical engineer Steven Douglas (Fred MacMurray) as he raises his three sons.
The series originally featured William Frawley as the boys' live-in maternal grandfather, Bub O'Casey. William Demarest, playing Bub's brother, replaced Frawley in 1965 due to Frawley's health issues. In September 1965, eldest son Mike married and his character was written out of the show. To keep the emphasis on "three sons", a new son named Ernie was adopted. In the program's final years, Steven Douglas remarried and adopted his new wife's young daughter Dorothy ("Dodie")
The series was a cornerstone of the ABC and CBS lineups in the 1960s. With 380 episodes produced, it is second only to The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (14 seasons, 1952 - 1966, 434 episodes) as television's longest-running live-action sitcom. Disney producer Bill Walsh often mused on whether the concept of the show was inspired by the movie The Shaggy Dog, as in his view they shared "the same dog, the same kids, and Fred MacMurray".
These early episodes held to no specific generic type, so that any episode from one week to the next might be either comedic or dramatic. Tewksbury's episodes are also unusual for their use of cross-talk (a way of having the voices of off-screen characters heard in the background of the soundtrack, just under the voices of the main characters). Using this clever directorial twist, Tewksbury realistically portrayed the chaotic, fast-paced, and ever-changing sequence of events; coordinate and conflicting, that was the daily routine of living in the Douglas household. An example of Tewksbury's use of cross-talk is the fourth episode, "Countdown", written by David Duncan, which chronicles the Douglas family's attempts to wake up, prepare for the day, have breakfast, and get out of the house by a common, agreed-upon time, all carefully synchronized to a televised rocket launch countdown – to comical and often ironic effect. Tewksbury returned to directing feature films after concluding the season because the producers could not handle his perfectionist attitude, which was costing thousands of dollars in lost time and reshoots.
During the 1964 fall season, William Frawley, who played Bub, was declared too ill to work by Desilu Studios, as the company was informed that insuring the actor would be too costly. Frawley continued in the role until a suitable replacement could be found at midseason. He was replaced by William Demarest, who had played his hard-nosed brother (great) Uncle Charley part way through the 1964–65 season (the last on ABC). According to the storyline, Bub returns to Ireland to help his Auntie Kate celebrate her 104th birthday. Soon after, brother Charley visits and stays on. Charley, a cello-playing merchant sailor, was a soft-hearted curmudgeon, who proved to be a responsible caregiver. Frawley left the series before the end of the 1964-65 season. Frawley's last television appearance was in October 1965 on The Lucy Show, when he made a cameo appearance as a horse trainer in the episode "Lucy and The Countess Have a Horse Guest", which featured special guest star Ann Sothern. He died a short time later in March 1966 of a heart attack at the age of 79.
My Three Sons moved to the CBS television network for the 1965–66 season after ABC declined to commit to underwriting the expense of producing the program in color. Along with the change in networks and the transition to color, Tim Considine (who had earlier worked with Fred MacMurray on The Shaggy Dog), playing eldest son Mike, had chosen not to renew his contract due to a clash with executive producer Don Fedderson over Considine's wish to direct but not co-star in the series. (Considine did, however, direct one of the last black-and-white episodes for ABC.) According to Considine (Pat Sajak Show, August 1989), he also was devoted to automobile racing, which his contract forbade. His character was written out, along with Meredith MacRae, who had played his fiancee Sally, in a wedding episode that was the premiere of the 1965–66 season on CBS. After this episode, which was the program's first in color, Mike is mentioned briefly in only four succeeding episodes (including one in which Ernie becomes adopted), and is never seen again, even at Robbie and Steve's weddings. In the episode "Steve and the Huntress" (first aired January 27, 1966), Mike is specifically mentioned as teaching at a college. MacRae joined Petticoat Junction the following year, the last of three actresses to play Billie Jo Bradley.
To keep the show's title plausible, the show's head writer, George Tibbles, fashioned a three-part story arc in which an orphaned friend of youngest brother Richard (Chip, played by Stanley Livingston), Ernie Thompson (played by his real-life brother, Barry Livingston), awaits adoption when his current foster parents are transferred to the Orient. Steve offers to adopt Ernie, but faces antagonism from Uncle Charley, who finds Ernie a bit grating, and forecasts major headaches over both the boy and his dog. It also transpires that a law requires a woman to live in the home of an adoptive family. A likable female social worker supervises the case, and the Douglases speculate that Steve might marry the woman, to make the adoption possible, but they both agree this is not reason enough for them to be married. The family also does not need to hire a housekeeper, since Uncle Charley already has things running smoothly. The family soon appears before a judge who researches the law, and determines that its intent is to ensure a full-time caregiver is in the household. With Charley meeting that role, and having had a change of heart about Ernie, Charley assents to a legal fiction declaring him "housemother" to the Douglas family.
While the three sons were always central to the storyline, several major changes took place by the late 1960s. In the spring of 1967, the ratings for the series began to sag and My Three Sons finished its seventh season in 31st place in the Nielsen ratings. It was decided that the 1967-1968 season would bring the program not only a new time slot, but also new storylines to spice up the ratings. In the fall of 1967, CBS moved My Three Sons to Saturday night at 8:30 pm. In the season-premiere episode, "Moving Day", the Douglas family and Uncle Charley relocate from the fictional town of Bryant Park in the Midwest to Los Angeles. Robbie (Don Grady) marries his classmate/girlfriend, Katie Miller (Tina Cole). Tina Cole, in fact, had appeared in different roles on three previous episodes of My Three Sons - "House For Sale" from the fourth season (February 13, 1964), "The Coffee House Set" from the fifth season (November 19, 1964), and "Robbie and the Little Stranger" from the sixth season (February 17, 1966). At the end of the 1967-1968 season, the ratings had improved from the previous year with the series placing at 24th in the Nielsens. The following season, the newlyweds discover that Katie is pregnant, and she gives birth to triplets named Robert, Steven, and Charles. Although originally played by sets of uncredited twins, these babies were played uncredited by Guy, Gunnar, and Garth Swanson. The most familiar triplets in the show's last two seasons are played by Michael, Daniel, and Joseph Todd. The following year in the tenth season, 1969–1970, Steve remarries, taking widowed teacher Barbara Harper (Beverly Garland) as his wife; she brings with her a 5-year-old daughter, Dorothy "Dodie" (Dawn Lyn), so Steven now had a stepdaughter whom he also subsequently adopts. Also, the last 1 1/2 years of the series feature fewer appearances of both Don Grady and Stanley Livingston. Grady's character was written out of the show at the end of the 11th season, which allowed for his wife Katie and their triplet sons to remain within the Douglas household the following season (as a structural engineer Robbie was working on a bridge construction in Peru). Chip and his teen wife Polly (Ronne Troup) (who eloped after Polly's disciplinarian father refused to sanction the marriage) move into their own apartment.
At the end of the 1970–71 season (the show's 11th year), My Three Sons was still garnering healthy ratings. By the spring of 1971, it had finished in 19th place. A 1971 television pilot with Don Grady and Tina Cole called Three of a Kind, then retitled Robbie, about Robbie, Katie, and the triplets moving to San Francisco, was filmed but not picked up as a series. The final episode of the 1970-71 season, "After the Honeymoon", actually set up the premise for this pilot. The guest stars were Richard X. Slattery and Pat Carroll, who were featured as the landlords of the apartment block into which Robbie and Katie move. However, Don Grady had informed the producers of his intention to leave the series and pursue a new full-time career as a composer, which he ultimately did.
For the series' 12th season, CBS moved My Three Sons to Monday nights at 10:00 pm. In addition to the time changes for the 12th season, a new four-part story arc is introduced with MacMurray in a second role, that of his cousin, the Laird (Lord) Fergus McBain Douglas of Sithian Bridge. The voice of English actor Alan Caillou is awkwardly dubbed over MacMurray's. The plot centers around Lord Douglas's arrival in Los Angeles from the family's native Scotland, in search of a first lady to marry and return with him to Scotland. He finds Terri Dowling (Anne Francis), a waitress at the Blue Berry Bowling Alley. While initially reluctant to give up her life in America and return to Scotland as royalty, she finally accepts. This storyline is a continuation of a plot idea that originally began in the fourth season, when the Douglases visit Scotland on the pretense of having been told they had inherited a castle in the highlands.
With a later time slot, the show finished the season outside the top 30. To save the series, CBS moved it in midseason back to Thursday nights at 8:30 pm, its old time slot. Nevertheless, My Three Sons ended its primetime run in the spring of 1972 after 12 years on the air. CBS also aired daytime reruns starting in September 1971 (only the CBS color shows), for about one season.