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

The My Three Sons star was the model for Captain Marvel and a big fan of Korean finger math.

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.

1. 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

2. 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

3. 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

4. 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

5. 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

6. 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. Check it out on YouTube.

Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


GOOSEYGOOSE9 10 months ago
Fred macmurray was a Disney legend
GOOSEYGOOSE9 10 months ago
My late dad’s late friend jimmy brown and my late dad as well as George cowles and Ronnie smith weren’t into my three sons they liked other shows
eppack 16 months ago
My family "lore" says that my grandfather, who was a printer by trade, way back in the 1920's or 30's or so, worked in a print shop somewhere in the Midwest, Illinois, Wisconsin, etc., and Fred MacMurray was a "Printer's Devil", i.e., an apprentice, in the shop they both worked in. Can anyone corroborate that? The general location seems to be correct. Obviously Fred smartly decided that printing was not his "thing" :) TIA E
eppack eppack 16 months ago
Given he was born in 1908, he would have been quite young, 12 in 1920, a not uncommon age for apprenticeships back in those days.
DonaldWolcJr 25 months ago
I watch My Three Sons and when they talked about him being a native of Wisconsin but he was born in Illinois and his parent moved to Beaver Dam Wisconsin where Fred MacMurray made numerous trips back to that city and been in lots of parades there also. He had lot of friends back there.
Cyn_Finnegan 41 months ago
Actually, Fred was one of FIVE models for the Golden Age Captain Marvel, depending on who was drawing him. C.C. Beck, Cap's co-creator, used Fred as his model; Marc Swayze, who co-created Mary Marvel, used Clark Gable; Pete Costanza used Cary Grant, and Kurt Schaffenberger used Rory Calhoun.
DavidBartholomew 41 months ago
Chisanbop!!! I remember being a tutor for kids and teaching the system!!

It really worked, but unless you used it regularly you lost the skill.

Chisanbop lets you count to 100 on your fingers.
If you use Chisanbop in Decimal, you can count to 1024 on your fingers.
45 months ago
He was wonderful as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity.
denny 46 months ago
How many times does FM say "baby" in Double Indemnity? Great movie, but it drives me a little crazy with all the baby's.
AMgirl 46 months ago
I used to love My Three Sons in the late 60s-early 70s, didn't know at the time that he'd been one of Hollywood's biggest stars & highest paid actors (along with Barbara Stanwyck). The Apartment and Double Indemnity are among my favorite movies. I don't recall seeing any of Fred's Disney movies. He could play the saxophone, had a reputation as being one of the biggest tightwads in Hollywood (along with Yul Brenner & Peter Lawford) and the reason he signed w/My Three Sons was that he & his wife had adopted twins in 1956 & he wanted to spend more time with them. His scenes were all filmed first--it was in his contract--so he could have more leisure time w/his family at his ranch in northern California (I think there's a segment about it on YouTube) and hit the golf course whenever possible.
denny AMgirl 45 months ago
He use to bring a sack lunch to the set.
Cyn_Finnegan 46 months ago
I'm a fan of the original Captain Marvel, so I did know about Beck modeling him off of Fred, but Fred wasn't the only model for him. Pete Costanza modeled his version of Cap off of Cary Grant; Marc Swayze, off Clark Gable, and Kurt Schaffenberger didn't use a model at all.
olddogg 46 months ago
Surprised there was no mention of "Follow Me Boys!" A great feel-good movie about a man who became a Boy Scout leader and his life as a Scoutmaster. I believe it was a Disney movie. I remembered it from when I was a kid. I always thought fondly of the movie.
AgingDisgracefully 46 months ago
I enjoyed Fred's NOT AMUSED FACE when targeted by Rickles at one of Reagan's inaugurals.
Steve Douglas would have rolled with it and passed the Hunt's.
Yes, I think I remember that. Rickles said something to the effect about "it was nice they let him out of the home"! I found it amusing though 😂
rab810 46 months ago
Gomer Pyle ought to like fact number 3.
stephaniestavropoulos 46 months ago
One Fred MacMurray story I like, {I hope I'm remembering this right. It has been said, that when one ages, the mind is the first to go. So if any of it is wrong feel free, anybody to correct me.}
I don't remember which it was, but for years FM had been doing feel good, family films. For whatever reason, he decided to think outside of the box and broaden his acting resume by doing some heavier roles. One day, {after his latest drama had released,} I think he and his family were at the Happiest Place On Earth. Some woman saw him, and walked over to him incensed and proceeded to pummel him with her purse. Apparently, she was mad at him for all of the dramas he'd been doing. }I don't think it mattered that in some them, he played a good guy.} She just wanted him to stop and go back to the Disneyesque movies he'd been doing. He of course promised her he would, and he did. I believe the next film or the one after that, was not a drama.
I know he'd done heavier films before, but when this story took place, he had been, for the most part, doing family films.
In between The Shaggy Dog (1959) and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Fred MacMurray played the role of Jeff Sheldrake, an odious adulterer, in The Apartment (1960).
Yep, he had done The Apartment, a film by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon where the execs at an insurance agency use Lemmon's apartment for their trysts while Lemmon was out in the evenings. MacMurray is cheating on his wife with the elevator girl, Miss Kublek (played by Shirley Maclaine), using Lemmon's apartment. If you've never seen the film do because it's great! Anyway, Fred, his wife and daughters were at Disneyland and this woman hit him with her purse saying that she'd taken her kids to see The Apartment thinking it was more along the lines of The Shaggy Dog. It was not a kid's movie at all. Thereafter he stuck to making movies that you could take the kids to, but mostly he did my Three Sons.
texasluva CarolKelley 46 months ago
After Fred did some films in the 50's as lowly characters (Borderline sort of an outlaw) (The Caine Mutiny-back stabbing liar). He finally does The Shaggy Dog and house-wives rejoice that Fred is now becoming respectable. Then here comes The Apartment (1960) and some lowered the boom on him. Yes one hit him with purse and another yelled at him, not so nice things. Poor Fred just trying to make blockbusters being hounded by picky women. Another from the trivia section of The Apartment. The Soviet Block after reviewing it had this to say to the people and other soviet block nations:
The film was lauded by Soviet-bloc critics as an indictment of the American system and a story that could only have happened in a capitalistic city like New York. At a dinner honoring him in East Berlin, Billy Wilder said the movie "could happen anywhere, in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rome, Paris, London." When Wilder said the one place it could not have happened was Moscow, the East Germans broke into thunderous applause and cheers. When the ovation died down, Wilder continued: "The reason this picture could not have taken place in Moscow is that in Moscow nobody has his own apartment." The remark was met with grim silence.
Too funny because Wilder got em good .
MrsPhilHarris CarolKelley 46 months ago
I believe it was his daughter that told this story and her mother looked at Fred and told him no more letch roles.
mssquared 46 months ago
As a kid I appreciated Fred MacMurray’s “Dad” roles. You knew that despite his hesitations he knew the answer to the situation. As a good Dad (I had one myself) he would nudge you into. Making the right decision. His slow responses gave a child’s brain the chance to look at the problem and take ownership of it. We need more Dads & Moms like that still today.
OldTVfanatic mssquared 46 months ago
You’re not kidding
MrsPhilHarris 46 months ago
Fun fact (well maybe not fun) I use a version of chisanbop when I have to figure something quickly and don't have a phone or calculator.
texasluva 46 months ago
Have not seen much of My 3 Sons but what I did see was okay. I am looking for the treasures of the Holy Grail in movies. Double Indemnity, The Apartment, The Caine Mutiny and Murder, He Says among others that this Mega Movie Star has so kindly performed in for our enjoyment.

Walter, I don't want to kill him. I never did. Not even when he gets drunk and slaps my face (sure lady)
Only sometimes you wish he was dead. (oh she wants him dead and you to do it.)
Perhaps I do (told ya so)
And you wish it was an accident and you had that policy for $50,000 dollars. Is that it? (that's it in a nutshell, dah Dough)
Perhaps that too (as she bats her eyelashes)

Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it? (tough beat Walter. Should have known since she was a blonde and eyes for $$$$), As Keys lights Walter's last smoke and the music eerily confirms it will be his last breaths.........D O U B L E INDEMNITY.......
Load previous comments
Angela texasluva 46 months ago
Wow. Thank you, thank you! What a great resource. I just d/led "Double Indemnity". As for Fred McMurray, he's probably the only other person I could picture as Perry Mason. Wonderful actor.
texasluva Angela 46 months ago
You are welcome. I am just starting on that site. It has like 265 billion pages of info. You can set up a favorites of anything you wish. Here are two more you might like.
Forbidden Planet. https://archive.org/details/ForbiddenPlanet1956_201707

The Caine Mutiny. https://archive.org/details/The.Caine.Mutiny.1954.1080p.BluRay.x264Japhson
MrsPhilHarris texasluva 46 months ago
Caine Mutiny is a great movie.
TheDavBow3 46 months ago
I really like "My 3 Sons". As I've said before, the best episodes, by far, are the 1st five seasons with Tim Considine "Mike" and William Frawley "Bub". Yeah, Fred was a huge movie star and made a bunch of money in real estate. Smart guy. Interesting about his leather work and Korean finger math. Plus seemed like a truly nice and decent guy 😊
MrsPhilHarris TheDavBow3 46 months ago
I love the seasons with Mike too. I usually avoid the show once he left. I think it changed to colour at that time and Ernie moved in and Bub moved out.
TheDavBow3 MrsPhilHarris 46 months ago
Yeah, in season 6, the show changed networks and went color. Mike married Sally (Meredith MacCrae) and left the show. Bub left half way through season 5 to help with his 104 year old aunt in Ireland. Then along came brother Uncle Charley. And, of course, adopted brother Ernie. I DVR My 3 Sons but stop when Uncle Charley and Ernie hit the scene. Really goes down hill when that happens.
MrsPhilHarris TheDavBow3 46 months ago
I completely agree.
TheDavBow3 TheDavBow3 46 months ago
The best thing about My 3 Sons seasons 6 - 12 is when Tina Cole "Katie" joined the cast.
SalIanni TheDavBow3 46 months ago
Katie was a nice addition and a great character but I liked Polly better. She makes the later seasons worth watching!
TheDavBow3 SalIanni 46 months ago
Yes, Polly as well. But Dodie is a very different story 😖😬. Ernie and her got to be annoying.
lyckligflicka TheDavBow3 41 months ago
Maybe it’s that I grew up with the story when Ernie joined, but I love that character. I really like the transition stories when he is adopted. Today was the show when they moved to California, and there was a very touching scene between Ernie and Steve. I also like when Steve finds love with Barbara. That added a new level to the show. Great job, Ernie!
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?