Barry Livingston described the real sibling rivalry on the set of My Three Sons
Barry Livingston: My Three Sons was a "nice way to equalize our relationship."
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Most fans of My Three Sons know that in real life Chip Douglas and Ernie Thompson are actually brothers. Ernie Thompson is played by Barry Livingston and Chip by Stanley Livingston. Stanley's the older brother, born three years ahead of Barry, and both were eager to become child actors at the same young age. It's just that Stanley always had three years on Barry, so Barry was always trailing behind his more famous older brother.
Before My Three Sons, Stanley Livingston had made multiple appearances on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but it was My Three Sons that turned the boy into a star overnight. His little brother Barry had to get used to stepping aside as both strangers and family members overlooked the younger boy to gush over the child star.
In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Barry Livingston said, "You know, there’s a sibling rivlarly. I love my brother. Loved him then, love him now. But if you’re a younger sibling and you see your older brother being the object of everybody’s affection ... at the swimming pool, the girls were all, “Ooh, it’s Chip!’ And even if you go to a family dinner, the aunts and uncles, ‘Ah, he’s so cute!’"
This, of course, all changed as soon as Barry joined the cast of My Three Sons. According to Barry, it was a “… nice way to equalize our relationship, that I got on the same hit TV show that he was on.”
The addition of Ernie wasn't just great for the brothers. Barry said they really enjoyed all the time they got together, "It was great. We shared a dressing room, we shared a schoolroom, we’d go home at night, we’d share a bedroom.” It was also great for the show. Barry joined the cast in 1963, partway through the fourth season. The next year, My Three Sons would achieve its highest number of viewers ever, when more than 13 million viewers tuned in. In many ways, it was the addition of Ernie that gave the show that boost, and it was quickly decided the character would remain on the show as an adopted son.
And while you may think this is a story just about brothers, only about sons, you should know at the heart of Barry's casting was the boys' mother. In the interview, Barry said, "I was on the set a lot, even when I wasn’t the friend next door, because of my mom and her very clever way to get me into the biz. I would just hang out and be there, and, of course, they knew I was acting." Barry had already been cast on The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and just before his first episode of My Three Sons aired, audiences saw the boy on I Love Lucy. Still, that doesn't mean when it came time to cast Ernie Thompson that they just gave Barry the part.
Barry described his audition in the interview as a surprisingly nerve-wracking moment in his young life. He remembers everybody at the reading with a stone-cold face. Everyone, that is, except Gene Reynolds. Reynolds (who is perhaps most famous for his work as a producer on M*A*S*H) had taken over as director on My Three Sons at that point, but before that, at the very beginning of his career, he had been a child star himself. Barry could tell Gene knew what he was going through, and in the interview, he remembered, "He was the only sort-of human in the room. Everyone else looked like statues. But he was very friendly, very funny, very warm."
After the audition, Barry was eager to leave the studio. His family was set to go on vacation to Palm Springs, a fact he'd let slip during his reading. Nevertheless, they asked him to wait around anyway. It felt like longer, but Barry said it was probably 20 minutes when My Three Sons executive producer Don Fedderson finally came out to break the news: Barry was in. Barry said Fedderson told him at the time, "I’m so sorry we made you wait for so long. We want Barry, we want you to be on the show, and the reason it took me so long is I was trying to find the keys to my house in Palm Springs and I want you guys to stay there this weekend." Pretty nice bonus for a short wait, right?
And that sibling rivalry that had the boys in competition? Well, that faded away once Barry proved he could hit the same mark as Stanley, of whom Barry described with great affection, "He was always a great big brother.”