Billy Wilder risked Fred MacMurray's image in ''Double Indemnity''

"Look, I'm a saxophone player," said MacMurray.

Public perception is a fickle thing. If an actor is lucky enough to be associated with any one thing in an audience's mind, the actor might find it difficult to shake that notion. Take Andy Griffith, for example. For years after The Andy Griffith Show ended, the former Sheriff Taylor experimented with what kinds of roles he took. He even founded his own production company to try new things and test how far his audience would follow him. What he found, though, was that folks mostly still only accepted him as Sheriff Taylor. He tried and failed in the wake of his most famous show, learning that most viewers preferred to see him one specific way. It's no coincidence that you can draw so many parallels between The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock, his real second act in show business.

Another actor with similar struggles was Fred MacMurray. Throughout his career, MacMurray established a particular connection with his viewing audience. There was some quality to him as an actor that made him feel trustworthy. For a stretch of the 1960s and '70s, MacMurray was the perennial Dad Next Door, starring in the show My Three Sons while also appearing in Disney features like The Shaggy Dog, and Flubber. He had a genial approach to each role, and the public really bought into him as a good guy.

But, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time could've shifted that perception forever all the way back in 1944 when Billy Wilder was casting for Double Indemnity, a film noir thriller instantly recognized as one of the best movies ever.

According to Wilder, the process was fraught with rejection, as seemingly nobody was willing to put their image on the line to play the morally ambiguous lead role. In the book Film Noir Reader 3: Interviews with Filmmakers of the Classic Noir Period, Wilder spoke about how difficult it was to find the right actor to play the character:

"Well, he was just kind of a middle-class insurance guy who works an angle. If he is that tough, then there is nothing left for Stanwyck to work on. He has to be seduced and sucked in on that thing. He is the average man who suddenly becomes a murderer. That's the dark aspect of the middle-class, how ordinary guys can come to commit murder. But it was difficult to get a leading man. Everybody turned me down. I tried up and down the street, believe me, including George Raft. Nobody would do it, they didn't want to play this unsympathetic guy.

Nor did Fred MacMurray see the possibilities at first. He said, 'Look, I'm a saxophone player. I'm making my comedies with Claudette Colbert, what do you want?' 'Well, you've got to make that one step, and believe me it's going to be rewarding; and it's not that difficult to do.' So he did it. But he didn't want to do it. He didn't want to be murdered, he didn't want to be a murderer."

It's telling, then, that MacMurray would go on to even more comedy success after Double Indemnity. He was so convincing as a good, neighborly guy, that fans were willing to cast aside how they saw him in the earlier thriller in order to accept him in a sitcom role.

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12 Comments

tootsieg 28 days ago
The Apartment and Double Indemnity are two of Billy Wilder’s best. Really something Fred MacMurray is in both playing a cad and a murderer.
texasluva 29 days ago
If you're asking me I thought Double Indemnity (1944) should have won more awards. Up for 7 Oscars and zip. Up against some mighty fine others such as Laura, Going My Way. To Have and Have Not, Gaslight etc. By far the best rating (8.5 USA). I'd watch it over the others time and time again. After The Apartment Fred got out of of the Crime, Drama and Film-Noir type films. Before and after his films were one to watch.
MrsPhilHarris 29 days ago
Love everything about the movie from the bad blonde wig to the snappy dialogue.
If you want to see a bad blonde, watch Steve Martin play that role in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid!
That’s a fun movie!
teire 29 days ago
He also played a bit of a villain in The Caine Mutiny. Loved him in his nice guy roles, but he was good at being bad too.
MichaelGreene teire 9 days ago
In 1954, MacMurray played a cop of dubious integrity in a Noir named "Pushover". The movie was the debut of Kim Novak, and she played the girlfriend of the leader of a group of bank robbers who causes MacMurray to stray. In addition, Dorothy Malone(who played Novak's roommate, had previously played a bookstore employee who entices Humphtey Bogart's Philip Marlowe into some unshown activity in "The Big Sleep", and went on to be Robert Stack's wife, who he will not abandon while they're on a sinking ship("The Last Voyage, 1960), and appeared as Constance McKenzie in the TV version of "Peyton Place", E.G. Marshall, who appeared on TV in a number of seried, and Paul Richards, a Jack Webb go-to actor in the first Dragnet series, and as Charlie Fischetti in "The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre (1967) appeared in this movie; Richard's role was uncredited.
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Runeshaper 29 days ago
Fred MacMurray was a very talented actor.
cperrynaples 29 days ago
I told this story before but it's a good one: When Macmurray visited Disneyland in the '60's, a woman chewed him out for The Apartment in which he played a married executive who fooled around with Shirley McClaine!
texasluva cperrynaples 29 days ago
In 1961 he took his family to Disneyland, and a woman came up to him and asked, "Are you Fred MacMurray?". When he replied that he was, she hit him with her purse and told him she had taken her children to see him in The Apartment (1960) and was furious because "that was not a Disney movie!". He responded, "No, ma'am, it wasn't." He then turned to his wife and announced he was done playing bad guys in movies.

After that it was The Absent Minded Professor--Flubber and My Three Suns mostly. The Apartment won 5 Oscars and #101 movie of all time. He was a sensational heel 😬- Most movie watchers liked him before and after.
Who HASN'T altered their career path after being assailed by an amusement park rando?
cperrynaples texasluva 28 days ago
Yep, that's the story! He only did 2 more non-Disney movies: Kisses For My President and The Swarm!
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