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Monday, September 26, 2011
Classic TV: A Chat with (Chip) Stanley Livingston of 'My Three Sons'
By Ray Shasho
Classic Rock meets Classic TV. This is the first in a series of interviews dedicated to Classic TV icons.
Stanley Livingston is best known as middle son “Chip” Douglas for the momentous TV sitcom “My Three Sons.” The storyline is about a widower (played by veteran actor Fred MacMurray) and the trials and tribulations of everyday life while raising three sons.
The show ran from 1960 through 1972 and then instantly went into syndication. The family sitcom became a mainstay on Nickelodeon and helped to launch the TV Land network in 1995. Last year marked the Golden Anniversary of “My Three Sons” and included a spectacular reunion celebration at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, California.
Child prodigy Stanley Livingston also played a part in the TV series “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” movies “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” (starring Doris Day and David Niven) and in the star-studded epic “How the West Was Won” In 1962.
Over the years Livingston has appeared in various motion pictures, television episodes and specials, theater, commercials, and also contributed his voiceover talents on animation.
In 2009 the BizParentz Foundation honored Stanley Livingston at the CARE Awards. Anne Henry, founder of BizParentz Foundation said, “Stanley is a great example of a child star who did wonderful things with his life, and still made time to leave a legacy for our generation of child actors. We want to show kids that it is possible to work as a child actor and be a positive force in the industry -- in front of the camera or behind it."
Today Stanley Livingston is 60 years old and busier than ever. He’s an Actor, Director, Producer, and Cinematographer. Livingston is head of First Team Productions an LA-based Production Company and also the founder and CEO of The Actor’s Journey Project which includes –“The Actor’s Journey” and “The Actor’s Journey for Kids.” It’s a MUST see DVD program for anyone considering- or actively pursuing a career as an actor or performer. Livingston has endured a remarkable 55 years in show business.
Here’s my interview with Classic TV Icon Stanley Livingston.
Thank you for being with me today Stanley, how’s the weather this morning in Sunny California?
“Cooling off finally a little bit anyway the last few days have been just outrageous well over 100.”
“Stanley you’re the Founder and CEO of an enterprise that is very important to you. Talk about The Actor’s Journey Project.”
“I’ve been thinking about doing it actually for quite awhile. For people that want to become actors and anybody that’s been in the business for a long time and succeeded and we look at all the people trying to get into it you finally recognize yea I’ve been doing it for 20 years but there’s this disconnect for actors.
Basically in this country and I’m sure this happens all over the world you know actors get trained in the art and craft of acting and it doesn’t matter whether you go to a local Mom and Pop School or whether you choose to do it at some university, a Junior college, a regular college, or one of the prestigious acting academies or even at Yale or Harvard. The entire focus of what they teach you is all about the art and craft of acting, technique and performance skills and you spend anywhere from two to four years learning that and spending quite a big chunk of money especially if you’re going to one of the four year colleges you’re spending forty to sixty thousand dollars on this education if you’re going to Yale or Harvard it’s north of a hundred thousand dollars and then what happens it all stops. People get out of college and they’re ready to get into the business assimilate into the industry and they get the pictures they get the resume together and then nothing happens. It’s really-really frustrating and we’ve seen this for decades and decades and there’s a problem.
The problem is the fact that only the art and craft of acting and performance skills are taught there’s nothing taught on the business side of our industry. How you go about doing it, how you launch a career, how you sustain a career, how you survive in the industry and it’s not taught and that’s understandable because the people that teach the performance part are professors who rarely if ever have been involved in the industry to any great extent so they’re incapable of teaching it –but basically you wish the students well and you know you’ve got their money they spend it all and then nothing happens.
In this industry we have over a 99% failure rate of people to assimilate into the industry and that’s not for lack of talent or training it’s because they don’t know the industry and there’s nowhere where you can go to learn it except the school of hard knocks which like I said shows a 99% failure rate so we decided to do something about this and I talked to a lot of my peers people that I’ve worked with and for and we thought gee if there was a program that really laid out what the business side was all about and a lot of things that are almost mystifying for new talent and put a comprehensive program together that instead of being taught by- because that’s the other side of the problem is the people that are attempting to teach whatever little knowledge they have on the business side and most of them have had short careers or worked sporadically and even though they haven’t done it very well themselves they’re going to teach you and show you how to do it.
So we thought what if we borrow a hundred people -that’s one of the criteria’s we use you had to be in the industry 20-30 years who really have an extensive list of credits that are verifiable that’s one of the other components a lot of people have credits but they tell you they have and you go look them up on the IMDb (the Internet Movie Database) and they don’t exist or you find out that they weren’t really an actor they were an extra or they’ll tell you they were a Director of Photography when they were a Focus Puller and all that stuff sort of goes on.
So we put together a hundred people -everywhere from actors we have people like Henry Winkler, Melissa Gilbert, Michael York, Sherman Hemsley, Danny Trejo and on and on and on. With the actors we involve directors -directors like Richard Donner, Richard Rush, producers, executive producers, talent agents, talent managers we even had the president of the Screen Actors Guild, the president of the Directors Guild, people that were chairpersons at various committees at the various guilds and also people that have sat on the various boards and people who on camera are teaching what the business of acting is all about.”
So you’re teaching the real world side of the acting business, that’s a switch.
“Yea, it’s a ten- hour long program and it’s for adult actors that are at least 18 years or older and its taught by a hundred people who have incredible experience in the industry and its completely focused on business it has nothing to do with your talent as an actor or acting ability which is train with people in this other area that there is no training on and give them what I call the nonperformance skills they need to do this. It’s a pretty novel approach and certainly needed and at this point too we’re trying to get it integrated into the world of higher ed in addition to maintaining a website that we now have where people who hear about it can come and buy the DVD set that came out of it. Basically we did it that way because the actors come from everywhere so it’s got to be portable and you can just buy it online.
Anyway while we shot that we also did a second program which is called The Actor’s Journey for Kids. The program is called The Actors Journey but we did The Actor’s Journey for Kids which actually is not for kids and all the material is directed at their parents – but it’s the same thing a business program for parents who want to involve their kids or teens and save a lot of time and probably for the parents and kids the other little thing that came out of it is there’s so many scam companies around that take people’s money and because these people are just so ignorant of the business they think they’re getting help when all they’re doing is spending three to five to ten thousand dollars and nothing happens. So hopefully it will put these people out of business.”
I’m glad someone is finally going to reveal the truth about the business side of it. I talked with Professor Mark Volman (Flo) of The Turtles recently and he’s educating his students about the real world of the music business. I mean who better to learn from than veteran musicians or actors. So between you and Professor Volman you’re really helping a vast percentage of people trying to work in the world of entertainment.
“Yea we want to give something back to the community and people that are there that are really deficient in this information even the rank and file of the Screen Actors Guild I would say probably 90% of them are totally deficient too and they got a lucky break and they’ve got the Screen Actors card but the heck if they know the business side of it and most of them still don’t know how to get work and it will make life more sweeter for them and for the newbie’s coming in from the colleges who are trying to do this in this day and age you know they’re so vested in the talent and image part of it that they’re not really aware that there is this business side and they promote that side of it and finally they’re just drummed out or you make some of the classic mistakes and that’s what we’re trying to help people from doing.”
Let’s dive into My Three Sons and your acting career. What was it like working in the business as a child actor?
“It all became this process that you sort of learn about. I actually started in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” I got a job as an extra on that and for whatever reason Ozzie gave me a line and I was able to get into the Screen Actors Guild which back then is what you’d want to do but nowadays you wouldn’t want to join immediately. That’s when I found out yea if you’re on the set you’re going to school for three hours a day that’s mandatory and no matter what I did -I did some movies between Ozzie and Harriet and going on to My Three Sons quite a bit of episodic work on just different TV shows and I always had to go to school. It was a little bit different with My Three Sons as oppose to working on Ozzie and Harriet I’d probably work for three or four days or a week and then I’d go back to public school. When we did My Three Sons it was a continuous job and I was in all 39 episodes.
When the season would start I was working and I was going to school on the set. You did three hours a day and then have an hour off for lunch and for nine months I was on the set. The other three months unlike a lot of the kids who were involved in other TV shows they either had a tutor during the offseason or there was a school on Hollywood Boulevard called Hollywood Professional School and I think almost everybody who was a kid on TV or Kid Star went to that school – for whatever reason my parents said you’re going back to public school you’re not going to private school you’re not getting a tutor we want you to integrate with real kids and so that’s what we did.”
How were you treated at the public schools?
“I was starting to get known because of doing movies and Ozzie and Harriet and a bunch of different TV shows but when My Three Sons broke -because in those days there were (3) networks and right now if you’re on the network you probably have whatever 15, 20 Million people watching you and back then it was somewhere between 60 to 80 Million people a week watching your show especially with a hit show which we were.
But when I went back to school for the first time I was pretty scared because everybody in the school knew who I was and you didn’t know if they wanted to be your friend or beat you up. You very quickly had to learn some skills on how to deal with people. But I think my parents even though it was a scary proposition they really made the right decision. I think those are some of the skills that we learn how to deal with all types of people anything from fans who probably just want to know you because you’re on TV to people that just wanted to beat you up because you are on TV and everything in between. But you find out who your real friends were and the ones who were just sort of enamored with you because they perceived you as a child TV Star.
I guess I was probably about in the fifth grade when My Three Sons hit and- I’m going back every year from February to about maybe the beginning of May it wasn’t that long I was only there for about three months but it gave me a real grounding to deal with people and to deal with situations and all that and I look back and I’m grateful for it now but at the time I was why can’t I just go to private school so I wouldn’t have to go through any of this or have a tutor which certainly we could have afford it but my parents thought it would be a better experience in the long run and by God they were right”
Did you have any famous buddies or even girlfriends while you grew in the business?
“Most of my friends were from outside the industry and I’m still friends with the same guys. I grew up on the streets of Hollywood on Wilcox and Lexington I went to the elementary school there, junior high school and then my parents moved to the Valley, the guys that I met when I was in first grade about five or six of those guys the ones that are still alive we’re still friends and they’re my core friends. My parents sort of encouraged me to keep those friends as opposed to the ones in the movie industry because I really just wanted to go off and play baseball and do normal things.”
What was it like working with legendary actor Fred MacMurray?
“Working with Fred was great, and when I first started working with him because I was nine years old and I was told he was a big movie star and all that and obviously I saw him in The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor but I certainly wasn’t aware of the depth or rep of his big films in the industry ranging all the way back from films in the 30’s when he was doing Double Indemnity, The Egg and I, The Caine Mutiny and The Apartment all these kinds of films so you know as I grew older obviously it was like oh wow this guys been in a lot of stuff. As a kid you don’t really think of that its some older guy on the set that everybody’s giving deferential treatment to.
But later when I thought about it even after the show I went oh my God when this guy came to the show it was almost like an historical event because movie stars didn’t do TV shows they would do guest spots like on a Bob Hope Special or maybe appear on a sort of Lucy but they didn’t come and do a 9-5 five day a week grind to do a TV series but they found out a way to accommodate him. He would work for several months be in every scene and he worked very hard from eight in the morning till six o’clock at night and he would go away for two or three months in the summer and then come back a couple more months and finish everything up and that’s how they revolved the series around him.
He was pretty much like you saw him as the character of Steve Douglas he was just this low key unassuming guy that was a huge-huge movie star. When I talk about that to kids today they don’t know who Fred MacMurray is and they may have heard the name because they saw an episode of My Three Sons but not realizing the ramifications of having a star of that caliber so to put it in perspective I said it would be like Tom Cruise in a television series right now. It would be unheard of.”
There were only (3) Networks ABC, CBS and NBC back in the 60’s and the quality of programming was exceptional. Now we have the option to choose more than 250 channels and the quality of programming is considerably below the standards of those in the glory years of Television. And it seems that there is less entertainment and a lot more advertising?
“To be honest, TV was never really created for the show people think it is that it was created to have “I Love Lucy,” “My Three Sons” and “Andy Griffith” but it was created to sell product in these shows in between the commercials it’s there for the commercials it’s not there for the programming. The programming is the hook and the bait to get you hooked to that show so they can pop all those commercials into it that’s why they call it programming.”
I always ask classic rock artists to share an amusing story with me. Do you have a funny story that may have happened on the set of My Three Sons?
“Do you remember the episode when a lion gets into the Douglas household? It revolved around a circus coming to town and somehow the lion escaped and incidentally makes its way over to the Douglas residence and for some reason our back door was open that night and the lion gets into the house. The Douglas’s just keep missing running into it and going in and out of doors up and down of stairs -he thinks he hears something but of course when he goes down of course the lion goes up.
Anyway when we were shooting that day the trainer thought he left the lion in his cage and he didn’t lock the door so the lion got out and was actually walking around on the set like in the episode. Bill Demarest (Uncle Charley) was headed for makeup walking down this aisle and he turned the corner and here comes this lion about twenty or thirty feet from around the corner walking right at him and he does the worst thing you can possibly do he started running and the lion started running after him so he turned the corner and that’s right where is dressing room was so he ran in there and shut the door. And then he called the production office upstairs thank God he had a phone and he said, “There’s a lion outside my door.” I don’t think those were quite the words that he used though.”
(Laughing)That’s a great story.
I heard that you really enjoyed working with William Frawley. (“Bub” O’Casey character -he also played Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy)
“When I found out that he was coming on to the show as the Grandfather I was elated, weirdly on I Love Lucy he was always my favorite character. I liked him better than Lucy. So to get to work with him was going to be like a real treat and what was really bizarre was he didn’t like kids. He didn’t like working with kids it was like the W.C. Fields thing no kids no dogs. I just thought of him like my real Grandfather
And forever reason we kind of bonded and he just adored me. I could do no wrong, I’d imitate him and we became best friends.
I’d go eat lunch with him and there was a restaurant around the corner known as this Hollywood watering hole it was right next to Paramount. Everybody from Paramount would be there for lunch and everyday Bill had lunch there same place- same booth- same seat- they’d always hold it for him and I’d eat with him every day. And he would drink at lunch it kind of became a little bit of an issue. You’d only have an hour for lunch and he’d be telling stories and didn’t want to leave and somebody from the production company would go over there and try to get him up and he wouldn’t leave so they took me to the side and said, “Look he’ll only listen to you, you’ve got to get him up and back.” So when I told him Bill we’ve got to go back to the set he said, “Oh okay” he wouldn’t listen to them. So that became sort of my unofficial job which is to get Bill to work back to the set.
On my thirteenth birthday I walked in my dressing room and there was a nine foot long Dewey Weber surfboard in my dressing room from Bill. Yea, I was blown away by that.”
Stanley, I could talk with you all day man.
You know, I think the media has always had a tendency to stereotype child actors as growing up into a life of degradation and they usually blame the business as the cause of it. But when you have a supportive family behind you it’s not so. Child actors like you, Brother Barry and of course the Howard’s are perfect examples that you can still work in the entertainment industry as a kid and grow up normal.
Thank you so much Stanley for being with me today.
“My pleasure Ray, it’s been a lot of fun.”
You can learn more about Stanley Livingston’s “The Actors Journey Project” by clicking on this link… http://stanleylivingston.com/id15.html
Stanley Livingston’s website http://stanleylivingston.com/index.html
The Art Glass Works of Stanley Livingston (Beautiful glass art work for sale) http://www.stanleylivingstonart.com/index.html
My Three Sons –TV Museum http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=mythreesons
Special thanks goes out to Trevor Joe Lennon for arranging this interview.
Order author Ray Shasho’s new book Check the Gs –The True Story of an Eclectic American Family and Their Wacky Family Business. A Baby-Boomer MUST!
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