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TV Producer Sheldon Leonard Dies

Hollywood: Former actor and director made such hits as 'The Andy Griffith Show,' 'I Spy' and 'The Dick Van Dyke Show.' He was 89.

January 12, 1997|From Staff and Wire Reports

Sheldon Leonard, who went from playing movie gangsters to directing and producing such TV hits as "The Andy Griffith Show" and "I Spy," died Saturday at his Beverly Hills home. He was 89.

Leonard died from natural causes, his family said.

Leonard played underworld figures in the 1940s and 1950s, helping to create the stereotypical film gangster in scores of support roles in which he talked out of the side of his mouth with a voice that resonated his New York City background.

"He had one of the most distinctive voices in Hollywood. Once you heard it you never forgot that voice," said Chuck Warn, publicist for the Directors Guild of America.

Two best-remembered gangster roles were in the films "Guys and Dolls" and "Pocketful of Miracles." Perhaps his best known role was as the bartender who threw Jimmy Stewart out of a bar in the 1946 classic "It's a Wonderful Life."

But it was behind the camera that Leonard made his most enduring mark on Hollywood. One critic for The Times called him "the most successful and influential independent television producer of his time."

In the 1950s, Leonard moved into television. In addition to a series of roles, he produced "The Dick Van Dyke Show," which ran from 1961 to 1966.

With Danny Thomas, he also produced and frequently directed and wrote for "The Andy Griffith Show," "Gomer Pyle," "The Danny Thomas Show" and "My World and Welcome to It."

He had a recurring role as Thomas' agent in "The Danny Thomas Show" and won two Emmy Awards for directing the series, which ran from 1953 to 1971.

In 1965 he produced the comedy-adventure "I Spy," which co-starred Bill Cosby, one of television's first black leading men.

"I could feel the support, and that was very important," Cosby recalled in 1988.

Leonard was still working in his 80s, producing "I Spy Returns," a 1993 CBS movie that reunited the show's stars.

He once said "chronic dissatisfaction" led to his wide-ranging career.

"Somebody said, 'If you don't like the way we're doing it, why don't you do it yourself?' and the next thing I knew I was a director," he recalled. "From there I became a producer, from being chronically dissatisfied with directors."

He won five Emmys and had 18 Emmy nominations. He served on the national board of the Directors Guild for 39 years and was inducted into the television academy's Hall of Fame in recognition of his achievements in 1992.

He was born Sheldon Leonard Bershad on Feb. 22, 1907, in New York City and was educated at Syracuse University.

After a stage career, he moved to Hollywood. With his dapper good looks--6 feet tall, dark eyes and hair--he found ready work as a kind of sly, Damon Runyon gangster.

Leonard is survived by his wife, Francis, son Stephen Bershad, daughter Andrea Bershad and four grandchildren.

Funeral services were scheduled for Monday in Los Angeles.

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