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Classic Hollywood: Barry Livingston, acting his age

The ex-'My Three Sons' child star is keeping busy with more mature roles ('Social Network,' 'Mad Men') these days, and he has a new book describing his journey.

November 28, 2011|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • 57-year-old Barry Levinson likes to joke that when he began to lose his hair, his career took off again.
57-year-old Barry Levinson likes to joke that when he began to lose his hair,… (Brian Van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

Former child actor Barry Livingston, who played the cute-but-nerdy Ernie Douglas on the vintage Fred MacMurray sitcom "My Three Sons," turned out quite well, thank you.

There were a few stumbles along the way. When his career wasn't even treading water while he was in his 20s, he did turn to cocaine. But his "lost period" only lasted about a year. He's been happily married for nearly 30 years and has a 22-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter. The 57-year-old Livingston likes to joke that when he began to lose his hair, his career took off again. He's had roles in "Mad Men," last year's acclaimed "The Social Network," Ben Affleck's new film "Argo," which will be released next year, and, in a real change of pace for him, as a torturer in the upcoming horror film "Hostel: Part III."

"I have been, knock on wood, very fortunate that people have accepted me as an adult actor," he said over a chicken salad sandwich at Paty's in Toluca Lake. "I have aged, and I grew into the doctor, lawyer, professor, those kind of dads."

Livingston has recently published his breezy, fun autobiography, "The Importance of Being Ernie: From My Three Sons to Mad Men, a Hollywood Survivor Tells All." On Wednesday, he'll be signing copies at Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard, and on Thursday he'll be at the Barnes & Noble in Burbank.

He joined the cast of "My Three Sons" — his older brother, Stanley Livingston, played the role of Chip Douglas — on a recurring basis as the kid next door, Ernie Thompson, in 1963. But when Tim Considine, who played the oldest son, Mike, left the show in 1965, Livingston was brought on full time. And in typical TV universe fashion, it was explained that Ernie was really a foster kid. So that led the way for MacMurray's widower, Steven Douglas, to adopt him.

MacMurray, who had appeared in such films as 1944's "Double Indemnity" and 1960's "The Apartment," had a unique way of working on the sitcom that ran from 1960 to 1972. He worked two months out of the year with the cast, which also starred Don Grady as middle son Robbie. Then they would spend the rest of the year shooting their close-ups and scenes without MacMurray.

"We shot from 10 to 12 scripts a day," said Livingston. "Before you even started production, 10 complete scripts would arrive on your doorstep. You would shoot nothing but a master shot and MacMurray's close-up, and then you would move on to the next scene. It was an all-MacMurray experience."

At the end of the season, he said, there would be a frantic grab to get all the remaining scenes. "You would sit at the kitchen table all day long and they would do close-ups," he recalled, laughing. "You would be sitting at the same place at the same table and you would do a close-up from 12 to 15 different episodes. All you would do was change your shirt because they couldn't see anything below."

Because both Livingstons were growing, the costume designers had to buy doubles of all the clothes. "At the beginning of the season, they would buy smalls or mediums," he related. "Sometimes they would buy a little bit larger because Stan and I could have grown an inch. Haircuts had to completely match what was eight months before. It was a continuity nightmare."

Livingston describes MacMurray as a "sweet man" who was also very private. "It was all business," he said. "He would come on the set to do his scenes. We appreciated his little involvement in our lives. It was not an issue. He was a huge star, and we were the junior colleagues in his firm."

Livingston began acting in the 1958 Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward comedy "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys" as one of the couple's children. His brother was also in the film as his sibling. But at least Stanley kept his job in the movie. Barry wasn't so lucky.

One scene called for the younger Livingston to stare intently at the TV set. But crusty veteran director Leo McCarey didn't think Livingston was looking at the set properly. "In fact, I was looking at it harder than anything I had looked at my entire life. My eyes were crossing, and it looked like I wasn't paying attention."

He was rushed to the hospital because everyone thought he was having a seizure. But they soon realized he just needed glasses. When he returned to the set wearing his new specs, McCarey wasn't pleased. "They said we didn't picture Paul Newman's son with glasses. I was relieved of my duties."

susan.king@latimes.com

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