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Critic's Notebook: In appreciation of Don Grady, 'My Three Sons'

June 28, 2012|By Robert Lloyd | Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Don Grady (far right) with "My Three Sons" castmates (from left) William Demarest, Barry Livingston, Stanley Livingston, Fred MacMurray and Tina Cole.
Don Grady (far right) with "My Three Sons" castmates (from left)…

Don Grady, who died Wednesday at the age of 68, was best known as one of the eponymous stars of the situation comedy "My Three Sons," which ran for 12 years on two networks, throughout the 1960s and into the '70s. (He was a first-generation Mousketeer and a journeyman child actor before that but worked only a few times afterward.) As Robbie Douglas, he at first played the middle child between Tim Considine's Mike and Stanley Livingston's Chip; later, after Considine left the show and Mike evaporated into nothingness, Robbie became the number-one son, with adopted Ernie (Barry Livingston, Stanley's actual brother) moving in at the bottom to maintain the troika.

Grady was a good-looking kid with a cleft chin, a muscular body and a thick head of hair he wore sculpted in the show's early years and floppy in the later. Although the series ended with Robbie the father of triplets, for much of his time there Grady was the designated embodiment of Teenage, in the prelapsarian, ante-psychedelic, hot-rods-and-malted sense of the word; but more enduringly, he stood for that state of being half a boy and half a man, and of its special frustrations and freedoms.

The kids of television are turned to all sorts of uses these days, good and ill; but in surprisingly few cases do they seem to be authentic children in authentic families. More often they are impossibly precocious; or precociously ironic, or turned to ironic ends; or they are superstar fantasy figures living in a universe where adults dance in attendance upon them while having no real influence or standing of their own.

The world the Douglas family inhabited can also seem unreal — dubiously innocent and soft-cornered — in part because that's how TV wanted it, and in part because these really are different times. And yet one believes from the pilot onward that these people are actual kin, and that they have lived together a long time before we arrived to watch them.

It was an unusual household too, with Fred MacMurray as widowed father Steve more or less at its head, assisted domestically first by William Frawley as father-in-law Bub (unexpectedly delicate work from the man you know as Fred Mertz), and then by Preston Sturges' good-luck charm William Demarest as spiky Uncle Charlie. (For most of its run it was a story of Men Living Without Women.) And if the Douglas boys would formally dress for occasions the well-bred young fellow of today would not tuck in his shirt for, in the early seasons especially the family leads a remarkably noisy, messy, close-quartered life (the apparent roominess of their house notwithstanding), whose portrayal at times achieves a kind of poetry.

Grady had been a showbiz kid trained in the midget vaudeville of the Disney Studios, an early alumni of the same system that later disgorged Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus. But what strikes me now on watching him in clips of "My Three Sons" is the sense of contemplation he brings to the role. Much of the time, of course, Robbie is just a blur passing through the frame, grabbing an apple on his way out the door; he is sporty and active and something of a teenage Don Juan. But when he holds still for a minute, you can see him, even in mundane situations or farcical predicaments, beginning to apprehend the bigness of the world, the seriousness of life.

He might be my favorite '60s TV teen; at least, he was my model for understanding the breed. I somehow can't help conflating Grady-as-Robbie with actual older brothers I knew as a child (my friends' older brothers, as I had none of my own), mysterious creatures busy with projects and machines and rituals I understood not even dimly. Neither can I quite separate him in my mind from Dennis Wilson — the sexy middle Beach Boy brother, who surfed and raced cars but could seem solemn and sensitive as well. Grady looked a little like him, too — they were born the same year, for what that's worth — and like him played the drums (among several other instruments).

Well before the end of the run, the Douglases had become a family stuck in time and out of time; "My Three Sons" grew more polite and, with the addition of new small children, willfully cute, even as the world around it grew hectic and strange: It achieved a quality of nostalgia while it was still on the air. Grady did not stick around for the final season — Robbie was just said to be out of town — and he turned full time to music, working mainly as a composer for film and television. Glimpsed now and again in later years, he looked ageless and happy, like someone who had made all the right choices.

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