By: Lloyd Clark
For a relatively small rural town, Beaver Dam has produced more than its fair share of notable and famous citizens. From our quiet neighborhoods have come professional football, basketball and baseball players, along with one Hall of Famer. Beaver Dam has produced Congressmen, writers, singers, a hard skating NHL winger and even a world famous professional wrestler. There is one individual, however, a self-professed “lazy” person, who was a football, baseball and basketball star for our high school; played in the prestigious American Legion Band; and went on to appear in over 85 Hollywood movies, who will always hold a special place in our history: Fred MacMurray.
Fredrick Martin MacMurray, known to his friends as “Bud,” came into the world on August 30, 1908 in Kankakee, Illinois. Bud’s father, also named Frederick, was a concert violinist who preferred to play in small concert halls on the road to the concert palaces of New York. Shortly thereafter, the MacMurray clan moved first to Madison and then to Beaver Dam, when Bud was five years old, where the elder MacMurray found the small town life he was looking for and a very elaborate concert hall in which to practice his vocation. Bud found a home and a community that supports the dreams of its youngest citizens and provides opportunity to those willing to work hard for them.
Bud took to music and at the age of five joined his father onstage to play a duet with the violin. According to Bud, it was a disaster. In a 1970 article in the Pittsburg Press, Bud recounts, “I trembled, I shook. I had trouble fingering the strings. I loathed every second of it, but I did it.” Unfortunately, the experience gave the boy a tremendous case of stage fright, a malady that would take him years to overcome. Even in the latter part of his career, he acknowledged that he hated facing audiences, was extremely nervous and often broke out in “sweats” at the thought of it. Not exactly the kind of response one would expect from a renowned “movie star.”
Bud earned 10 varsity letters at the high school, while playing the baritone horn and working at the pea canning factory to make extra money. He took that money and bought the instrument that would set him on the path to fame – a saxophone. Bud formed a band here in town called “Mac’s Melody Boys” a three-piece ensemble that was soon playing and traveling with the esteemed Beaver Dam American Legion Band. It was during this time that Bud forced himself to “face his fear” of audiences and even ventured up to the microphone to sing from time to time.
Bud received an American Legion scholarship to Carroll College in Waukesha. While the scholarship covered the costs of school, Bud played six nights a week in a band to earn money and played on the Carroll College football team. Like many college students, Bud found it difficult to work study into his busy schedule. So, Bud packed up his sax, quit school and headed to Chicago to become a professional musician.
To that end, he spent the year of 1926 studying at the Chicago Academy for the Performing Arts while playing in multiple bands and orchestras around Chicago. Unfortunately, he ran into a time, as many performers do, when he couldn’t get a gig playing his sax. As luck would have it, his mother Maleta Martin and her sister Hazel wanted to go to California to visit their mother, and neither could drive, so Bud was drafted as chauffeur and the rest, as they say, is history.
When they arrived in California, Bud could not get a gig playing sax, as he had to be a member of the union and that required six months of continuous residency. He went to Central Casting to see if he could get a job as an extra in the movies; however, Central Casting was not hiring extras at that time. Bud mentioned that he was a musician and a singer, and since “talkies” were just taking off, he landed a few roles as an extra because of his vocal talent, but recalled “I worked in two or three pictures as an extra. And I sang in none of them.”
While on one movie set he met up with a band that had recently lost their saxophone player, the California Collegians, and Bud was once again a happily employed musician. They immediately set off for New York where they played for a number of stage shows including one called Roberta where another young crooner and future star was getting his start, Bob Hope.
Still intrigued about the possibility of getting further work in motion pictures, Bud did a screen test in New York where he caught the eye of the talent scouts from Paramount Pictures. Paramount signed him to a contract and sent him back to Hollywood, where he twiddled his thumbs for nearly five months before RKO Pictures took him “on loan.” It took three pictures, but in The Gilded Lily where he starred opposite Claudette Colbert, his fame took off.
With his tall, lanky frame and easy-going Midwest manners, Bud’s career as the “good guy” in movies seemed to be set. Bud, however, wanted to stretch himself as an actor and in 1944 he starred as a condemned murderer in Double Indemnity. He went on to play the good guy turned bad in two other movies and admitted, “Whether I play a heavy or a comedian, I always start out Smiley MacMurray, a decent Rotarian type. If I play a heavy, there comes a point in the film when the audience realizes I’m really a heel.” (As he was quoted in his New York Times obituary.)
In his 1976 book A Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes about Bud’s ability to shift to the heel character. “The ingredients of the MacMurray man are paradoxical but consistent: brittle cheerfulness; an anxious smile that subsides into slyness; a voice that tries to be jocular and easy-going but comes out fraudulent; the semblance of a masculine carriage that turns insubstantial and shifty. In other words, MacMurray is a romantic lead built on quicksands, a hero compelled to betray, a lover likely to desert.”
Throughout his career, Bud would spend hours talking about his hometown of Beaver Dam. In numerous interviews across the years, he would always interject a story or anecdote about growing up here. In fact, in the 1945 film Pardon My Past Bud and his war buddy, William Demarest, are moving to Beaver Dam to start a mink farm. Though acting took Bud far from the shore of Beaver Dam Lake, where he apparently loved to fish, he never forgot where “home” was.
Though movies made him famous (he was nominated in 1962 for a Golden Globe Award for The Absent-Minded Professor), it was his 12-year role on the television show My Three Sons from 1960 to 1972 that brought Bud the love of America. In the role of Steve Douglas, a widowed aircraft engineer raising three sons, Bud brought a new type of father figure to the screen. Non-judgmental, loving, but with a good-natured wit, Steve Douglas was the kind of father that every child in America wanted to have. The character Steve Douglas was actually much like the kind of dad that Fred MacMurray was off the screen as well. He commented that “you have more freedom making movies than making a TV series” and professed he was “too lazy” for the working hours demanded by a television series. He contracted to work only 65 days a year for the production, which allowed him to spend the rest of the time with his family at his home and his ranch in California, as well as to pursue other film work, hunt, fish, cook, golf and work in his woodshop. He retired with his final performance being in the 1978 movie The Swarm, and then in 1987, he was the first person honored as a Disney Legend.
Bud was married twice. He married his first wife, dancer and actress Lillian Lamont, on June 20, 1936, and they adopted two children, Susan and Robert. He had met Lillian during his stint on the Broadway stage run of Roberta in 1933-34 while on tour with the California Collegians. Lillian gave up acting to be a stay-at-home mother and they lived happily together until her death on June 22, 1953. He married his second wife the following year, retired actress June Haver whom he had worked with in the 1945 film Where Do We Go From Here? Together until his death in 1991, Bud and June also adopted two children, twins Kate and Laurie.
In his declining years, Bud suffered from both throat cancer and leukemia and passed away on November 5, 1991, at the age of 83 from pneumonia. He and his wife June, who passed away in 2005, are buried together in Culver City, California.
In his New York Times obituary, Bud was quoted as saying, “I take my movie parts as they come. I don’t fly into an emotional storm about them. I just do them. I guess I am an offhand comedian in a natural way.” Fred “Bud” MacMurray was an offhand comedian, a beloved father, and a dedicated family man, and he continues to make our community proud to this day.