SHELDON LEONARD (1907- 1997)
SHELDON LEONARD was the creator and Executive Producer of "I Spy." He played the quietly menacing hood in films, radio and television. Some would say he carried the role into real life too, but in a lovable way.
er of so many television series, Sheldon Leonard always maintained the image of a man who made things happen by arranging the right sort of deal. The fact he “talked out of the side of his mouth” somehow appeared to give impetus to successfully closing those negotiations.
After graduating from Syracuse University, his first stop was Broadway, acting in many plays. He moved on to Hollywood six years later, having already tried his hand at directing. Over the next decade and a half he appeared in more than a hundred films including TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES. Lovers of classic cinema will always remember him as the bartender in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, and his famous portrayl of Harry The Horse in GUYS AND DOLLS.
His height, stylish mode of dress, perpetual cigar and distinctive voice (suggesting a touch of the high roller) enabled him to play the tough guy who intimidates as well as the Runyonesque character who makes you smile. In addition he played in a number of westerns.
He was a familiar voice on radio, and also wrote plays for the medium, notably the Friedkin-Fine vehicle, BROADWAY IS MY BEAT. We see here Sheldon Leonard's typical shrewdness in maintaining the ownership of his material, recycling the stories for television in later years.
During this period he became a regular on a number of radio programs, most memorably as the racing tout on the JACK BENNY SHOW (“Pssst. Hey Buddy, come here”), a role he later reprised on television. This also led him to providing the voice for numerous cartoon characters over four decades, in particular Linus The Lionhearted.
His first ventures in the new medium of television were as a writer for anthology drama. He then took up directing for TV, In 1953 he became the regular director of Danny Thomas' weekly show, and went on in the post for six years, also becoming its producer along the way. Other directorial assignments in the 50s included GENERAL ELECTRIC THEATRE and the JIMMY DURANTE SHOW.
Sheldon Leonard also produced and directed the pilots for THE REAL McCOYS and LASSIE during this time. He continued to write and act as well, penning episodes of the DAMON RUNYON THEATRE (which he also directed) and appearing in THE DUKE.
In 1961 he formed T & L Productions with Danny Thomas, and became executive producer of the latter's weekly show (also playing Danny's on-screen agent).
Earle & Lou Hagen with Frankie & Sheldon Leonard
scouting I Spy locations in Rome
The early sixties was a period of enormous success for Sheldon Leonard. He had creative and/or executive responsibility for the likes of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (where he made a guest appearance - playing a gangster of course), THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, GOMAR PYLE U.S.M.C., THE BILL DANA SHOW, THE JOEY BISHOP SHOW and MY FAVORITE MARTIAN.
Having conquered the situation comedy format, in 1965 he took on a new challenge. “I Spy” was the reflection of Sheldon Leonard's tastes. He was a man of many passions - the entertainment business, travel, food, art, culture, making deals. “I Spy” offered nourishment for all of them. In fact, it was probably born because of them. And in turn, he provided the sustenance for the series, lavishing his own funds on the production, not necessarily in proportion to his budget from NBC.
with Earle Hagen
In addition to running the show financially, Sheldon Leonard also directed much of the location action. And he played his favorite role (typecast by himself these days) as the sinister Sorgi (in THREE HOURS ON A SUNDAY NIGHT and THE LOTUS EATER) in addition to appearing as himself in CRUSADE TO LIMBO.
After “I Spy” came GOOD MORNING WORLD, MY FRIEND TONY, the innovative MY WORLD AND WELCOME TO IT, THE DON RICKLES SHOW and SHIRLEY'S WORLD with Shirley MacLaine.
His voice continued to be heard in cartoons and commercials, and he went before the cameras again in 1975 when he starred as the gambler cum sports promoter in the weekly series BIG EDDIE. Sheldon Leonard also played the tough guy again in the 1978 films, THE ISLANDER and Bill Cosby's TOP SECRET. Of course, they worked together again when Sheldon Leonard was executive producer of I SPY RETURNS in 1993. Two years later he published his autobiography And the Show Goes On.
Clever and perceptive, Sheldon Leonard was the logical man for series television, managing to create quality and still cater to the limited imagination of the networks. This is partially demonstrated by a unique record to his credit: (keeping in mind that pilots are seldom sold) he directed 17 such films, every one going into series production.
One of his innovations was the “spin-off,” that is, the producing of a pilot within the context of a current series, and thereby using its budget to fund the trial. (Something akin to the foresight of copyrighting your scripts at a time when no one else did, one might say). He was also credited with the introduction of scored music in situation comedy, as opposed to “canned” tunes.
But perhaps his contribution to television was a less tangible, yet more relevant one. Sheldon Leonard tried to raise the tone of situation comedy (as well as action drama). His trademarks were wit, decency and a message at the end, with the emphasis more on characters and emotions than situation and comic turn. That formula, provided the longevity of his situation comedies in syndication, and in some ways, could be found in “I Spy” (certainly the aspect of both witty and human, believable characters, in an era when TV spies were more caricatures).
For Sheldon Leonard, a script was always of top importance. He nurtured much writing talent, encouraging gifted individuals to move into executive positions (notably the team of Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson - see WRITERS - who followed in his footsteps as “hyphenates” - writers, directors, producers, actors).
The emphasis on excellence within the confines of a medium was always there. As a young actor, he tried his hand at directing on the stage. When he began appearing in radio, he started to write scripts. Sheldon Leonard attributed these moves to his desire to create something better. Perpetually discontented with how things were done, he felt he could make improvements, and thus went on from actor to writer, director and producer by increments, as he usually had a better idea, and was good at executing it.
His personal life was centered around his two children, Stephen and Andrea, the grandchildren and wife of 65 years, Frances (Frankie) who passed away the year after his death. He was deeply involved in the entertainment world, and served in major positions in the Directors Guild of America and the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences among others.
Sheldon Leonard was active in many humanitarian causes (both on an institutional and personal basis). Many people owe him a lot (not least of all “I Spy” fans. Without him, there would be no show, no Robert Culp, no Bill Cosby, no remarkable scripts). Leonard didn't just give Cosby the breakthrough lead role. He supported the fledgling actor when Cosby was put into a position of having to please so many different interests and agendas, as well as put in a performance satisfactory to himself.
Not just a godfather, he was also a father figure to many. In 1995 Gene Reynolds, president of the Directors Guild of America, summed up the life of Sheldon Leonard as well as anyone could. In Reynolds' tribute, Sheldon Leonard was “a treasure … the salt of the earth … wise, courageous, generous, reliable, straight as hell, entertaining … a devoted friend.” He added “we love him for his counsel, his great honor, his smarts, his decency and his good company.”
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I Spy Season 1
I Spy Season 2
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Film Score Monthly has released an album of five “I Spy” scores
by Earle Hagen on CD.
Direct from the soundtracks of "So Long, Patrick Henry" - "A Time of the Knife" - "Turkish Delight," - "The Warlord" - "Mainly on the Plains" along with a 24-page booklet of liner notes and photos and foreword by Robert Culp It'
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Earle Hagen, composer of the music from “I Spy” has now published his autobiography
"Memoirs of a Famous Composer - Nobody Ever Heard Of"
Read the inside story on I Spy!
scouting locations with Sheldon Leonard - life on the I Spy set
and the rest of Earle Hagen's fascinating career in big bands, movies & TV
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The I Spy Team