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Ken Foote’s Radio/TV Files: Robert Young & Sheldon Leonard

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Today, February 22, is the birth date of two entertainment legends that got their start in stage and theatrical films but their claim to fame was made on radio and TV in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Robert Young starred in over 100 movies but he is most remembered for his character as Jim Anderson in the comedy series Father Knows Best. Young started the show on radio but later moved to TV where it premiered on CBS in 1954. The show was about an average guy with a wife and three kids who looked up to him for advice in tough situations. The first year, the ratings on CBS were so bad it was cancelled but a flood of letters to the network reinstated it at a different time where it improved.  Daytime reruns were seen on ABC until the show went into syndication in the mid 1960’s. 194 episodes were filmed. Young retained some ownership in the show when it went into reruns. The show also starred Jane Wyatt as his wife Margaret. Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray, and Lauren Chapin played the part of the kids. After Father Knows Best, Young had another hit series on ABC in the late 60’s/early 70’s called Marcus Welby MD, a drama about a family practitioner in Southern California who always got his patients through the most difficult medical diseases. Young passed away in 1998 at the age of 91. He battled depression and alcoholism a great deal of his life but was married to Elizabeth Henderson for 61 years.  In my first job as a TV programming director at KXTX Channel 39 here in Dallas, we had the rights to Father Knows Best and it was a top rated daytime show for the station back in the mid-80’s. Young is also one of the few actors who had more than one successful show in syndication.

My first boss at WGHP TV in High Point NC, Gene Bohi, told me the story of meeting Bob Young. Gene was working as the Promotion Director for WBBM-TV Chicago, which was and still is today a CBS owned and operated station. Young was born in Chicago and was on a business trip there. Gene was asked by the station to pick him up at the airport. When he did, Gene said to him, “Mr. Young, I want to apologize for the way my car looks.” Young replied, “Well, it got you here safely, right?”  Young was a very modest and introverted individual in a profession where more people were extroverted.

Sheldon Leonard started acting in theatrical and TV roles as a “tough guy” , given his looks and New York City accent, but his contribution to television was more behind the scenes. Leonard was probably the most prolific TV producer in the 50’s and 60’s, many of which were filmed at the Desilu studios in Hollywood (as in Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz).  Shows that he created include The Danny Thomas Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, and The Dick Van Dyke Show. He is also credited for creating and casting Bill Cosby in the role of Alexander Scott in the hit NBC series, “I Spy”. The TV sitcom spin off was created by Leonard. He was an Eagle Scout and married to Frances Babor for 66 years. You can see Leonard’s name on the closing credits of all of these shows.

To this date, 50 years after they premiered on network television, they are still seen in syndication somewhere or on DVD. They represent work and creative genius unparalled in the history of television programming.

Without these two remarkable individuals, TV would have been quite a bit different!

Happy Birthday, Mr. Young and Mr. Leonard!

See you next time!

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