Sheldon Leonard, who began his Hollywood career playing tough-talking hoods and went on to become a producer-director responsible for some of TV’s all-time greatest hits, died at his home early Saturday. He was 89.
Leonard died of natural causes, according to a spokesman for the Directors Guild of America, where he had been a board member for the past 39 years. Dubbed “the godfather of the guild,” his last public appearance was at a tribute the DGA threw for him in September as he approached his 90th birthday.
“He had unbelievable intelligence and still trusted his instincts,” said Dick Van Dyke, who starred in “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” for which Leonard was executive producer from 1961 to 1966. “He was always impeccably tailored and sartorially elegant.”
In addition to “Van Dyke,” Leonard and Danny Thomas produced classics such as “The Danny Thomas Show,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle USMC,” shows on which Leonard often also wrote and directed. In 1965, Leonard created and produced the comedy-drama “I Spy,” which was groundbreaking not only because of its location shooting around the world, but because Leonard cast one of TV’s first black leading men, Bill Cosby.
A hit in Hollywood
Born Sheldon Leonard Bershad on Feb. 22, 1907, in New York, he was educated at Syracuse before launching a Broadway career that included appearances in hits like “Three Men on a Horse” and “Kiss the Boys Goodbye.” He moved to Hollywood in the late 1930s, where he was cast often as the hood, either in dramas or comedies, and appeared with everyone from Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to Abbott and Costello. He once estimated that he made more than 140 pictures during that time, including “Tortilla Flat” and “To Have and Have Not.” One of his most memorable was “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which he portrayed the bartender who throws George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) out of the pub.
After stints as a regular on Jack Benny’s radio show, among others, he moved to television in the 1950s, scoring his first big hit as the director of “Make Room for Daddy,” moving to producer-director in 1956. It was the first success in what became a partnership with Thomas, one that helped make both men very wealthy. But the shows they produced also were career turning points for writer-producers like Garry Marshall and Carl Reiner.
Van Dyke was doing a show on Broadway when he first met Leonard, who eventually cast him in “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
“On first meeting he was an imposing man,” Van Dyke said. “He had an awesome intellect and his vocabulary was unbelievable. But he was avuncular. He was everyone’s grandfather and uncle.”
Following “I Spy,” Leonard continued his career with such series as “Good Morning World,” “Shirley’s World” and “My World and Welcome to It,” for which he won an Emmy as executive producer in 1970. He also starred in the TV series “Big Eddie” in 1975.
Leonard won a total of five Emmys in his career, and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1992.
His most recent credit was as executive producer of “I Spy Returns,” a 1993 reunion movie starring Cosby and Robert Culp. It also provided grist for an anecdote about Hollywood’s so-called graylist for Leonard’s autobiogra-phy, “And the Show Goes On.” Leonard detailed his efforts to hire a veteran director and writer for the TV movie, while the network insisted that he find a helmer from among a list of younger talent.
Leonard was secretary treasurer of the DGA since 1973, taking a major role in the late 1980s in the building of the new headquarters. He was given a life membership to the guild in 1995, to which he quipped in salt-of-the-earth manner: “Giving a life membership to a guy 88 years old. Big fucking deal!”
The guild fete in September, for which the stage was decorated to look like the bar from “Wonderful Life,” drew a host of DGA presidents, as well as longtime friends such as Culp, Marshall, Reiner and Sid Caesar. Leonard is survived by his wife of 66 years, Frances, son Stephen Bershad, daughter Andrea Bershad and four grandchildren.
Funeral services are scheduled for 3 p.m. today at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City.