The Man Most Instantly Known As The Bartender In Frank Capra’s Timeless Film Actually Made His Mark In Television And As The Godfather Of The Spin-Off
Image of Sheldon Leonard provided by Reel to Real.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
March 7, 2016 — The annual Yuletide television screening of director Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life has become as much part of our holiday tradition as trimming the tree or overcooking the turkey.
One of the beneficiaries of the film’s enduring popularity is character actor-turned-television mogul, Sheldon Leonard. In his brief, but memorable role as “Nick the bartender,” Leonard mockingly keeps “totaling the cash register” thus “giving out wings” to Jimmy Stewart and his guardian angel, played by Henry Travers, right before they’re both unceremoniously chucked from the tavern and into a Bedford Falls snowdrift.
Leonard, typecast early on as a screen heavy, appeared in dozens of films and later went on to become the pioneering producer and director of such long-running television series’ (at least in syndication) as The Danny Thomas Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. and the first black-white buddy show, I Spy, with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, decades before the disgraced comedian faced dozens of sexual abuse allegations.
Our visit with Leonard took place in 1994 at his Beverly Hills home, where at age 86 he showed us recent damage (crackling paint and fissures in his walls) sustained from the colossal Northridge earthquake that had happened a few months before.
He was dressed in a black pullover, silver hair slicked back, and he had on gold Rolex that glinted almost as much as the giant gold chain he wore around his neck. Before sitting down to the interview we asked if we could take a few snapshots and get them out of the way first.
Leonard obliged and being the writer/director that he was, asked if we wanted to “kitsch” the photo session up a bit. We didn’t know what the hell he meant but nodded our assent anyway.
He then positioned himself behind his bar just off the living room where Emmys, Golden Globes and other awards were arrayed on shelves behind him like so many stacks of shot glasses. Leonard told us this could make a great photo cutline for our story – “Decades later I’m still givin’ out wings!” he said with a Brooklyn sneer that seemed straight out of central casting but which he never had to learn from a vocal coach.
Despite his award-laden bar shelves, we asked Leonard if the fact that he could never shake the embedded association of his role in It’s a Wonderful Life irked him at all.
“The picture was a disappointment when it first came out. I made the film as a personal favor to Capra,” he said from his living room couch where we had moved after snapping the photos. “I had retired from acting and was concentrating on a career in writing and directing. I made the picture as a special accommodation to Frank. I still have to buy sheets of stamps and 8 X 10 glossies because I receive about a dozen requests for autographs per week, mostly because of that film.”
For the role, Leonard didn’t negotiate a salary and as a favor to Capra took the minimum of $200 per day for his work. “He (Capra) didn’t like that,” he said. “In my first paycheck he included season tickets to the local baseball team and a Nikon camera with an assortment of lenses. The last picture I made on the big screen was also Capra’s last, A Pocketful of Miracles in 1964. He was a wonderful man.”
Born Leonard Sheldon Bershad to Jewish parents in Brooklyn, Leonard (an Eagle Scout with the Boy Scouts of America) attended Syracuse University on an athletic scholarship. He also served as president of the dramatics club on campus. With a degree in finance, Leonard was about to embark on a promising career at a prestigious New York brokerage firm when the stock market crashed. But he had a fallback position – theater.
“I went to see vaudeville shows every week and I was very interested and fascinated by show business,” he said. “But for a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, you didn’t go into show business. You went into the garment business, millinery business, something like that.”
Nonetheless, after cutting his teeth by directing the road companies of several shows, he was approached by a Long Island boxing promoter who needed help turning his boxing ring into a more than occasional staging area for fisticuffs.
“He asked me if I’d consider restaging Margin for Error in his boxing ring,” he said. “So I took on the responsibility of putting the show on in a square stage instead of a proscenium arch. It worked and the show enjoyed a pretty good run in Long Island. This guy began filling his boxing ring with other abandoned Broadway productions. I didn’t realize it until about seven years later that I invented the theater in the round concept.”
Leonard spent 10 years on Broadway, working almost continuously in shows such as Three Men and a Horse and Kiss the Boys Goodbye. By the late ‘30s he was bouncing between Broadway and Hollywood, appearing in MGM’s Another Thin Man, the third in the William Powell-Myrna Loy, “Nick and Nora Charles” spy capers.
By the 1940s, Leonard had carved out a character actor niche usually playing screen toughs. That was the case with 1944’s Howard Hawks’ directed To Have and Have Not, starring Humphrey Bogart and making her screen debut 20-year-old Lauren Bacall. It was Leonard who sparked the love story and legend that was to become Bogey and Bacall.
“I introduced Betty Bacall to Bogart on the film. ‘Hey Bogie, this is your new leading lady,’ I said. It was quite an extraordinary thing to see. Bogey, the cool sophisticate, turned into a teenager around Betty. He used to play pranks on her like handcuffing her with prop handcuffs on the dressing room floor — pranks fitting a high school sophomore. She turned him into mush.”
In his day Leonard worked with many of the biggest stars of the Golden Age, including Tracy and Hepburn and Errol Flynn, who he described as a “pain in the ass, a real bastard.”
Leonard’s experience with Flynn came on the set of the 1944 film, Uncertain Glory, directed by Raoul Walsh. “As an actor I had an affinity for props,” he said. “I liked to use them because they kept my hands busy. Every time I used a prop in the rehearsal, Flynn would observe me and then insist that Walsh direct him to use the same prop in the scene. Flynn was not a good guy.
It has been my good fortune to be able to say that everybody I ever worked with, with the exception of Flynn, remains my friend if they have survived this long.”
During the 1940s, Leonard said he was absorbing all aspects of filmmaking without making a conscious effort to do so. When the major studios looked at television as a threat, Leonard embraced the fledgling new medium. “Their (studio executives) concerns were not my concerns,” he said. “It was just an exciting time of change and I jumped in.”
Years later, when Leonard was producing and directing The Danny Thomas Show, he came up with another first – the TV spin-off.
“The William Morris office (a talent agency) offered me their new client, Andy Griffith. I designed a regular episode in our series that had Danny pass through this small town of Mayberry on his way to Miami. There he meets the town’s sheriff, played by Andy. We offered the series concept to General Foods and they grabbed it. Thus the spin-off was born.”
For his series, I Spy, which debuted on NBC in 1965 (and ran for three seasons), he cast a young comedian Bill Cosby to play opposite Robert Culp in what has been described as a secret agent “buddy” adventure series. It was the first American dramatic series to feature a black actor in a lead role. Leonard said he was fully aware of the ground he was breaking.
“Race was very much an issue at that time,” he said. “I was intellectually conscious of it, but emotionally unaware of it. When I say emotionally unaware, I mean I was free to think of Cosby as the man to fill the slot I needed. Intellectually, I knew the problems I’d have to face to get him on the air.
“We filmed the first show in Hong Kong,” he continued. “The bosses at NBC were uneasy about Cosby because he looked awkward. He was new and wasn’t aware of all of the mechanics that were involved in filming. I told the execs not to worry and give him a chance. They became adamant and asked me to consider replacing him. I said, ‘You better consider replacing me too.’ End of discussion.”
Of the dozens of shows Leonard has been involved in, does he have a favorite?
“If you asked me that question as a family man and I had several children, one of whom was handicapped, what would I answer? The handicapped one because that requires most of my attention. My favorite show was canceled after the first year, My World and Welcome to It, based on the writings of James Thurber and starring William Windom. It won every award and they canceled the sonofabitch. Why? It was satire and above their (the network bosses’) heads. That show and I Spy are my favorites.”
Leonard died in 1997 at the age of 89. We like to think that he’s doing what he’s best remembered for – what he pantomimed for us behind his bar during our visit – yep, handing out wings.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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