For over a hundred years some of the greatest video treasures of all time have been produced. Some have been lost in the sands of time and others, soon to be rediscovered, will become fan favorites for a whole new generation.
Each week we will feature just one of the many hidden gems that you can see on RCN TV with insights and commentaries on classic television shows and legendary cinematic performances.
“That’s it! Out you two pixies go… through the door, or out the window!”
“Get me. I’m givin’ out wings!”
–Nick the Bartender
Those are just two of the memorable lines from the great holiday traditional film you will no doubt see on your television listings this time of year, It’s A Wonderful Life.
While the owner of those lines, “Nick,” played a small part in that movie, the actor who played him, Sheldon Leonard, played a major role in shaping classic television comedies while also acting in and producing other great shows and movies from Hollywood’s Golden Era.
Born Sheldon Leonard Bershad on February 22nd, 1907 in Manhattan, New York, he quickly learned to utilize his heavy New York accent to play “gangster-type” bad guys or hard-nosed police detectives in various films throughout the 1940s. Successful movies featuring Leonard this decade included Guys and Dolls, The Gangster, Open Secret, Somewhere In The Night and Take One False Step.
Leonard parodied his own characterization on both radio and television versions of The Jack Benny Program, playing “the Tout.” He would open his appearances by asking Benny to “come here” to get him away from the rest of his cast and proceed to give him inside information–first on horse betting–with seemingly contradicting insights that always drew laughs. His later sketches had him “informing” the comedian of tips increasing outlandish inside information, like telling him what types of eggs he should order for breakfast.
His success with this character set the stage for Leonard to star as a “nice guy” in the popular radio show, The Damon Runyan Theatre. He also played against type in the 1950 movie adaption of The Iroquois Trail.
But Leonard would carve out a brand new career by creating some of the most successful television shows in the 1950 and 1960s.
As producer of The Danny Thomas Show / Make Room For Daddy, he created the role of Sheriff Andy Taylor and cast Andy Griffin in that role, in which Thomas is arrested for speeding while driving through the small town of Mayberry.
The episode was so successful that it spawned one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time with Griffith in the lead in The Andy Griffith Show The show also sparked the often-used idea of using a successful TV show to create a “backdoor pilot” for another –a technique used again by Leonard three years leader by sending Jim Nabors’ Gomer Pyle character off to join the Marines, which later became Gomer Pyle, USMC.
Among the other successful Leonard-produced (or “executive produced”) shows include The Dick Van Dyke Show, Lassie and the action-adventure series I, Spy.
Leonard, along with star Robert Culp, had difficulty in convincing network executives in having a mixed-raced co-star pairing, with both Leonard and Culp insisting on Bill Cosby for the show. The role of the tennis player was actually originally written for an older, caucasian character, but Leonard caught Cosby’s stand-up act. He then insisted on rewriting the role and wanted Cosby to play the part, despite extreme dissenting opinions by executives. (Cosby later paid tribute to his former boss at his passing by dedicating an episode of his “Cosby” TV show to his memory.)
Leonard’s name actually preceded the show’s main title for that series. He also played a gangster-villain role in two I, Spy episodes and poked fun at his own acting persona in a third episode in which he portrayed himself. In addition, he directed one episode and served as occasional second-unit director throughout the series.
Although he never reached the same level of success with any future acting or producing programs again after 1970, Leonard’s legacy was frequently tributed by more contemporary show creators who admired his work. One of the most recent examples was The Big Bang Theory, whose creators named their two lead characters, “Sheldon” and “Leonard.”
You can see Sheldon Leonard’s recurring appearances on The Jack Benny Program seen on RCN TV as well as his various guest starring roles and behind the scenes efforts on other classic programs and films.
To view the complete rundown of classic programming on RCN TV, check out the weekly listings here on our website.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of RCN or any other agency, organization, employer or company.