My Three Sons was a series that aired on the ABC Network from 1960 until 1965 and then on the CBS Network from 1965 until 1972. For twelve seasons and 380 episodes, viewers watched a widowed father raise his three sons as a single parent. Doing the best he can between the home-life of a single parent and his career as an engineer specializing in aeronautics, Stephen Douglas (played by Fred MacMurray) simply takes things one day at a time with his sons, Chip, Mike, and Robbie. Mike Douglas, the oldest of the three boys, was played by Tim Considine until his character was married off in 1965 to fiancee Sally Ann Morrison, who was played by Meredith MacRae. The middle child, Robbie Douglas, was played by Don Grady, and the youngest son, Richard “Chip” Douglas was played by Stanley Livingston.
The ABC Years
From 1960 until 1965, My Three Sons ran in black and white format on the ABC Network through Desilu Studios. In the first five seasons, the widowed father, Stephen Douglas, receives help from his character’s father-in-law, William Michael Douglas O’Casey, who was played by William Frawley. On the show, instead of being called by his full name, O’Casey was merely referred to as “Bub.” However, 1965 saw Frawley unable to continue the role due to medical illness that had really taken its toll on the actor. Shortly after he left the series, that illness claimed his life on March 3, 1966.
Directing the show’s first season was Peter Tewksbury, who was first briefly replaced by Richard Whorf, then Gene Reynolds for two years, then James V. Kern for two years before his death in 1966, who was then briefly replaced by James Sheldon.
The CBS Years
Aside from the switch from one network to another, My Three Sons also went from its black and white format to color. Furthermore, there were also some major cast changes that spun the show into a different direction throughout the second half of their 12-year run. Due to Frawley’s illness, he was gracefully written out of the show and replaced by his character’s brother, Charles O’Casey (played by William Demarest. He was simply called “Uncle Charley,”
In addition to the departure of “Bud,” also saw the oldest of Douglas’ three sons, Mike, no longer on the series as his character was married off. However, in order to keep the theme of “My Three Sons,” the young male character known as Ernie Thompson (played by Barry Livingston) is adopted into the family. He was written into the show originally as a friend of Douglas’ youngest son, Chip. In real life, Stanley Livingston and Barry Livingston are actually maternal brothers. The story revolving around Ernie saw his foster parents leave for the Orient, thus making the orphaned boy available for adoption. While the Douglas patriarch rises to the occasion to file for adoption, the combination of legal complications and Uncle Charley’s reservations made what should have been a straightforward procedure more difficult.
The series also finally received a long-term director, Fred De Cordova, who would maintain this role until 1971 when he accepted the opportunity to produce The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. This also resulted in what would be announced by the CBS Network that the 1971-1972 season of My Three Sons would be their last. Of the entire roster of 380 episodes, De Cordova directed 108 of them.
When the ratings and viewership of My Three Sons showed a significant drop in 1967, they were moved into a different time slot on the network. This is also where introducing new key characters into the show began to take place, as well as a new location. And these were good moves as the ratings went back up, preventing the series from being canceled. For starters, the Douglas family relocate from their fictional Bryant Park homestead to Los Angeles, California. Another big change includes the second of Stephen Douglas’ sons, Robbie, marry his on-screen girlfriend Katie Miller (played by Tina Cole) during the show’s 1967-1968 season. Shortly afterward, the couple introduces a set of triplets onto the show.
Another change would see the lead character eventually marry what would become Stephen Douglas’ second wife, Barbara Harper. Played by actress Beverly Garland, the new Mrs. Douglas also came with a daughter whom she had from her previous marriage named Dorothy “Dodie” Anne (played by Dawn Lyn). We also learn from the show she is a widowed teacher In this storyline arc, the five-year-old Dodie first has difficulties warming up to her new step-father, feeling as if he’s out to make her forget that she already had a father before him. When she learns this is not the case, she begins to warm up to him, as well as his sons.
However, as in every series that features children, especially if it’s run a number of years, it’s only a matter of time before they’re no longer children and they move on. As was the case for Mike Douglas, the oldest of the three original sons where it was time for him to leave the show, so was the case for the middle son, Robbie. Towards the end series’ 12-year run, the viewers see less of Robbie Douglas and Chip Douglas.
By the end of season eleven, the character of Robbie Douglas has been officially written off the show, leaving behind his wife, Katie, and their three sons to take a job in Peru, building a bridge. This allowed My Three Sons to continue with its initial theme, but now with Stephen Douglas raising three young grandsons.
The start of the show’s final season saw the youngest of the main character’s own three sons, Chip, elopes with a fellow teenager named Polly (played by Ronne Toup) and move into an apartment together.
The End of an Era
When it was announced the 1971-1972 season of My Three Sons would be the show’s last, their ratings were still decent enough where they could have continued. The final season saw yet another time slot change, which did not do the show any favors. The ratings fell, so yet another time slot was arranged as a means to save the show from cancellation. My Three Sons officially ended in the spring of 1972 anyway as a mutually agreed choice that it’s time to move on.
But, this didn’t mark the end. On November 25, 1977, ABC aired a special “Thanksgiving Reunion with the Partridge Family and My Three Sons.” The special saw the majority of the cast members from their respective shows share fond memories of their time being part of television history that played their part in shaping up American pop culture between the 1960s to the 1970s.