At the close of the "Cosby" television show on Jan. 20, there appeared a still photograph of a man who was familiar only
vaguely -- if familiar at all -- to most viewers. These words accompanied the picture: "In memory of Sheldon Leonard. My last father."
Sheldon Leonard died Jan. 10 at age 89. He was a major player in producing entertainment programs for television in the early years of the medium. His career is a reminder that when great social forces are clashing in the United States, heroes can come from anywhere and epic victories can be won in unexpected places.
Leonard was a character actor who appeared in 45 movies, usually type-cast as a gangster or roughneck who spoke out of the corner of his mouth in a New York accent. He came by that naturally. He was the son of immigrant Jews who raised him in the South Bronx.
His Hollywood career -- from 1939 to 1961 -- was hardly in the Oscar category. Most of his movies were pretty bad ("Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man," for example), but not all: He was in "Another Thin Man," "Guys and Dolls" and "It's a Wonderful Life," among others.
He moved to television to produce shows and situation comedies of uneven quality but great popularity: "Lassie," "The Andy Griffith Show," "Gomer Pyle, USMC," "Make Room for Daddy," and "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
In connection with the last, he was responsible for what at the time was a brave and significant step forward in the civil rights war. It occurred in 1963. It seems modest in retrospect, but those times were not these times. In the summer of that year, President John F. Kennedy, reluctantly and with little hope of complete success, proposed an omnibus civil rights bill.
The conservative white South -- including much of the region's establishment -- was literally in combat with black and white civil rights advocates and demonstrators. Their commitment to the old way of life was strong. No one knew for sure how deep ran the commitment of their opponents, supporters of racial equality.
Leonard proposed to a new team of comedy writers for "The Dick Van Dyke Show" an episode that came to be known as That's My Boy." It became one of the best-known situation comedy episodes of the decade.
Dick Van Dyke's character, Rob Petrie, decides his wife, Laura, played by Mary Tyler Moore, has brought home the wrong newborn from the hospital. He bases that on the fact the Petries keep getting meals and gifts intended for a couple named Peters.
Over Laura's objections, Rob calls the Peterses. The audience hears only his side of the conversation:
"Hello, Mr. Peters? I think we have something of yours and you have something of ours. A basket of dried figs? I didn't mean that. You know, Mr. Peters, there's a great similarity in our names. I want to get this thing settled. You know, Mr. Peters, both our wives gave birth to baby boys at the same time in the same hospital, and the hospital was very busy. What am I getting at? Mr. Peters, may I ask you a personal question? Who does your baby look like. Well, that's what I thought, because our baby doesn't look like either of us either. You're taking this pretty lightly. OK. We live right around the block. Oh, you know our address. I'll expect you."
They arrive and Rob realizes his fears were groundless: The Peterses are a handsome, prosperous-looking black couple.
L "Why didn't you tell me on the phone?" Rob asks, sheepishly.
L "And miss the expression on your face?" Mrs. Peters replies.
This prompted the live audience before whom the show was being filmed to erupt in the longest laughter in the show's five years.
Laura invites the Peterses to sit down and have coffee, and the episode ends.
Believe it or not, that was a milestone, as Leonard knew better than anybody.
Leonard submitted the script to CBS, to the show's sponsor, Procter & Gamble, and that corporation's advertising agency, Benton & Bowles -- and to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The NAACP quickly approved. And why not? It was one of the few times in television's history that black middle-class characters were shown in a situation in which they were one up on a white character. For that matter, it was one of the few times black middle-class couples were portrayed in any positive way. (A decade before, the NAACP had tried and failed to get CBS to drop demeaning racial stereotypes in the series "Amos 'n' Andy.")
The advertising agency and the sponsor said they were afraid of the Van Dyke episode. They said they objected because it made fun of blacks. The objection was disingenuous. The episode, as Leonard pointed out, made fun of Van Dyke's character. CBS gave away the real fear when it told Leonard it was opposed to showing the episode because Southern affiliates would object.
Leonard fought it out and finally prevailed. With fingers crossed, the network broadcast the show. Leonard must have had his fingers crossed, too. A previous show of his -- "Make Room for Daddy" in the 1950s -- had as a regular character a black housekeeper whose close relationship with her white employers provoked such mail as, "I don't allow niggers in my living room and you got no right to put them there."
In 1963 things were little better. Almost all of the white South and much of the white North was uncomfortable with blacks and whites as equals having coffee in the same living room. In most of the North and almost all of the South, blacks didn't live "right around the corner" from whites in middle-class suburban neighborhoods. And black women didn't share the same facilities in maternity hospitals as white women in many communities.
But the sentiments that were the foundation of such social segregation did not prevail in this case. After "That's My Boy" appeared, the show got 1,960 pieces of mail, only 201 of which were hostile.
That showing impressed the television industry so much that two years later, when Leonard decided to go a step further, it was easy. He decided to produce a series in which the co-stars would be a black man and a white man. That was "I Spy," an adventure-comedy that starred Bill Cosby as Alexander Scott and Robert Culp as Kelly Robinson. Culp was a well-known actor. Cosby was a beginning comedian, but Leonard liked his style and insisted on his getting the part.
Scott and Robinson were a long, long way from Amos and Andy. There had never been a regular dramatic series on American television with a black performer in a starring role. The show became a big hit, and yet another barrier to black achievement and acceptance fell.
The entertainment world, as these two instances prove, can both shape public opinion and reveal it -- when courageous and principled individuals are willing to take a chance.
Government leaders usually get the credit for social advancement, but often they only come in and dot the "i's" and cross the "t's" on accomplishments brought about by men and women in other walks of life -- entertainment, education, business, journalism, religion.
But daring, principled behavior is rare in all walks of life. There are not that many Sheldon Leonards.
Pub Date: 2/19/97