Nowadays, the concept of the “hyphenate” is fairly common in Hollywood—the word is used to describe anyone in show business who wears various hats: actor, writer, producer, director, etc. The most famous hyphenate in radio was inarguably Orson Welles, but on this date in 1907, an individual was born in New York City’s Manhattan who would also be able to have the title printed on his business card. Sheldon Leonard Bershad—he later dropped the “Bershad,” of course—started out as the go-to guy for playing gangsters and other tough mugs. He didn’t score those roles only on radio, but also in theater, movies, and on television, reciting his dialogue in a thick Noo Yawk accent out of the corner of his mouth. But he would later become one of the most successful producers in the television industry, working on sitcoms that are still enjoyed today by generations old and new.
Leonard was the son of Frank and Anna (Levit) Bershad, and upon his graduation from Syracuse University in 1929 he set out to conquer Wall Street. But the famous financial crash in that year soon sent him to the unemployment line, and so he decided to pursue an acting career instead. Sheldon paid his dues and, in 1934, landed his first Broadway gig with a role in Hotel Alimony. Successful showcases in Having Wonderful Time (1937) and Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1938) followed, and so did a number of offers beseeching him to head West and heed the siren song of motion pictures. Starting with a character part (Phil Church) in Another Thin Man (1939), Leonard took on any number of tough-guy roles in films like Tall, Dark and Handsome (1941), Lucky Jordan (1942), Hit the Ice (1943), The Falcon in Hollywood (1945), and Bowery Bombshell (1946). Sheldon also demonstrated that he could play against type in vehicles like Tortilla Flat (1942), To Have and Have Not (1944), Decoy (1946), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)—in which he played the small, but pivotal, role of Nick the Bartender. (“Get me! I’m givin’ out wings!”)
Radio is where the demand for Sheldon Leonard’s acting talents as the quintessential gangster really came into play. He had a semi-regular showcase on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show as a mug named Grogan, and also played hoods on Meet Me at Parky’s and The Martin & Lewis Show. Leonard’s flair for comedy was given carte blanche on The Judy Canova Show where he played Joe Crunchmiller, Canova’s cabbie boyfriend (from Brooklyn, natch), and he played a similar boyfriend, Joe Pulaski, on The Adventures of Maisie. He traded quips with Bob Hope and George Burns & Gracie Allen, walked into Duffy’s Tavern a time or two, and appeared on such radio funfests as Amos ‘n’ Andy, The Baby Snooks Show, Bright Star, A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, The Halls of Ivy, Mr. and Mrs. Blandings, My Favorite Husband and The Sealtest Variety Theatre. As you may have guessed, Sheldon was also in high demand on The Damon Runyon Theatre; heck, the man was the living persona of a Runyonesque character! Leonard would prove this with roles in such Runyon-inspired motion pictures as Money from Home and Guys and Dolls (in which he famously played “Harry the Horse”).
Other radio programs on which Leonard made the rounds include The Adventures of the Saint, Bold Venture, Broadway’s My Beat, Hollywood Star Playhouse, I Was a Communist for the FBI, The Line Up, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Man Called X, Mr. and Mrs. North, Night Beat, On Stage, Presenting Charles Boyer, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Screen Director’s Playhouse, Somebody Knows, The Story of Dr. Kildare, Suspense, and This is Your FBI. His best remembered radio job, however, was emoting as a character known only as “The Tout” on The Jack Benny Program. A running gag on Jack’s show often found him getting ready to board a train to New York or some other destination…and more likely than not, Benny would encounter a man who would summon him forth with “Psst…hey, bud…c’mere…” Sheldon’s tout would quiz Jack as to what he was up to, and when the comedian declared his intention to do something The Tout would always try to get him to change his mind in the manner of a sharpie you might encounter at the track. It could be the simplest of tasks; if Jack was going to buy a train ticket, The Tout would tell him something along the lines of “Take The Super Chief—it’s got a good rail position!” or “The Super Chief is a sleeper!” On one occasion, Jack asked his nemesis why he never recommended a horse to bet on, prompting Leonard to respond: “Who knows about horses?”
Milt Josefberg writes in The Jack Benny Show that, although the star comedian had high praise for Leonard’s performances as The Tout, Jack had a tendency to confusingly refer to him as “Leonard Sheldon” (an honest mistake, since the actor had two first names). But when “Leonard Sheldon” took on the assignment as director of Danny Thomas’ hit television sitcom Make Room for Daddy, it was only a matter of time before no one ever got the man’s name wrong again—particularly since the shows he oversaw collected a “passel” of Emmy Awards (Leonard himself collected five). In the third year of Thomas’ show, he was promoted to producer. Then, while juggling his existing assignments, he directed the pilot and early episodes of both Lassie and The Real McCoys (produced by Thomas’ company). And as if that wasn’t enough, he also starred in a 1954 summer replacement series titled The Duke. Sheldon was then promoted to executive producer of the (now renamed) The Danny Thomas Show in 1961…but he was just warming up.
A guest appearance on Thomas’ series by comedian-actor Andy Griffith resulted in another Top Ten sitcom smash in 1960, The Andy Griffith Show. Sheldon Leonard was also the executive producer of Gomer Pyle, USMC, which was spun-off from the Griffith series in 1964. In addition, Leonard got comedian Joey Bishop started with his own sitcom from an appearance on The Danny Thomas Show (though he did not produce The Joey Bishop Show), and spun-off another Danny Thomas Show character, Jose Jiménez, in The Bill Dana Show. Sheldon’s greatest contribution to television comedy (and I’ll admit I’m a little biased here) was seeing potential in a series created by Your Show of Shows performer-writer Carl Reiner entitled Head of the Family. He told Reiner to relinquish the lead to Broadway sensation Dick Van Dyke…and the result was The Dick Van Dyke Show. Other series with the Sheldon Leonard stamp of quality included I Spy, Accidental Family, Good Morning, World, and My World and Welcome to It (my current Holy Grail of television shows that need to be released on DVD).
In the 1970s, Sheldon Leonard kept up the pace with contributions like From a Bird’s Eye View and Shirley’s World, and in 1975 attempted a TV series comeback with a failed sitcom entitled Big Eddie. Sheldon would continue to guest star on such shows as Sanford and Son, The Facts of Life, and Cheers. His last work as an executive producer would be for a 1994 revival of the I Spy series entitled I Spy Returns. Sheldon Leonard passed away at the age of 89 in 1997.
Radio Spirits invites you to enjoy some of today’s birthday boy’s work in some of his best-remembered venues: Sheldon Leonard plies his tough-guy stock-in-trade on The Damon Runyon Theatre (Broadway Complex), menaces Dick Powell in several Richard Diamond, Private Detective collections (Dead Men, Homicide Made Easy, Mayhem is My Business, Shamus), and shows up for The Line Up (Witness). You can also listen to Leonard trade quips with Ed Gardner (in the Duffy’s Tavern set Duffy Ain’t Here) and pal around with Phil Harris & Alice Faye (Family Values, Quite an Affair, Smoother and Sweeter). And don’t forget his work on The Adventures of the Saint (The Saint Solves the Case), Night Beat (Human Interest), and Somebody Knows. Of course, we’ve saved the best for dessert: enjoy Mr. Leonard at his comedic best on the Jack Benny collections Maestro, Neighbors, and Tall Tales. Happy birthday, Sheldon!