Given that Fred MacMurray built a successful film career as the quintessential nice guy, it's rather ironic that some of his strongest and best-remembered performances cast him against type. While remaining known as a fixture of light comedies and live-action Disney productions, his definitive roles nonetheless were those which found him contemplating murder, adultery, and other villainous pursuits. Born August 30, 1908, in Kankakee, IL, MacMurray, the son of a concert violinist, was educated at a military academy and later studied at the Chicago Art Institute. His original goal was to become a professional saxophonist, and toward that aim he worked with a variety of bands and even recorded with Gus Arnheim. MacMurray's musical aspirations eventually led him to Hollywood, where he frequently worked as an extra. He later joined the California Collegians and with them played Broadway in the 1930 revue Three's a Crowd, where he joined Libby Holman on a duet of "Something to Remember Me By." He subsequently appeared in productions of The Third Little Show and Roberta.
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The story behind MacMurray's return to Hollywood remains uncertain -- either a Paramount casting scout saw him on-stage, or he simply signed up with Central Casting -- but either way, he was under contract by 1934. At Paramount, he rose to fame in 1935's The Gilded Lily, a romantic comedy which pit him against Claudette Colbert. Seemingly overnight he was among the hottest young actors in town, and he quickly emerged as a favorite romantic sparring partner with many of Hollywood's leading actresses. After Katherine Hepburn requested his services for Alice Adams, MacMurray joined Carole Lombard in Hands Across the Table before reuniting with Colbert in The Bride Comes Home, his seventh film in 12 months. He kept up the frenetic pace, appearing in 1936's The Trail of the Lonesome Pine alongside Henry Fonda, reteaming with Lombard in The Princess Comes Across. After settling a contract dispute with Paramount, MacMurray again starred with Colbert in the 1937 swashbuckler Maid of Salem, one of the first films to move him away from the laid-back, genial performances on which he'd risen to success.
Along with Colbert, Lombard remained the actress with whom MacMurray was most frequently paired. They reunited in 1937's Swing High, Swing Low and again that same year in True Confession. After starring with Bing Crosby in Sing You Sinners, he also began another onscreen partnership with Madeleine Carroll in 1939's Cafe Society, quickly followed by a reunion in Invitation to Bali. While not the superstar that many predicted he would become, by the 1940s MacMurray had settled comfortably into his leading man duties, developing an amiable comic style perfectly suited to his pictures' sunny tone. While occasionally appearing in a more dramatic capacity, as in the Barbara Stanwyck drama Remember the Night, the majority of his pictures remained light, breezy affairs. However, in 1944 he and Stanwyck reunited in Billy Wilder's superb Double Indemnity, which cast MacMurray as a murderous insurance salesman. The result was perhaps the most acclaimed performance of his career, earning him new respect as a serious actor.
However, MacMurray soon returned to more comedic fare, appearing with Colbert in 1944's Practically Yours. After the following year's farcical Murder He Says, his contract with Paramount ended and he moved to 20th Century Fox, where he starred in the historical musical Where Do We Go From Here? His co-star, June Haver, became his wife in 1954. MacMurray then produced and starred in Pardon My Past, but after announcing his displeasure with Fox he jumped to Universal to star in the 1947 hit The Egg and I. During the 1940s and early '50s, he settled into a string of easygoing comedies, few of them successful either financially or artistically. His star began to wane, a situation not helped by a number of poor career choices; in 1950, he even turned down Wilder's classic Sunset Boulevard. In 1954, however, MacMurray returned to form in The Caine Mutiny, where he appeared as a duplicitous naval officer. As before, cast against type he garnered some of the best notices of his career, but this time he continued the trend by starring as a dirty cop in The Pushover.
Despite recent critical acclaim, MacMurray's box-office clout remained diminished, and throughout the mid-'50s he appeared primarily in low-budget action pictures, most of them Westerns. In 1959, however, he was tapped by Walt Disney to star in the live-action comedy The Shaggy Dog, which became one of the year's biggest hits. MacMurray appeared as a callous adulterer in Wilder's Oscar-winning 1960 smash The Apartment before moving to television to star in the family sitcom My Three Sons; a tremendous success, it ran until 1972. He then returned to the Disney stable to essay the title role in 1961's The Absent-Minded Professor and remained there for the following year's Bon Voyage and 1963's Son of Flubber. However, after two more Disney features -- 1966's Follow Me Boys and 1967's The Happiest Millionaire -- both flopped, MacMurray remained absent from the big screen for the rest of the decade, and only resurfaced in 1973 in Disney's Charley and the Angel. After a pair of TV movies, MacMurray made one last feature, 1978's The Swarm, before retiring. He died in Santa Monica, CA, on November 5, 1991. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi