It’s OK if Sheldon Leonard digresses.
At age 86 the television actor-writer-director-producer is allowed a few digressions.
“I digress like crazy,” he says, the trademark Runyonesque intonations booming in his voice. “Give me a feed line and I’ll give you 30 minutes of extraneous material.”
Leonard’s digressions are an oral history of television, a fast-forward trip from the “golden age” to the tarnished ‘90s.
At one time Leonard had four prime-time shows in the Top 10. He has won five Emmys and 18 Emmy nominations. All of the 17 sitcom pilots he directed made it to the little screen. Among the long-running series he directed or executive-produced were “The Danny Thomas Show,” “Lassie,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show, “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” He’s back Thursday as executive producer of the CBS movie “I Spy Returns.”
“Back in the ‘60s I had several successful television shows on CBS, so NBC wanted me with them, so they came to me with, in effect, a blank check,” the former actor with a trademark bad-guy look recalls. “They said, ‘What do you want to do? We’ll let you do it and then we’ll put it on the air. No pilot. Just do it.’ What I wanted to do was to escape the restrictions of television at the time.
“Everything was influenced by Jack Webb. Close-up, close-up, close-up. Small sets, small pictures. I wanted to put air in my pictures, shoot for television the way movies were made and on real locations.
“So we went to Hong Kong, and the equipment there was so bad it almost bankrupted me. A young USC film school graduate, Fouad Said, told me he could help me out. He did a sales job on me that was without parallel. I said OK and he then designed and modified a Ford Econoline panel truck that was small enough to be loaded on a Flying Tigers cargo airplane and be deposited anywhere in the world carrying all the latest American equipment we needed, including cameras and generators. It freed us to move wherever we wanted, and Said went on to form his own company, Cinemobile.”
He recalls how the network supported the then-controversial hiring of Cosby.
“I wanted an attractive, athletic man with a sense of humor, and here I saw this guy on a Jack Paar special. I was just looking for someone with a sense of humor and a certain personality, somewhat charismatic too, if I was lucky. And there he was, Bill Cosby.
“The only condition NBC gave me with that blank check was that Bob Kintner, then head of the network, had to approve our stars. Most of the network’s affiliated stations considered a black lead very risky, saying anyone south of Baltimore was going to turn us off because we had a black man and a white man traveling together, rooming together, eating together.
“My talk with Kintner went something like this: He said, ‘How you doing with the casting, Sheldon?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I hear you like Bob Culp.’ He said, ‘Culp’s fine.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I saw the other guy I want.’ He said, ‘What do you mean you want?’ I said, ‘He’s black,’ and Kintner said, ‘What difference does that make?’ I said, ‘Kintner, it makes no difference whatsoever.’
Since “I Spy,” Leonard and Cosby have remained close.
“Bill Cosby is family. He practically considers my wife and me his mother and father. Recently, I berated him for making crap like the movie features “Leonard Six” and “Ghost Father.” I told him with the exception of his own ‘The Bill Cosby Show,’ the best acting he ever did was in ‘I Spy.’ Then out of the blue his manager, Norm Brokaw, called and asked me if I had said that to Bill. I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Well, he wants to do it again--make “I Spy”.’ So Brokaw made an appointment with CBS for me to talk about it.
Would he make another?
“I’m at this time being badgered and bombarded with suggestions that we do a sequel, if not a theatrical feature, with the two men. Or a series, spinning off the younger actors,” Leonard says.
“I used to take on projects like this with a carefree attitude. I’m getting pretty old and creepy for all this. But if I do it again there will be one non-negotiable consideration. I will pick the cast, writers, director, not any network. Today, networks dictate. I don’t want anybody denying me my freedom of choice; for example, telling me someone is too old to work.