Henry Peter Tewksbury, 79; Vermont's 'Cheeseman' Originated 'My Three Sons'

Times Staff Writer

When he died he was known as "Henry the Cheeseman." But in an earlier life, he had been a highly respected and innovative Hollywood director who guided "Father Knows Best" and created "My Three Sons."

Henry Peter Tewksbury, who seemed to change careers as readily as ZIP Codes, died Thursday in Brattleboro, Vt., of undisclosed causes. He was 79.

For the past eight years, Tewksbury had managed the cheese department at the Brattleboro Food Co-op. His book, "The Cheeses of Vermont: A Gourmet Guide to Vermont's Artisanal Cheesemakers," was published last year.

"His honesty was untouchable. He never swayed from what he believed to be morally right or ethically responsible. His curiosity and commitment to whatever he touched, films or farming, milling wheat or tasting cheese, was astonishing in the depths of its commitment," said Cielle Tewksbury. His second wife, she was also the former actress Ann Schuyler who appeared in Tewksbury's short-lived but highly praised 1962 series "It's a Man's World."

Known as Peter Tewksbury when he was involved in theater, films and television, he had switched to Henry Tewksbury in his quieter later years and told his sons, according to an interview with the New York Times in 2001, "Peter Tewksbury the director is dead."

The eclectic life of the many-faceted Tewksbury began in Cleveland on March 21, 1923. He graduated from Dartmouth College and enlisted in the Army during World War II, serving as a captain in the Pacific theater. At Dartmouth and in the Army, he began dabbling in theater.

At war's end, Tewksbury remained in California, working for five years as program director, commercial manager, sports announcer, newscaster and janitor at radio station KTIP in Porterville in Tulare County. In that period, he segued into his next career by founding the Porterville Barn Theater in 1947 and becoming its director.

Eldon Hunt, one of the playhouse's original performers, told the Fresno Bee in 1997 when the community theater celebrated its 50th anniversary: Tewksbury "was a nice guy and he never raised his voice. He was a natural-born director."

Tewksbury's first wife, now Kathleen Willoughby, helped start the playhouse and traveled the country with him to learn the nuts and bolts of establishing a community theater and keeping it afloat. Tewksbury did seem to have a natural talent for the work. He produced more than 270 plays for the little theater, even as Hollywood began to beckon.

The largely self-trained director was tapped in 1954 to direct the memorable series "Father Knows Best" starring Robert Young when it moved from radio to television. Tewksbury won an Emmy in 1958 for his work on that much-loved show.

In 1955, Tewksbury produced and directed episodes of Jackie Cooper's series "The People's Choice," and in 1960 he created, produced and directed "My Three Sons" with Fred MacMurray as the widower head of an all-male American family. Tewksbury's task was hampered by MacMurray's refusal to work more than 13 weeks a year.

Tewksbury managed -- by shooting all of the star's scenes in those few weeks, and then putting together the season's 39 shows in the editing room. His efforts made money for NBC and got him carte blanche from the network to do what he really wanted.

And that was, in those days of sugary family television shows, to make a realistic series about young people. With the late James Leighton, Tewksbury created "It's a Man's World."

The hourlong, prime-time series focused on two orphaned brothers, a wealthy Chicago youth and a folk-singing drifter who shared a houseboat on the Ohio River near a small college town. Two attended the college, and all four boys struggled with such issues as feminism, premarital sex, loss and the chasm between adolescents and adults. The writing was complex, endings could be bittersweet, and characters disparaged corporate America and social conventions.

Such subjects were barely contemplated on "Father Knows Best" or "My Three Sons," and were largely taboo in early 1960s television, especially in the minds of sponsors.

"We want to do young people as they really are," Tewksbury told The Los Angeles Times when the series began in 1962, "avoiding all the TV cliches -- the juvenile delinquents, the namby-pamby, the precocious. We wanted to show youth with its positive values, its confusions. Kids solving problems without family authority, working out where they're going in this civilization."

Critics and select viewers -- particularly college youths who identified closely with the characters -- liked the series. After previewing an initial episode, Times television critic Cecil Smith wrote: "It was a tender, tearing portrait of youth; it was almost painful to watch. But it had truth. It stirred memories. It made you say to yourself: I'm glad I'm not young anymore." Smith predicted a long and popular run.

But the show offended mass-market sponsors who turned away in droves, and low Nielsen ratings didn't help. The series was canceled after 19 episodes, and not even thousands of protest letters -- one of the first such demonstrations of viewer opinion -- could bring it back.

Leighton died of a heart attack shortly after the show ended, and Tewksbury believed the cancellation helped prompt his death. Tewksbury stayed on for a while in Hollywood, directing television specials, pilots for several series and a number of movies, including a personal favorite, "Sunday in New York," starring Cliff Robertson and Jane Fonda, and two Elvis Presley vehicles, "Stay Away, Joe" and "The Trouble with Girls."

But the director tired of the business in the 1970s, left Hollywood and never looked back.

For several years, he ratcheted between Vermont and California, returning westward to manage a ranch near Cambria for nearly a decade. In Vermont, he worked as a subsistence farmer, a miller of wheat and founding teacher of an alternative school in an abandoned one-room schoolhouse before becoming a cheese expert.

At the Brattleboro Food Co-op, Tewksbury stocked 470 kinds of cheese, and prized the 100 or so made in Vermont.

After running a radio station, starting a theater, directing prime-time television and motion pictures, farming, teaching, ranching and milling, somehow it seemed only natural that Tewksbury would write a critically praised book about gourmet cheese.

Besides his wife, Tewksbury is survived by six children.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 26, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction TV network -- The obituary of director and gourmet cheese expert Henry Peter Tewksbury in Monday's California section incorrectly stated that a television series he created, "My Three Sons," was shown on NBC. The series began on ABC and later moved to CBS. For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction Tewksbury obituary -- In the Feb. 24 California section, the obituary of Henry Peter Tewksbury, creator of "My Three Sons," stated that he produced and directed episodes of Jackie Cooper's series "The People's Choice" in 1955. In fact, the Cooper series was created by and produced through its initial 1955 season by Irving Brecher.
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