Film: Sheldon Leonard’s Wonderful Life (2011)

May 22, 2014 | By


SheldonLeonardsWonderfulLife_pic_sFilm: Very Good

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Genre:  Documentary / TV History / Toronto Jewish Film Festival 2014

Synopsis: Profile of actor, writer, producer and director Sheldon Leonard, the pioneering showrunner of TV’s Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show.

Special Features:  n/a




Originally a 72 mins. doc from 2011, director Allan Holzman apparently re-edited his film with newer material for a 55 mins. version in 2014, but even in its shorter length there’s still enough material in this affectionate chronicle of one of TV’s unsung heroes.

Sheldon Leonard began as a character actor (he’s perhaps best known as the bartender in It’s a Wonderful Life) in film before switching to radio where he took a crack at writing. His knack for humour and refining a concept were important commodities in TV’s early years, and by the time he shepherded a series of classic TV series to fruition – Make Room for Daddy (1953-1963), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968), and I Spy (1965-1968) – he was a bonafide hit maker.

Leonard was a pioneering showrunner – the creative executive who ensured every script was a natural fit in a show’s concept – and he’s credited with creating the spin-off series by needle-dropping a character for a proposed series into a current successful show to tease the interest of potential investors and the network. The ploy worked several times, and Leonard’s astute business sense had him shopping, selling, closing deals, and fighting for casting choices that seemed risqué in their day. He’s credited for pairing Bill Cosby and Robert Culp for the buddy spy series I Spy, but admits to being surprised when the network thought it was indeed time to have a show where a character’s colour was irrelevant.

Besides starring black and white team of actors, I Spy also benefitted from a resourceful technician who designed a mobile van which could travel Europe with the production’s gear and gather the valuable location footage which gave the series its genuine exotica.

On hand are archival interviews with Sheldon, and new interviews with Mary Tyler Moore, Duck Van Dyke, I Spy and Any Griffith composer Earle Hagen, Ron Howard, and Carl Reiner. Holzman’s doc should compel newbies into tracking down and exploring Leonard’s shows which featured a rich talent pool, and fans should enjoy the various clips and interviews which provide a fairly solid overview of the aforementioned series which are hallmarks in 20th century American TV.

Leonard did continue to act now and then in TV, but his skills as a writer, producer, director, and showrunner were remarkable, given he managed to apply them so well to a succession of hit shows. His golden period lasted to the late sixties, after which subsequent series failed to last more than a season – My World and Welcome to It (1969), and the British productions From a Bird’s Eye View (1970) and Shirley’s World (1971)- and included the occasional TV movie (like the voguish reunion special I Spy Returns in 1994, his final production credit before his death three years later).

Holzman’s credits include the B-movie Forbidden World (1982) for Roger Corman, several TV movies, and the autobiographical doc C-C-Cut (2009).



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
IMDB  —  TJFF 2014 Listing
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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