One of the powerhouse producer/ directors of television in the 1950s and 1960s is remembered for playing mobster/wiseguys in films with Abbott & Costello and the Bowery Boys. His tout character was legendary for years on The Jack Benny Program. He was a hood with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando in Guys & Dolls. And he will forever be remembered as Nick the bartender, a small but memorable part in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. He did countless turns in films and television- almost always the street hood and always leaving an impact.
But where Sheldon Leonard Bershad made his real mark was as the partner of Danny Thomas in creating some of the greatest television programs of any generation. He started with Make Room for Daddy with Thomas and then was the mastermind behind such shows as The Real McCoys with Walter Brennan, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomer Pyle and I Spy.
I was lucky to get to meet with Sheldon Leonard through my friend, the legendary comedy writer Rocky Kalish. Despite his outward appearance as a street hood, Leonard was far from that. He was a brilliant, educated and quite erudite man. He had an astonishing gift of words, knowing the characters and plots and an astute eye for talent.
He more or less made superstars of such icons as Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cosby, Mary Tyler Moore, Don Knotts, to an extent Andy Griffith, Ronnie Howard, Jim Nabors and Robert Culp.
Here is a short Wiki bio of the astonishing Sheldon Leonard.
Sheldon Leonard (born Sheldon Leonard Bershad; February 22, 1907 – January 10, 1997) was a pioneering American film and television producer, writer, director and actor known for playing gangsters. Sheldon and Leonard are named after him.
Leonard was born Sheldon Leonard Bershad in New York City, the son of middle class Jewish parents Anna and Frank Bershad. As an actor, Leonard specialized in playing supporting characters, especially gangsters or “heavies”, in films such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), To Have and Have Not (1944), and Open Secret (1948). His trademark was his especially thick New York accent, usually delivered from the side of his mouth. In the cult classic Decoy, Leonard uses his “heavy” persona to create the hard-boiled police detective Joe Portugal. In the 1950s, Leonard provided the voice of lazy cat Dodsworth in two Warner Bros. cartoons directed by Robert McKimson. Sheldon Leonard Bershad graduated from Syracuse University in 1929.
In radio, Leonard played an eccentric racetrack tout on The Jack Benny Program in the late 1940s and early ’50s. His role was to salute Benny out of the blue in railroad stations, on street corners, or in department stores (“hey Bud, come here a minute”), ask Benny what he was about to do, and then proceed to try to argue him out of his course of action by resorting to inane and irrelevant racing logic. Ironically, as “The Tout,” he never gave out information on horse racing, unless Jack demanded it. One excuse the tout gave was “Who knows about horses?” Leonard was part of the ensemble cast of the Martin and Lewis radio show. He also appeared frequently on The Adventures of the Saint, often playing gangsters and heavies, but also sometimes in more positive roles.
But he is better known as the producer of hugely popular television series, including The Danny Thomas Show (aka Make Room For Daddy) (1953–64), The Andy Griffith Show (1960–68), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–66), and I Spy (1965–68). Leonard also provided the voice of Linus the Lionhearted in a series of Post Crispy Critters cereal TV commercials in 1963-64, which led to a Linus cartoon series that aired on Saturday (and later, Sunday) mornings on CBS (1964–66) and ABC (1967–69). He also was briefly the star of his own television show Big Eddie, where he played the owner of a large sports arena. The show lasted only one season (1975–76).
The character of Andy Taylor was introduced in a 1960 episode of The Danny Thomas Show, which led to the series of The Andy Griffith Show. Leonard is informally credited with developing the practice of using an episode of a series as a backdoor pilot episode for new series, in which a guest star is introduced as a new character with the intention using this character as the basis for a new show.
Leonard also has the distinction (along with author Mickey Spillane) of being the first Miller Lite spokesmen. Using his trademark accent, he told the audience “I was at first reluctant to try Miller Lite, but then I was persuaded to do so by my friend, Large Louis.” One of his last acting roles was a guest appearance on the TV series Cheers, in which he played the proprietor of “The Hungry Heifer,” Norm Peterson’s favorite eating establishment. Leonard died at 89, and was buried at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.
Here is a clip of Sheldon Leonard as Nick the Bartender:
Bill Cosby included an impersonation of Sheldon Leonard in one track of his 1966 hit comedy album Wonderfulness. The track, “Niagara Falls”, describes Sheldon Leonard’s honeymoon at Niagara Falls. One of his last appearances was as a guest star on The Cosby Show (1985) with Bill Cosby.
In 2007 he was given a posthumous “tip of the hat” in the situation comedy, The Big Bang Theory in which the lead characters are named Sheldon and Leonard.
Here is Sheldon Leonard speaking at UCLA in 1968:
Facebook friend Marc Solomon sent this text from Leonard as the “Tout” with Jack Benny”