Sheldon Leonard was born in New York City’s lower Manhattan, the son of Jewish parents. He studied acting at Syracuse University and, after graduating, landed a job on Wall Street. Following the Wall Street crash of 1929, he found himself unemployed and resolved to become a professional actor on the stage. The road was hard, since it took him five years to first appear on Broadway in “Hotel Alimony” (1934). While this production was universally slammed by the critics, the next plays he appeared in, “Having Wonderful Time” (1937) and “Kiss the Boys Goodbye” (1938), were unqualified successes, the former running for 372 performances.
Movie offers followed, and from 1939 he became one of Hollywood’s most recognizable screen tough guys, the names of his characters evocative of the roles he played: Pretty Willie in Tall, Dark and Handsome (1941), Slip Moran in Lucky Jordan (1942), Lippy Harris in Jinx Money (1948), Jumbo Schneider in Money from Home (1953) and, famously, Harry the Horse in Guys and Dolls (1955). There was also an assortment of minor henchmen and western heavies named Blackie or Lefty, and he was Nick, the sneering, humorless barkeeper who tosses James Stewart into the snow in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Having had his fill of acting in those kinds of parts, Leonard began a new career as a television producer in the 1950s and went on to become one of the most successful TV producer/directors of the 1950s and 1960s. Four of his productions (all on CBS)–The Danny Thomas Show (1953), Gomer Pyle: USMC (1964), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961) (which won 21 Emmy Awards) and The Andy Griffith Show (1960)–were rated in the Top Ten. He had a further success with I Spy (1965), championing the cause of racial equality over the (initial) objections of the network by being the first series to have an African-American (Bill Cosby) in an equal co-starring dramatic role with a white actor. Leonard is also regarded as having invented the television spin-off.
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