The Streetwise Sheldon Leonard

Sheldon Leonard’s face, voice and name were all famous, yet it would have been quite possible during his heyday to know one or two of those facets without knowing all three. The pic above illustrates one of his better known screen roles, that of Nick the Bartender in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). He was THE guy for decades for playing the New York “type”, usually gangsters or thugs or other shifty characters, or bartenders or cabbies, or the like. With his monotonic New York accent and his habit of talking out of the side of his mouth, he practically invented the schtick of, “Psst! Hey, mac! Ya wanna buy a wrist-watch?”

I had an uproarious time reading all his character names in Hollywood movies this morning: Pretty Willie Williams, Chink Moran, Johnny Brannigan, “Menace”, Pete Detroit, Slip Moran, the Frisco Ghost, Monk LaRue, Silky Fellowsby, Sometime Smith, Smacksie Golden, Lucky Maddox, Blackie Shoulders, Trigger Stazzi, Ace-Deuce Baker, Wires McGuire, Joe Portugal, Lippy Harris, Swifty Lewis, Shortwave Bert, Brick Davis, and Kid Banty. Or sometimes it’s just Nick, Sam, Duke, or Lefty. A couple of his last film performances are among his best known: Harry the Horse in Guys and Dolls (1955) and Steve Darcey in Pocketful of Miracles (1961). Leonard was the quintessential Damon Runyon actor (he’d also done a Damon Runyon radio show in 1948 and 1949).

But Sheldon Leonard Bershad (1907-1997) was no street thug. He had a B.A. in drama from Syracuse. His first job out of college was on Wall Street but the 1929 crash soured him on finance, so he placed his chips on what he knew. He made it to Broadway and films both the same year, 1934, and he juggled both through the end of the decade. His six Broadway plays were Hotel Alimony (1934), The Night Remembers (1934), Fly Away Home (1935), Having Wonderful Time (1937), Siege (1937), and Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1938-39).

As he was initially based in New York, Leonard’s first films were Vitaphone shorts: My Mummy’s Arms, with Harry Gribbon and Shemp Howard; and The Gem of the Ocean, both 1934. But soon came Hollywood, and features like Another Thin Man (1939), Tortilla Flat (1942), Trocadero (1944), To Have and Have Not (1944), Zombies on Broadway (1945), If You Knew Susie (1948), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951).

Meantime — we mentioned that voice. Leonard’s talents were very much in demand on radio during the ’40s, sometimes playing heavies and gangsters in dramas, sometimes similar roles in comedies. As such he was popular on The Jack Benny Program, The Martin and Lewis Show and The Adventures of Maisie, among others.

Then, in the television era he made an unexpected transformation. This was the era in which it was possible to know him as just as a name. I use to see the name in television credits for years, never connecting with the character actor I’d seen and heard a million times. This is when Leonard put that business experience to use and became a successful television producer, usually in partnership with Danny Thomas. Shows he helped produce included The Danny Thomas Show, a.k.a Make Room for Daddy (1953-1964), The Andy Griffith Show (1960–68), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–1966), Gomer Pyle USMC (1964-1969), I Spy (1965-1968), My World and Welcome To It (1969-1970), and Shirley’s World (1971-72), a short-lived sitcom starring Shirley MacLaine. 

In 1975 Leonard starred in his own sitcom Big Eddie, but it only lasted ten episodes. But he hadn’t lost the old charm. He was frequently in demand for guest shots doing his old schtick on such shows as Sanford and Son, The Cosby Show, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and Cheers. His last professional credit was as a producer on the TV movie I Spy Returns (1994).