Fred de Cordova: Wrangled Giants

Those of a certain age may remember the name Fred de Cordova (1910-2001). He was the producer of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from 1970 to 1992. The general public normally doesn’t know the name of tv producers, but de Cordova was very present on the The Tonight Show, because Johnny would make jokes about him on air, and even occasionally ask him questions (though he was off camera) while the cameras were rolling. He also played a version of himself in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982), with Jerry Lewis as the Carson stand-in.

But more astute observers will know de Cordova’s name from many other credits as well. Were you the kind of kid who actually READ the credits on TV shows? It may not surprise you to learn that I was. de Cordova was a very active man in television. Some of his biggest credits: he produced and directed The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1953-58); produced and directed The Jack Benny Program (1955-64) and a 1969 Benny special; directed 107 episodes of My Three Sons (1967-71), produced and directed the short-lived Smothers Brothers sitcom My Brother The Angel (1965-66), produced and directed the Spring Byington sitcom December Bride (1957-59), and also directed episodes of The Doris Day Show, The Donna Reed Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The George Gobel Show, etc.

de Cordova also helmed nearly a half dozen (not very distinguished) movies from 1944 to 1966, including a couple of the Bonzo pictures with Ronald Reagan, I’ll Take Sweden (1965) with Bob Hope, and Frankie and Johnny (1966) with Elvis Presley. He’d initially broken into the movies as a dialogue director, performing that job on a half dozen features, the best known of which is To Have and Have Not (1944).

Prior to this, de Cordova worked on Broadway. His parents worked in the theatre. When he was 18 he had a small role in Ring Lardner’s Elmer the Great (1928) starring Walter Huston, later made into a Joe E. Brown movie. de Cordova, then went to Harvard to study law, returning to Broadway to work in various capacities for the Shuberts and others. He had roles in the shows Piper Paid (1934), Symphony (1935), and Otto Preminger’s Beverly Hills (1940), was stage manager on Hold Your Horses (1933), and dialogue directed on two post-Ziegfeld editions of the Ziegfeld Follies in 1936 (with Fanny BriceBob HopeEve ArdenJosephine BakerJudy Canova, Gertrude NiesenJune Preisser, and the Nicholas Brothers); and 1943 (with Milton Berle, Arthur Treacher, Jack Cole, and Iona Massey), as well as the revue Keep Off the Grass (1940) with Jimmy Durante, Jackie Gleason, Ray Bolger, Emmett Kelly, and Virginia O’Brien.

de Cordova was a Sephardic Jew with roots that go back to the eponymous city in Spain, but meandered also through Constantinople, Amsterdam, and finally Jamaica, where his immediate ancestors came from prior to immigrating the U.S. His is a large and distinguished family, including Jacob de Cordova, founder of the Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner and the city of Waco, Texas, and Julian de Cordova, who founded the de Cordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts in 1950. Despite the alternate spelling and different religion, I would not to be shocked to learn that he is also related to Cuban-American actor Pedro de Cordoba, who appeared in Cecil B. deMille’s Carmen (1915).

To learn more about show business history, including tv variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,