Jack Sheldon: More Than “Just a Bill”

There is no way to give a pat, simple description of the life and career of Jack Sheldon (Beryl Cyril Sheldon, Jr, 1931-2019). He was most accomplished as a jazz trumpeter, but he also made his mark as a singer, actor, and all around personality, and he’s undoubtedly better known among the general public for those credits.

Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Sheldon became part of the West Coast jazz scene in the middle ’50s and began cutting records. His first major acting gig was the role of the neighbor on the sitcom The Cara Williams Show (1964-65). This was followed by guest shots on Gilligan’s Island and I Spy. At around the same time he attracted Grammy winning attention by playing the lonely trumpet solo on the theme to the Richard BurtonElizabeth Taylor movie The Sandpiper (1965). The film was scored by Johnny Mandel, who would later work with Robert Altman on the scores to That Cold Day in the Park (1969) and MASH (1970). Sheldon was also to work on an Altman picture — he sang one of the many versions of the title tune in The Long Goodbye (1973).

In 1966, Sheldon got two major gigs. He starred in his own sitcom Run Buddy Run, which lasted only one season. And he became Merv’s sidekick on The Merv Griffin Show, following the departure of Arthur Treacher. He was basically Merv’s combination Doc Severinsen and Ed McMahon and did the job through 1973, although he occasionally made return appearances, which is certainly one of the first places I ever encountered him. (In fact, in my mind’s ear, when I think of the name “Jack Sheldon”, I hear it in Merv’s voice). The fact that Sheldon left Merv in 1973 was not random. That year, he became one of the regulars on Sally Fields’ third sitcom The Girl With Something Extra. It only lasted one season, however.

“He signed ya, Bill! Now you’re a law!”

At around this time (1973-75), Sheldon achieved another of his show biz high water marks, when he sang the songs in two animated Schoolhouse Rock shorts: “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill”. I bet I just made you say “Oh yeah!” In Jack Sheldon’s voice!

It is not surprising to observe that Sheldon did numerous episodes of Dragnet, Adam-12, and Project UFO. Jack Webb was a major jazz supporter, and the two were almost certainly old friends. Sheldon was also on Marcus Welby, Police Woman, Police Story, Mike Hammer, etc. Sheldon also appeared in the Disney movie Freaky Friday (1976), For the Boys (1991) with Bette Midler, and the all-star period comedy Radioland Murders (1994).

Towards his last couple of decades, Sheldon put on a good bit of weight, so he did much less on-camera work. But with that voice and that musical talent he was still very much in demand for voice-over work and jazz recordings. He was 88 when he passed away, just last December.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.