Weekend at Ernie’s: A Conversation with Barry Livingstone

In 1965 Barry Livingston was adopted into the Douglas clan on “My Three Sons.” Prior to that he played the role as a reoccuring character. The same year co-star William Demarest became a regular cast member, replacing the ailing William Frawley

Note: This interview was originally published at popcultureaddict.com in 2011.

In 1965, when actor Tim Considine, who had played oldest son Mike Douglas on the popular sit-com My Three Sons, decided to leave the series, the producers of the show were in a bind.  The show was called My Three Sons, and with Fred McMurray having only two sons left, the writers had to come up with a third son…and fast!  Luckily ten year old actor Barry Livingston, who had been playing neighbor Ernie Thompson for an entire season, was a regular fixture on the set.  The writers quickly devised a plot explaining that Ernie was a foster child, and had the Douglas family adopt the quirky looking ten year old as the new adopted third son.  However, behind the scenes, there was another twist.  Barry Livingston was the real life younger brother of My Three Sons co-star Stanley Livingston who played youngest (now middle) son Chip.  Is there really such nepotism in Hollywood?  Not in the case of Barry Livingston.  Barry had been working in Hollywood apart from his bother since the age of four appearing in films and television with stars such as Paul Newman, Jerry Lewis, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason and Edmond O’Brien.  Barry was also familiar with television via a regular gig on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet playing a neighborhood kid.  By age ten, Barry Livingston was already a professional actor, and quickly established himself as one of the most popular characters on My Three Sons.  As the brainy, if not slightly dorky, newest brother, Barry would remain in the role of Ernie Douglas until 1972.

Through five decades, Barry Livingston has continued a successful career as one of Hollywood’s most prolific character actors.  However, thick black rimmed glasses and shock of black hair long gone, Barry Livingston has found his new niche playing “straight” roles in television, film and theater. He has appeared in some of the most popular films and television programs of the last forty years including Room 222Hart to HartDoogie Howser, MDLois and Clark, Ally McBeal, The West WingWill and GraceCrossing JordanTwo and a Half MenMad MenEverybody Hates ChrisBig LoveMonkLie to MeDesperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and The Event.  Barry can currently be seen in Horrible Bosses and had a role in last years Academy Award winning film The Social Network. He has been part of such memorable films such as You Don’t Mess with ZohanZodiacFirst Daughter and Maniac Cop III.  Yet, although Ernie Douglas is far behind him, fans will always best remember him in the beloved role of Steve Douglas’ adopted “fourth” son.

Recently Barry Livingston sat down and wrote the story of his fifty plus years in show business in a brand new memoir titled The Importance of Being Ernie.  Being released on October 25th via Citadel Publishing, for the first time Barry tells about his life as a child actor walking amongst the idols and icons of multiple generations.  What was just another day of work for Barry has become the pop culture dreams of fans and pop culture buffs worldwide.  With his book months away from hitting shelves, Barry spoke to me about his career, as well as some of the people he has encountered, and productions he’s worked on during his incredible lifetime in show business.

With his thick framed classes and big black bangs long gone, today Barry Livingston is one of Hollywood’s most prolific character actors

Sam Tweedle:  So, although you’re one of the most prolific character actors in television today, you’ve managed to find time to write a book.  Can you tell me about it?

Barry Livingston:  My autobiography, The Importance of Being Ernie, is going to be released on October 25th, 2011.  I’ve wrote this memoir of my fifty plus years in show business and I’m really excited about it.  Citadel Publishing is releasing it and it’ll be in Barnes and Nobles and on amazon.com.  Hopefully it’ll make it into some local Mom and Pop bookstores as well.

Sam:  What made you decide to write your autobiography?

Barry:  I’ve been thinking about it for awhile because people, over time, have recounted my stories about my time with Lucille Ball and going on a limo ride with Elvis and experiences with My Three Sons, and working with Robert Downey Jr and Brad Pitt and I have all these stories that keep being related over five decades.  Every time I’d tell a story people would say “You should write that down.  You should do a book.”  At one point I thought that I should do it before I forget it all.  I have a story to tell and I felt that I was at a good place.  I had just done The Social Network and it was something I wanted to pat myself on the back for and let people know about it and maybe it’ll trigger some even more fantastic jobs.  You never know.

Sam:  I have to admit that I think the title is brilliant.

Barry:  I have to give a little bit of a nod to my editor because that was his idea.   Kudos to Gary Goldstein who had the bright idea to go for that.  In fact, I kind of said [it should be called] The Importance of Not Being Ernie because in my mind I’ve been trying to get past that and do other things.  But The Importance of Being Ernie is right on.  It’s a good title.

Sam:  How old were you when you started acting?

Barry:  Well the first job I had, I was four years old.  That was on a movie called Rally Round the Flags Boys, that my brother Stan was also in.  We were actually playing brothers in that movie.  We were the kids of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman in that film.  Unfortunately, I got fired from that movie because on the set one day my eyes started to cross and started to do odd gymnastics and they eventually rushed me to hospital and determined that I had a stigmatism and found out I needed glasses, but by that point the producers had decided that they didn’t want Paul Newman’s kid having glasses.  That was now keeping with his image.  You can still see me in the movie in the very first frame.  It’s me, but I’m upside down, but for the rest of the movie it’s another kid.

Sam:  Now your brother naturally started his career earlier then you did.  Was acting something you slipped into due to his career or was it something that you saw Stanley doing and that you wanted to do too?

The Livingston Brothers, Stanley and Barry, appeared in movies and on television both together, and seperatly, before they played the Douglas brothers, Chip and Ernie, on “My Three Sons”

Barry:  Well, I certainly noticed that Stan was getting a lot more attention at the pool from the girls when he was on TV.  I couldn’t help but notice that that fame thing looked pretty nice and that it seemed that people liked you better.  So I think I kind of thought maybe I should give it a try.  Things were happening for him, and it was pretty easy to get a union card in those days, and the lady that was sending Stan out on auditions was asking if I could go out on some and I was more then willing to go.

Sam:  Tell me if I’m wrong, but in your early days as an actor did you follow closely in your brother’s footsteps?

Barry:  I was getting jobs without his introduction on some levels.  I was going out on interviews and doing things.  I was on The Dick Powell Theater with Mickey Rooney, and I did an episode of an early Kurt Russell series called The Adventures of Jamie McPheeters.  It was certainly a help that Stan was working and that I would show up on the set sometimes, because my mother would not have a babysitter, particularly at Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s.  When they saw me they knew that I was working and that I had done some films, and so they eventually decided to use me when Stan went on to My Three Sons.

Sam:  What was it like working with the Nelson Family?

Barry:  They were great.  They were a real family, so there was a familiar sense on the set, and Ozzie knew how to work with kids.  It was a no stress situation and he was just a great teacher.  They liked our family.  They liked what Stan did and they liked what I did.  It was nice to kind of be an extended part of their family.  They were just the nicest people, and I was very grateful to have been given my very first guest star billing on TV for an episode that Ozzie wrote for me called The Little House Guest.  I played a neighbor kid, little Barry, whose parents were going to have another baby and I was going to stay with the Nelsons on the night of the delivery.  The real crisis was that I was dead set on having a little brother.  I didn’t want to have anything to do with a little sister and Ozzie had to convince me that if I had a little sister that it would be just as good.

Sam:  At the end of it do you remember what you got?

Barry:  I think I got a little sister.  Ozzie knew best.

Sam:  Okay.  Now I’m dying to ask you about this limo ride with Elvis Presley.  How did that come about?

Barry:  Well, I was working in a movie called My Six Loves with Debbie Reynolds and Cliff Robertson.  As a child actor there is a lot of downtime and you’re on the lot, but you’re not always working.  So I was walking around because a movie lot is an amazing place just to see things.  I was walking down one of those lanes and I saw this white limousine.  It was probably the early 60’s.  The back door was open and I thought it was pretty amazing and you’re just impressed to see something like that.  I looked in the back and everything was just white.  The floor was white fur and there were white leather seats and there was a television in the back, which was just amazing to see in 1963.  It was like [something from ] The Jetsons.  And as I was looking Elvis came through the stage door and it was his limo and it had just been customized and they were bringing it over to show him.  So he came over and we struck up a conversation, and he just said, “I’m going to hop in the car and ride around the lot to see if the TV works” and he invited me to join him.

Sam:  What was your impression of Elvis?

Barry:  You know, he seemed a little tired.  A little sad.  He popped on the TV and Popeye the Sailor was on, which I thought was cool, and he seemed to want to watch it as much as I did.  We just kind of rode around, just quiet.  It wasn’t like a heart to heart conversation.  He was doing Fun at Acapulco on the lot, and it was just a five minute, slow limo ride around the lot, we watched Popeye the Sailor and we came back to the south stage and we parted ways.

Sam:  But as mundane as you try to make that sound, it is incredible.  I mean…wow!

Barry:  It was.

Sam:  It’s very surreal.

Barry:  Very surreal.  Absolutely.  It was a surreal moment.  There is a whole chapter in the book which tells a little bit more then I told you.

Sam:  Being a kid, hanging out on film sets, did you have any other run ins with people that became cultural icons?

Barry:  Well, some of the people who were in what were just regular television shows have gone on to become iconic status.  Things like the original Star Trek.  We’d see William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy all the time on the lot.  Hogan’s Heroes and Bob Crane.  They shot all the Matt Helm movies with Dean Martin there.  They had some pretty spectacular sets there, and all the Westerns were shot at Paramount.  We’d sneak off and watch them shoot Gunsmoke and Bonanza.  All of this was just a normal day.  It was just the way it was.

Sam:  But your backstage reality was the Technicolor dreams of my childhood.

Barry:  But as I said, it was just another work day.  They had a storage area, and our dressing rooms were right in the same area, and we’d go in there and that’s where they kept the whole skyline for New York City from the original King Kong.  Where we worked originally was Desilu, and Desilu was RKO at one point, which was the studio that produced King Kong.  Well at that time it was just junk.  My brother and I would [pretend we were] giants. We’d just go in there and run around like we were in New York City.   There was the whole elevated railway, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building which they used with the miniatures and they had Kong climbing up.  Well one day we came to work and they were gone. I remember being kind of disappointed.  What did they do with it?  Now you look at it and you go, “Oh my God!  If I had the foresight to keep the King Kong Empire State Building it’d be a half a million dollars at auction.  Steven Spielberg paid over sixty thousand for the Rosebud Sled and that was in the 80’s, so I can’t imagine what he’d probably pay to get his hands on the Empire State Building from the original King Kong.

Sam:  When you joined the cast of My Three Sons it was during a period of great change with William Frawley and Tim Considine both leaving the series around the same time.

Barry:  No.  They were both still there.  I was a friend next door.  I was Ernie, but I was not a member of the family yet.  I was brought on as Chip’s friend who was a neighborhood kid and I was brought on for a season when Tim Considine, the original first son, and William Frawley were still on the show.  The next season was when they both departed the show.  Tim departed because he wanted to work on other projects and William Frawley because he was just to ill to continue.

Sam:  Was there any sort of change in dynamics with all the boys having to grow up a notch, or was it just business as usual?

Barry:  For me it wasn’t, because I was on the set a lot as just the friend or my brother’s brother, so they knew me and they knew I was working and that I was an actor.  But it was probably a little more of a strain when William Frawley had to leave and William Demerast replaced him, because they did have a little cross over time where Frawley came back to do a few episodes to explain his character leaving and William Demerast was going to come in.  It was hard for Frawley because he didn’t want to leave.  He was not well enough to continue, and they couldn’t insure him so they had no choice, but he was not going on his own accord.  They were asking him to step aside and Frawley and Deamerest, for forty or fifty years prior to that, had been somewhat rivals.  I don’t know how friendly they were personally.  I didn’t get the sense they were great friends.  They were professional, but there was a little bit of tension.

Fred McMurray with Barry Livingston on “My Three Sons – “He was involved creatively with the show, and loved working with all the kids, but wasn’t open to inviting anybody from the show, let alone the kids, to his house as an extension to the paternal relationship on the show”

Sam:  Of course I have to ask about Fred McMurray.  What was he like to work with?

Barry:  Well, he was very professional and he was already a big star before My Three Sons, so it wasn’t like his moment of fame was just unfolding.  It was business to him, I thought.  He was involved creatively with the show, and loved working with all the kids, but wasn’t open to inviting anybody from the show, let alone the kids, to his house as an extension to the paternal relationship on the show.  It was a job.  He loved it, but he punched the clock in at eight am and punched out at five, and that was the way he looked at it.  It was another great credit in an incredible career.  He was a genial warm guy.  He wasn’t comfortable being a celebrity.  I don’t think he liked the fame part of it and that he’d rather have been fishing or hiking or camping with his family.

Sam:  You played Ernie, but were you actually like Ernie?

Barry:  To a degree I was.  To a degree I wasn’t.  I was probably somewhat precocious.  I was probably a little above average in intelligence.  I was kind of perceptive.  But I also, particularly as the show evolved and I was getting older, my interests were broader, but Ernie was a fictitious character.  I became much more involved in rock n’ roll and wanted to grow my hair long and become part of the wild scene and go to rock concerts, and none of that was ever done on My Three Sons.  It kind of maintained its very wholesome 1950’s feeling.  The biggest problem was that Ernie didn’t have a date for the prom or his science project was going to be late or his bicycle tire blew up.  Those were the kind of problems Ernie was having.  “How can I get laid this weekend” was more on Barry’s mind and I doubt Ernie ever thought about that.

Sam:  So when you went out in public did you find that people you encountered had a hard time differentiating between you and Ernie.

Barry:  That’s an adjustment, because I was having to deal with people thinking they know you and they don’t really know you.  It’s confusing enough to grow up to be thirteen or fourteen years old and going to middle school and trying to establish your identity of who you are and that I’m not really this guy who is obsessed with science projects.  It was an interesting sort of dichotomy that probably leads to a lot of identity crisis for even adult actors.  They start to believe in the myth of a character they played, and they’re not.  They are much more complex then that.  It’s an interesting thing to have that thrust on you during a period of your life when you’re most uncertain of who you are and where you’re going anyways.  That was different.  Again, I wasn’t real comfortable with being pointed out and fawned over, at school anyway.  I wanted to fit in.  I didn’t want to be the object of everybody’s adoration or scorn, and you’d get both in that kind of a setting.

Sam:  How old were you when My Three Sons ended?

Barry:  It was on for twelve years and I was on it for eight.  I was eighteen years old when it ended.

Sam:  Those late episodes of My Three Sons are kind of strange.  There aren’t very many sons left, and the series sort of morphed into something totally alien to what it was when it began.  Do you feel the writers lost their focus

Barry:  I think they were trying to elongate the story and stretch out the show when it’s best years were probably the early and middle years – the freshness of the original concept of a single father raising his boys in an all male household.  There was no Donna Reed or Barbara Billingsley.  It was a challenge for a single Dad with Bub, a crusty old Uncle, as being the nurturing nanny.  Those presented a lot of problems.  As the boys got older, they no longer needed Dad’s council.  The show was always built around a problem and then Fred McMurray would very cleverly guide us towards the way to solve the problem, but he would always let the boy think he solved the problem himself.  Once we were getting older and losing what the show was all about, the show was moving forward, but not with that same clear eyed focus that it had in its early years, and there were daughters, and daughters in laws, and triplets, and it was constructed to keep going and it went for twelve years, so it did pretty well.

Sam:  Your acting credits on the imdb are incredible and, out of the My Three Sons cast, you are probably the most prolific when it comes to still working in television and film.  You haven’t really stopped acting.

Barry:  I’ve been very lucky that I have had employment in all the decades since My Three Sons went off the air, and I haven’t done anything but act for a living.  I feel very fortunate that way.  Even at times that it got a little lean I was off doing theater in New York, or around the country.  Acting has always been the source of my livelihood and it continues to be today.

Sam:  When My Three Sons finished, what did you do next?

Barry:  I did another series after My Three Sons for a while called Sons and Daughters.  It lasted half a season.  It was a major project for CBS.  It was right after American Graffiti came out, and American Graffiti was all lights and malt shops.  Kind of a funny take of the 1950’s.  Sons and Daughters was about the 1950’s, but it was a very serious take on the 50’s, which was not the way people wanted to remember the 50’s.  They wanted to remember it as Happy Days, which came out the same year as [Sons and Daughters] did.  Happy Days zoomed to the top of the ratings, and Sons and Daughters, for all its quality, was an hour long drama but wasn’t what people wanted.  Richard Donner directed the pilot and some of the episodes.  It had very good writers and actors.  After that, I decided that I was going to go to New York and I worked on stage for a while, and did some Broadway.

Sam:  You’ve been on a lot of my favorite TV series over the last few years such as Greys AnatomyMad MenCrossing Jordan and The West Wing, as well as made an appearance in The Social Network last year.  Out of the high profile stuff you’ve done over the last few years, what stands out as being the roles that your most happy with.

Barry:  Well, being in The Social Network was great fun to do because I knew it was going to be a great project.  I’d worked with David Fincher on Zodiac and some other projects.  I knew I was coming into a real high quality piece of work.  That was great, and it turned out to be way more then anything ever dreamed.  Winning three Oscars and being nominated for best picture, and winning best picture for the Golden Globes. That was very cool.  Working on Two and a Half Men with Charlie Sheen was kind of fun.  I know his family a little bit.  His Dad, Martin Sheen guest starred on My Three Sons early on.  I’d never worked with Charlie before, but he was a gas.  That was fun.

Sam:  Okay.  I am going to have to ask about Charlie Sheen.  Charlie has obviously made a lot of headlines this year.  He’s one of 2011’s most fascinating people, although for all the wrong reasons.  What was your personal experience, or take, on Charlie Sheen?

Barry:  I only knew him on the set, and I didn’t hang with him off the set.  That’s the problem is that people are getting down on Charlie for his actions off the set.  Charlie has been Charlie for twenty five years.  I’m sure that is what flipped Charlie out.  That’s my guess.  I don’t know.  Charlie’s whole life has been a big party, his whole life and suddenly it became an issue.  Why it became an issue?  I don’t know.  I think that in the back of his mind he was going, “Why now?  Why is CBS and the producers turning on me now?”  I can understand his frustration and him going ballistic the way he did, but that was a very unusual situation – that you see a back story feud between producers and the network come to the forefront and you don’t hear about those things.  I think for him, he just went, “I don’t get it.”  On the set Charlie showed up, he knew his lines, he was funny, people were trying to get him an Emmy and that was my experience with him.  He was a total professional.  He showed up, he knew his lines, he was friendly to all the other actors.  He was friendly to me.  But off the set, whatever was going on the network had to call him out on it and I think it freaked him out.

Barry Livinston reunites with Stan Livingston and Don Grady at a TV Land event in 2003.

Sam:  Your next film is a real departure from anything you’ve done before.  You’re going to be appearing in Hostel: Part III.

Barry:  If you like those kind of movies, and I had a natural inclination to say that I don’t like those kind of movies, and I’m not a big horror movie fan and I don’t like gratuitous violence and everything I’ve heard about those movies, and then of course my kids went “No, no, those movies are great!  You’ve got to see them!”  Reluctantly I watched them and I was shocked at how well they are done.  They are what they are and if you like a shocking horror film with a horrific situation that you never want to be in then that’s the movie for you.  But I was actually very pleasantly surprised to see that they are well made films, and the acting in them and everything about them are terrific.  A friend of mine was directing and producing and writing this one and I wouldn’t say no to a friend anyways, but it was easier to say yes because it was good.  I play one of the nasty killers in this film.  Some people might get a warped kick out of seeing Ernie do these things to people, but its Barry Livingston just doing another part.

Sam:  Back in the 1960’s you often faced typecasting as the brainy kid.  These days you play a lot of doctors, psychiatrists, business men and straight roles.  You’ve become a niche actor again.  Does that bother you?

Barry:  No.  Not in the slightest.  It’s good to have a niche.  You’re lucky to have any kind of employment these days.  Things are a little bit tenuous and up in the air in what’s happening in the industry.  It seems to be shrinking daily, and being fragmented by the internet and facebook and video games.  To have a little niche isn’t a bad thing.Finding his own niche in the competitive and often grueling industry of show business has truly paid off for Barry Livingston.  Few former child actors are able to make it as an adult, and even fewer maintain a career as constant and as successful as Barry Livingston has.  By just the small selection of stories that Barry shared with me, it is obvious that his new book, The Importance of Being Ernie, will to offer a unique perspective of the entertainment industry, from the early classic days of television to today’s modern entertainment enterprises.  To order an advance copy of Barry Livingston’s book click here.  Also, make sure to visit Barry’s web-site at http://theimportanceofbeingernie.com/index.html . and stay tuned to this space for more information and reviews once The Importance of Being Ernie hits shelves in October.

POP CULTURE ADDICT NOTE:  Special thanks to Barry’s real life brother StanleyLivingston for helping to arrange this interview with Barry Livingston. 

About the author

Since 2013, Sam Tweedle has been writing as an arts and culture journalist for kawarthaNOW, with special attention to Peterborough's theatrical community. However, his career as an arts writer goes back further via his website Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict where Sam has interviewed some of the entertainment world's most notable and beloved entertainers. Sam's pop culture writing has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, The National Post, CNN.com, Filmfax Magazine and The New Yorker. You can follow Sam on Instagram at sam_tweedle_z where he posts about his four greatest loves: cats, comic books, movies, and records. Sam no longer uses Twitter because, as far as he's concerned, it's no longer a thing.