The Importance of Being Ernie: From My Three Sons to Mad Men, a Hollywood Survivor Tells All

The Importance of Being Ernie: From My Three Sons to Mad Men, a Hollywood Survivor Tells All

by Barry Livingston


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A true Hollywood survivor, Barry Livingston is one of the few child stars who turned early success into a lifelong career. As "Ernie" on the 1960s sit-com My Three Sons—which also featured his real-life brother Stanley as "Chip"—Barry become instantly recognizable for his horn-rimmed glasses and goofy charm. Five decades later, after working on TV shows like Mad Men and Desperate Housewives, and in feature films like Zodiac and The Social Network, Barry Livingston is one actor who knows The Importance of Being Ernie. . .

In this fascinating and funny memoir, Barry reveals his most unforgettable anecdotes: Working on set with Fred McMurray, Ozzie and Harriet, Lucille Ball and Dick Van Dyke. Riding a limousine with Elvis Presley. Trying to upstage Ron "Opie" Howard. Even shooting a Superbowl beer commercial with Brad Pitt. At first, Barry's lazy eye and horn-rimmed glasses nearly derailed his career, getting him kicked off his first major film starring Paul Newman. Eventually, his "nerdy" look became his biggest asset, landing Barry a recurring role on Ozzie & Harriet and a regular part on My Three Sons. Fifty years later, Barry is still going strong—from the stage and small screen to to featured film roles opposite Adam Sandler and Robert Downey, Jr.. Like most Hollywood actors, Barry experienced some incredible highs and lows along the way, but he never gave up. "I've been around half a century," he affirms. "And I'm not going away." This is how one child star beat the odds and survived the dark side of the Hollywood dream factory—with charm, wit, determination. . .and big horn-rimmed glasses. This is The Importance of Being Ernie.

Barry Livingston has been a professional actor on stage and screen for more than fifty years. Best known for his role as "Ernie" on the long-running TV program, My Three Sons, Livingston continues to appear regularly in feature films and television shows. He is married with two children, and lives in Los Angeles.

Praise For The Importance Of Being Ernie

"This wryly told saga of a child star who miraculously avoided the crash-and-burn fate of so many of the once-famous. . . an engaging tale of the unusual life of a humorous, modest, and observant man. Barry Livingston delivers a frank and funny tale of TV, movies, and family life." —Brent Maddock, co-author of Tremors and Short Circuit

"For a child star, he's almost normal. This poor kid had to sit on William Frawley's lap; we're lucky he's not on a roof with a rifle. . .. Barry is one of those rare child stars who grew up to become an accomplished adult actor. Having logged fifty years in show business, working with everyone from Lucille Ball and Jack Benny to Brad Pitt and Robert Downey, Jr., he's got a great story to tell." —Paul Jackson, Producer Charmed and Sliders.

"I have known Barry Livingston since he was nine years old. He always made me laugh. Now he's kept me awake reading his wonderful autobiography. There's a lot of talent in those size eight shoes." —Gene Reynolds, director of TV's M.A.S.H.and Promised Land

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806535098
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 11/01/2011
Pages: 262
Product dimensions: 5.84(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.98(d)

About the Author

Barry Livingston has been a professional actor on stage and screen for more than fifty years. Best known for his role as “Ernie” on the long-running TV program, My Three Sons, Livingston continues to appear regularly in feature films and television shows. He is married with two children, and lives in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt


Birth of a Nerd

I was born in Hollywood, December 17, 1953. My first home was located in the heart of town on Formosa Avenue, north of Santa Monica Boulevard. This is the city that gave birth to world-famous studios, Paramount, Columbia, and 20th Century-Fox, and we were living a half block away from one of the best dream factories, the Samuel Goldwyn Studios.

One of my earliest memories is walking with my mother past the Goldwyn lot, a fortress-like compound with high walls and guarded gates. I was just three years old and fascinated by the place. It reminded me of a fort, specifically the cavalry outpost that I saw on my favorite TV show, Rin-Tin-Tin. The series featured Rusty, a young army mascot, and his beautiful German shepherd, Rin-Tin-Tin. I wanted a life like Rusty's, living in a fort with a really cool dog.

I was in awe of the studio's big iron gates, which would open up for only a few lucky people. I couldn't help but wonder, What could be happening behind those massive barriers that was so important that it required guards to keep out the common rabble? My mom said she'd heard that the Samuel Goldwyn Studio is where they actually filmed Rin-Tin-Tin, and then I understood: important activities really were going on inside the "fort." I wanted to go inside, badly.

Without a doubt, my parents stoked my interest in movies. Not intentionally, though. I absorbed cinema history through osmosis because my mom and dad talked about it with such love and knowledge. They owned two theaters in Baltimore during the 1930s and 1940s, and saw every film ever released in those decades, over and over. The film bug infected their blood, and when I was born, it became part of my DNA, too.

According to family lore, my dad inherited the theaters from his father who was a bookie, who acquired the cinemas as payoff from a debtor. The story of how my parents met is even more colorful. My dad hired my mother to work at one of his theaters located on The Block, an infamously seedy part of town. Her job wasn't ticket-taker or usher. My mom was a "fan dancer" like the famous stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee. Not your average mom and pop.

Back in the era, the theater business was open night and day, presenting films and live entertainment. There were multiple showings of the A movie — the main event — and the B movie, making it a double feature. They also screened newsreels, short subjects, and cartoons, and live entertainers performed between the films. Comedians, singers, and of course, fan-dancers would trot out to charm the rowdy crowd, mostly troops on leave and the local down-and-outers.

By all accounts, the routines of fan-dancers were tame compared to the nude pole-dancers of today. Mom dressed in a one-piece bathing suit and hid behind giant peacock feathers, strutting around the stage and flashing a little skin to the beat of a drum. It's creepy to think of your mother doing such things, but it's kind of cool, too, for its shock value if nothing else.

After the war ended, a little invention called television got very popular, and attendance at the movies nose-dived. The independent theaters couldn't compete. They became dying relics of a lost world and faded away like the dinosaurs ... and fan-dancers. In 1949, my parents unloaded the family business and headed for Hollywood, hoping for a new start.

My mom and dad never lost their love of films, though. After watching a movie, my parents would rattle off the names of practically every actor we'd just seen. Not just the stars, they knew the names of every supporting actor, too.

My dad would say things like, "Bogart was okay, but Sidney Greenstreet stole the movie."

My mom would counter, "Honestly, I think Ward Bond is sexier than Bogart!"

Ward Bond? Sidney Greenstreet? Better than Bogart? Their list of unheralded actors went on and on: Frank Morgan, Edward Everett Horton, Billie Burke, Sam Jaffe, William Bendix. Some of these actors were fat, bug eyed, or jolly, while others were frail, pompous, or morose. The one thing they all had in common: character. You could tell my parents loved these guys for their oddball personalities and quirky looks. That impressed me. Being a character actor seemed like something to aspire to.

During our first few years in Hollywood, we weren't living like ex–movie moguls from Baltimore. It was a paycheck above poverty level. Our rented two-bedroom cottage on Formosa Avenue was so shabby and old that it nearly collapsed in an earthquake that hit Long Beach, a hundred miles away.

We were eating dinner, and the ground started to sway. My parents, East Coast "rookies," were kind of giddy at first. The shaking wasn't as bad as they'd heard. Then the quake grew stronger as the walls buckled and light fixtures swayed.

My mom hissed, "Hilliard, what's happening? What are we supposed to do?"

Nobody knew what was coming next. My dad finally said, "I think we're supposed to get in a doorway."

I don't recall any of us moving an inch. We just sat in our breakfast nook, peering through a big picture window, half expecting to see a swarm of locusts or a biblical flood. It was pitch-black outside, and I saw my family's ghostly reflections vibrating in the shaking glass. As the ground settled, I sensed that mysterious forces were loose in the world. It was unpredictable, scary, and kind of fun, too.

The fun ended fast, though, once we saw that our shack was shaken off its foundation. The landlord was in no hurry to fix it, either, and our future slipped from bleak to dire. The pressure to rescue the family was on my dad. My mother often said he was a genius. Troubled genius would have been a better description.

My father suffered from a paralyzing inferiority complex, perhaps the result of too much pressure applied by his parents, Jewish immigrants. It may sound like a cliché, but all their children had to be high achievers ... or die. My dad certainly had the potential to excel; he entered NYU at age sixteen as the designated family lawyer. After four years, he finished the law program but was too young to take the bar exam. He decided to switch majors and become a psychologist, another parental-approved profession. Not long after that, he focused on foreign languages, becoming fluent in French and Spanish.

My dad devised a pretty clever plan: keep switching majors so you never get a degree in anything; that way you'll never have to get a real job and be judged.

Eventually, my father found a better way to escape everyone's expectations. When his dad died, he abandoned college altogether and assumed the job of running the movie theaters. With one ingenious stroke, he became a hero for saving the family business, while forever avoiding a college graduation day. Thus, he became the "promising genius" in perpetuity. It was the bane of his life.

Despite all his hang-ups, my mother never gave up hope on my dad and a brighter future. She had met him when she was sixteen, after running away from her dreary home in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. He seemed like a knight in shining armor, with his good looks and sterling academic reputation. She was going to be the "woman behind the great man." Over time, when she realized she'd invested in a flawed "diamond," her disappointment grew.

Now that our earthquake-damaged house in Hollywood was tilting like the leaning Tower of Pisa, my mother wanted the "great man" to get off his butt and do something about it. She wanted action, and fast. Doing anything, let alone doing it fast, wasn't my father's style. Apathy was his middle name. That might explain why he chose to work as a salesman at Charles Furniture in South Central Los Angeles, a job he held his entire life.

My dad inspected our battered home and seemed unfazed. Even the hole in our living room ceiling wasn't too bad. He said, "Let's just stay here and try to get the landlord to repair the place."

My mother flipped. She said, "If you want to stay here, with the cracked walls and hole in the roof, you are nuts! I'll be goddamned if I'm staying!" She swore like a drunken sailor. Most ex–fan dancers do.

Somehow my mom scraped up the money to rent a dinky duplex on Wilcox Avenue in Hollywood and even arranged for movers to haul our secondhand furniture. As we vacated the shack on Formosa, my sullen dad followed us like a sad puppy, tail between his legs.

We didn't live in our new duplex for very long, though. The place turned out to be a bigger dump than the shack. Worse yet, it was infested with roaches. This was no big deal to my dad; nothing a couple cans of Raid couldn't fix. Mom flipped, again, and we hauled our meager belongings across the street into our new apartment home on Wilcox. This turned out to be a great move because the building was crawling with kids. This is where my life really got interesting.


Wild on Wilcox

Hours after moving into our apartment home, my older brother, Stan, and I made a slew of new pals: Ray Canada, oldest kid in the building and de facto leader; the two obese brothers, Russell and John Hare; Alan Nickoletti; and Gary DiMeo. The street was alive with handball games in the parking lot, rubber-band gunfights, and knuckle-bruising swordfights with sticks.

Music echoed through the building, too. Ray Canada's family blared Italian operas; the Hares were big Four Seasons fans; and Alan Nickoletti's dad, a music teacher, played polka tunes nonstop on his accordion. Old man Nickoletti even sold my mom a used upright piano and a ukulele, hoping to drum up some students. We never took any lessons, but that didn't stop my brother and me from banging on the piano like a couple of deranged Little Richards.

Basically, the neighborhood was poor working class. Because everyone's parents worked all day, the kids living at the apartment building ran wild in an unsupervised jungle. It's where I honed my street survival skills, especially while pulling our juvenile pranks.

One of our gang's favorite stunts was bombarding passing cars with water balloons. On more than one occasion, an enraged driver would hop out of his vehicle and chase us. Being the youngest, I was always at the rear of the pack, just out of reach of some cursing, sopping-wet maniac.

Another favorite practical joke was to mold a hand out of clay, paint the wrist blood red, like the whole meathook had just been severed, and attach it to somebody's doorknob. The real fun began when somebody, usually me, would pound on the door and run away. From our hiding place, we'd watch some unsuspecting old biddy open the door and discover the gruesome bloody mitt. If she screamed, so much the better. Mission accomplished.

Our gang also loved combing local construction sites for metal pipes to be used as swords and metal slugs from electrical outlet boxes. The round slugs were like real coins and could be used to buy baseball cards or candy among the local kids.

Occasionally, our raiding party encountered real danger on our treasure hunts. On one such adventure a rottweiler security dog cornered Stan, Ray Canada, and me on the third floor of a partially built apartment building. The only way to escape was to jump, which is what Stan did. He landed in a huge pile of sand twenty feet below and laughed like a madman, thrilled by his daring aerial escape. He waved for me to join him, but I couldn't do it. The snapping dog was scary as hell, but the thought of falling three stories was more terrifying.

A crusty old security guard appeared on the scene, cursing and waving his flashlight like a hot-white laser beam. I knew I had to jump now, but I still couldn't budge. Our gang's sworn motto was based on the Marines' credo, "Never leave one of your own behind." With that solemn vow in mind, Ray Canada latched on to my arm and yanked me off the building's scaffolding.

I was suddenly surrounded by a silky, soft nothingness. As the song says: "Falling feels like flying ... for a little while." I landed hard on the mountain of wet sand, which knocked the air out of my lungs. I gasped to catch my breath, but thankfully nothing was broken. We rolled off the hill and ran for our lives as the security guard and dog both howled at us from above.

Halloween was also an especially fun time on Wilcox Avenue. It was a little dangerous, too, because roving gangs of trick-or-treaters were armed with pirate swords and fake rifles with hard plastic bayonets. A squad of teenage G.I. Joe's pursued me five city blocks to steal my booty of candy, which I refused to hand over. I thought I was going to get away, too, as I scaled a chainlink fence. Unfortunately, my Zorro cape got caught on the metal barbs at the top of the fence. I hung there, in my black mask and beautiful gaucho hat, and took a beating like a piñata until some adults rescued me.

The local city park at Cahuenga and Santa Monica was another childhood hangout. It had a huge, overly chlorinated swimming pool that my dad called the Cold Pool. Even in the dead of summer, the water felt like we were flailing around in the North Sea.

Our neighborhood gang was also within striking distance of Hollywood Boulevard and its dozens of movie theaters. Most Saturdays we'd head up there to catch a triple-feature of horror flicks, movies like The Brain Eaters,A Bucket of Blood, and Pit and the Pendulum. Anything that starred Vincent Price was a must-see. Also, the Ray Harryhausen epics like Jason and the Argonauts and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad were mind-boggling cinematic achievements in our book.

Our favorite old movie palace was the Pix Theater. It had a great balcony that was perfect for bombarding the patrons seated below with candy. Every time a movie veered into a boring love scene, Good & Plenty licorice would fly. It was during one of our visits to the Pix to see The Raven that I became aware of a portly, bug-eyed actor named Peter Lorre. He was the geekiest actor I'd ever seen starring in a movie. I was impressed.

I'd seen other oddball characters on TV like Wally Cox in Mr. Peepers and Froggy from The Little Rascals. There was something about Peter Lorre, though, a quirky charisma that nobody else possessed. His sad round face made him look like a wide-eyed Boston terrier. You couldn't take your eyes off him. I also found that I could mimic his nasal eastern European dialect, which really scored points with my pals. That peer group approval surprised and pleased me. It opened my eyes to something amazing: I possessed a talent. Who knew? An acting seed was sown.

Another actor who made a big impression on me was Vincent Price, Lorre's acting partner in a number of Roger Corman horror films. Price was such a refined and giddy sadist. Come to think of it, he was a pretty odd duck, too. Perhaps the term "elegant nerd," would be the best way to describe him.

Price starred in a film that I saw over and over again, forever scarring my young psyche. The flick was called House on Haunted Hill. While Price scared the hell out of everyone on screen, the theater owner rigged a skeleton on a wire and pulled it above the audience during a few tense moments, adding to the terror. The movie industry was desperate to lure audiences away from their TVs, and no campy trick was ruled out.

Naturally, kids who'd already seen the film came armed and prepared for the skeleton on their second viewing. As soon as the bag of bones came flying out from the theater's wings, it was pelted by a barrage of Milk Duds, Rollo Bars, and, of course, Good & Plenty. The poor people seeing the movie for the first time got two shocks: the terrifying entrance of the flying skeleton as well as a hailstorm of hard candies. Good times.

We found another activity on the boulevard after the city installed a new sidewalk, the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Once the concrete dried, it was slick as ice and great for roller-skating. My brother and I would head up there late at night accompanied by our huge sheep dog, Patchy. We'd put on our skates, attach two leashes to the dog's collar, and yell, "Mush," just like we'd seen Sergeant Preston do with his dog, Yukon King, on another TV favorite, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.

Patchy would haul ass down the boulevard like a galloping Clydesdale, and we'd roll right behind her, trying to keep our balance. If one of your steel skate wheels hit even the smallest pebble, it would stop on a dime and you'd go face forward, getting dragged across the "stars in concrete" by our sprinting dog.

My first public school was at the Vine Street Elementary School. Besides learning the alphabet and basic math, we were also taught to do "drop and cover" exercises in case the Russians attacked Hollywood with an A-bomb. My teacher was deadly serious about it, too. She'd be facing the chalkboard, calmly scribbling an arithmetic problem, and suddenly whirl around to face the class.

"Drop!" she'd scream with her eyes as big as mushroom clouds.

Having been conditioned to instantly respond to her command, we'd fall out of our chairs and cram our five-year-old bodies under our wooden tables with our heads to the floor, butts in the air. This was supposed to protect us from the inevitable hellacious nuclear fireball. It was scary as hell but kind of thrilling, too, and a welcome break from adding and subtracting.


Excerpted from "The Importance of Being Ernie"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Barry Livingston.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
CHAPTER 1 - Birth of a Nerd,
CHAPTER 2 - Wild on Wilcox,
CHAPTER 3 - Swim School and the Big Break,
CHAPTER 4 - A Well-Rounded Performer,
CHAPTER 5 - Working with Legends,
CHAPTER 6 - Memories Are Magic,
CHAPTER 7 - The Top Secret TV Series,
CHAPTER 8 - Moving Up in the World,
CHAPTER 9 - My Six Loves,
CHAPTER 10 - The Amazing TV,
CHAPTER 11 - My Three Sons,
CHAPTER 12 - Ernie Becomes Famous,
CHAPTER 13 - My Pal, Lucille Ball,
CHAPTER 14 - Bub and Uncle Charley,
CHAPTER 15 - Ernie to the Rescue,
CHAPTER 16 - The CBS Years and Fred De Cordova,
CHAPTER 17 - Making a Best Friend, Losing a Best Friend,
CHAPTER 18 - The Times They Are A-Changin',
CHAPTER 19 - My First Girlfriend,
CHAPTER 20 - A Kindred Spirit and Partner in Crime,
CHAPTER 21 - The End Is Here, Now What?,
CHAPTER 22 - Free to Be Me,
CHAPTER 23 - The Well-Rounded Performer Sings and Dances,
CHAPTER 24 - Moving to the Bunker,
CHAPTER 25 - Work After My Three Sons,
CHAPTER 26 - Myrna,
CHAPTER 27 - Meanwhile, Back Home at the Ranch,
CHAPTER 28 - Life Beyond the Camera,
CHAPTER 29 - My First Mentor,
CHAPTER 30 - Starring in a New TV Series,
CHAPTER 31 - The Skin of Our Teeth,
CHAPTER 32 - Back to Los Angeles, Yawn,
CHAPTER 33 - The Slow Slide into Oblivion,
CHAPTER 34 - Love at Long Last,
CHAPTER 35 - Big Changes for One and All,
CHAPTER 36 - The Poison Donut,
CHAPTER 37 - The Darkest Hours,
CHAPTER 38 - Staying Sober with John Cassavetes,
CHAPTER 39 - Finding My Soul Mate During CPR,
CHAPTER 40 - The Worst and the Best,
CHAPTER 41 - Wanted, Again,
CHAPTER 42 - Unwanted, Again,
CHAPTER 43 - Back to the Dinner Theater,
CHAPTER 44 - New Roles,
CHAPTER 45 - A Brave New Nerd,
CHAPTER 46 - My Dad,
CHAPTER 47 - Nerd in the New Millennium,
CHAPTER 48 - A My Three Sons Movie?,
CHAPTER 49 - Embracing Ernie,
CHAPTER 50 - More Top Secret Projects,
CHAPTER 51 - Working with Future Legends,
CHAPTER 52 - Big Love,
CHAPTER 53 - The Social Network,
EPILOGUE - Back to the Autograph Show,
Copyright Page,

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