To generations of fans, Father Knows Best (1954-1960) remains the gold standard of TV family sitcoms. Depicting the everyday trials and tribulations of the fictional Anderson family in the small town of Springfield, the show proved so popular it remains on the air in syndication over half a century after it ceased production, and it is reverently referenced in such subsequent TV shows as The Simpsons and Married…with Children. Actor Billy Gray played Bud, the rebellious, misfit teenage son of Jim and Margaret Anderson (Robert Young, Jane Wyatt) and brother to older sister Betty (Elinor Donahue) and younger sibling Kathy (Lauren Chapin). Writer Steve Uhler caught up with Gray, now 82, at his home in Topanga to talk about his years on Father Knows Best, his days as a child actor, and the drug bust that prematurely ended his career.
You were a very naturalistic child actor. Robert Wise directed you in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and said you were the best he’d ever worked with.
And I gotta thank my mom for that, I’m sure. She was an actress, mostly B-Westerns. She’d drive me to auditions when I was a kid. Later in life, our roles were reversed, and I was driving her to auditions. I started around age 5, and she would read me the lines. I was always just the kid next door or the newsboy…. I did scores of those kinds of things. I didn’t have any lines for several years; I just did bit parts. It wasn’t ’til I was about 10 or 11 that I started getting actual parts that were real characters. About the only instructions I ever got in acting was my mom telling me not to sound like I was reading. And I took that to heart. I tried to avoid sounding like I was reading from a script.
You appeared with a veritable who’s who of Hollywood — Humphrey Bogart, Doris Day, William Holden, Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello. From 1943 to 1955, you were averaging about five films a year — an impressive track record.
It was weird. As a kid, every interview I went on, I got the part. It was phenomenal, very peculiar. You know, if you got one out of 10, you were doing great. As a kid, I was getting 10 out of 10. Until after Father Knows Best. Then it was another story.
Do you remember auditioning for Father Knows Best?
They looked at everybody. Absolutely everybody. My mom actually auditioned for the show, too — but they gave the part to Jane Wyatt. And Jane never really thought she fit the role. She was very aristocratic, went to Barnard College, tea was formal… She wasn’t your average small-town mom and housewife. Did you know she was blacklisted before Father Knows Best? She was on the plane to Washington with Bogart and [Lauren] Bacall and Henry Fonda and a lot of big stars. She went and spoke about the Un-American Activities Committee in a derogatory way, and she didn’t work for a couple of years. That took some balls. Father Knows Best was the first job she got after that.
The first few seasons of the show were a little shaky. It didn’t seem to find its legs for a couple of years.
Yeah. Fortunately, after the first year or two, we got rid of a director, Bill Russell, who was a journeyman guy — he didn’t bring anything to the show, really. Then Peter Tewksbury took over, and Peter Tewksbury was a genius. I’ve never worked with anybody that put more into his work and took the work as seriously as he did. He’d come to the first day with the script just full of notes and camera moves and bits of business, and just completely had it envisioned before we even had a reading. He was good at what he did; he could tell when things were working and when they weren’t. I give him credit for the show being as good as it turned out to be.
The show had a polish and sophistication that was unusual for the time. It looks and feels different from other sitcoms.
Robert Young and Jane Wyatt were movie stars, and we shot the show as if it were a movie — on film, one camera. If a take wasn’t right, we did it again …10 or 12 takes was not unusual. If anything was wrong, we stopped and got it right. And we had good writers. I think all the actors were good enough that it didn’t come across as a sitcom just done for the yocks and the jokes. We had some humor, but what I’m getting at is that we presented ourselves as real people — and so people thought they had a right to use us as a model as to how real people are. And that’s not what it really was.
I know I complained a lot about the dialogue not being how people actually talked in 1959 or whenever it was. I tried to avoid “Golly gee” and “Oh my gosh” and things like that but was never able to. We said the words that were written. The expression “Crazy” was happening at that point in time, being used a lot as an exclamation — you know, “Like, crazy, man!” — and I remember bringing that up. And the joke was, “Well, we don’t want to offend the crazy people.” So I couldn’t use that.
But in hindsight, it was excellent discipline for me that I had to say the words that were on the page. As difficult as it was, it made me find a way to do it that appeared to be relatively normal. That was the trick — to make it look like it was coming out of you and not something that was on the page. The show has endeared me to a lot of blue-haired ladies, that’s for sure. It’s being played right now, somewhere!
Did you do any other film roles during your time on Father Knows Best?
Early on between seasons, I did Seven Little Foys with Bob Hope. He was underrated — and a much better actor than people assume. I had a nice scene with him that was really meaningful, and it worked. His character was a kind of absentee father. We shot a bit where he was coming in to say goodnight or something, and I was in bed. My line to him was, “Just passing through?” It was a great little poignant scene.
I had a couple of scenes like that in my career — just little tiny things that actually worked. Another was with Patricia Neal in The Day the Earth Stood Still — when she says to me, “Oh, you were just dreaming.” And I said, “I never called you a liar,” or words to that effect. That worked really well. A few times you get to do something that you remember that was actually meaningful.
I do have a story about a part I missed out on that in retrospect I realize I probably got lucky with — Rebel Without a Cause. I’d worked with Nick Ray as a kid — I had a scene with Humphrey Bogart in In A Lonely Place. So Ray knew me, and I interviewed for Rebel, did a test, and got the part — the kid that ended up being played by Sal Mineo. We were going to shoot the film during a layoff period from Father Knows Best. We had sets, wardrobe, everything…. Somehow, their shooting schedule got postponed a couple of weeks, but I was committed to the show — and they wouldn’t shoot around me for a couple of weeks. So I missed out on that part. Which may have been a blessing, considering what happened to just about everyone in the cast.
Oh, I just remembered — here’s another part I didn’t get: Get Smart. I interviewed for that — I would’ve been good at that — but Don Adams did pretty good. That would’ve been fun — I could’ve done something with that.
You could play “dim” really well. You were a master at that.
Yeah, that’s easy. I like to do that kind of stuff. I’m good at “not quite getting it.”
You’re also good at playing remorse and regret — there seemed to be real truth there when you conveyed contrition. Did you ever play a scene on Father Knows Best where something bigger than yourself took over — a perfect moment?
I’ve had a couple of occasions where I’ve felt like something happened beyond what I was trying to do. But they’re rare. I had scenes with Robert Young where I allowed a father and son relationship to be existent, maybe only once or twice. Occasionally, a real emotion slips in, like tears. The moment is transcendent. It isn’t just in the normal course of performing. It’s something more. It’s not necessarily all that much better than a successful performance, but there is more of you as a real person in it.
It’s amazing how the face reacts to thoughts. If you just think it, your face will kind of do it by itself. I didn’t really know it at the time, but I think that was my secret; I just thought. I think that’s an element of my own character, basically. That’s pretty much the way I am. I didn’t create Bud, but a lot of me was in Bud, for sure.
You also had a real gift for physical comedy and working props. You would spontaneously grab a piece of food, juggle tools, jump over furniture. Was that scripted, or did you improvise?
Maybe 50/50. I had a little leeway. Like hopping over the Dutch door in the kitchen — that was mine. I think I went over that two or three times. And sliding down the banister. And bits of business with juggling and stuff…. I had some input. But an awful lot of it was Peter.
I felt free in that I knew that if something wasn’t working, Peter would know it, and say, “Stop. Let’s try this instead.” So I felt free to go with my inspiration with what I was doing, and maybe go overboard a little bit. If I didn’t pull it off, it would look awful. And I knew if I didn’t pull it off, he wouldn’t say “Print!” — so I had the freedom of knowing that he wasn’t going to let me look awkward in my attempt. And there wasn’t any kind of big deal about do-overs. That was one of the things that [producer Eugene] Rodney insisted on. “We’re not trying to save money on film here. Don’t settle.” We didn’t settle.
That was rare in those days.
Yeah, exactly! I only found that out after I left the show and started doing other TV stuff — the little that I did. I did enough to know that I’d been one lucky fuck in the production that I had.
I respected the show and the work that we did. I had problems with the ethics of some of the scripts we dealt with, but I couldn’t ask for better working conditions. Everybody was wonderful on the show. It was the happiest set I’ve ever been on. We were all doing something, and we were doing it the best we could. The fact that there was no compromise made it a wonderful place to work.
How much of Bud was the writers, and how much were bits of Billy Gray? Did the writers incorporate aspects of Billy Gray into the character of Bud?
They did do that. One specific example that I know the writers took from my reality is when I brought a pair of bongos to the set. I got to be pretty good, could do a nice little riff. Someone obviously saw me fucking around with them so they wrote a script about me and bongos.
Do you have a favorite episode?
Yeah, I do. There’s one where Jim Franciscus played a gas-station owner and he was courting Elinor, and I had a job as his assistant. It gave me a chance to do some physical comedy, and I enjoyed that. That’s one I remember as being a favorite. I was good at that kind of stuff … it’s more fun than anything to bump into a door! That was great fun.
You really brought layers and nuance to an otherwise two-dimensional fictional TV character. As the show went on and your character evolved, Bud could go a little toward the dark side — deceitful, arrogant, vindictive, sadistic to his sisters, self-centered. But you made him endearing.
They did have him doing some pretty despicable things, yeah. He could be a real jerk. But I just approached it like, “Well, people are despicable. We’re capable of all these ugly traits. That’s part of being human.” I was trying to make this kid as human as is demonstrated every day by everybody else in the world. We are deceptive and selfish. I didn’t try to make it into something it wasn’t. I went for the naiveté of being human. What you do in acting is bring humanity to your character.
How were your relationships with the rest of the cast?
Bob and I never got that close. He was a private person, and I respected that. In fact, I appreciated it. He never tried to be a father to me. Our relationship was professional. He was an actor, I was an actor; we both respected each other. But Jane and I … that was something different. She was a member of the Academy. After the show was over, she’d get invited to a lot of screenings and things, and she would invite me to be “on her arm” for plays and concerts. I’m a huge classical music fan, and her son, who was autistic, played piano. And we had a real bond in the arts.
I enjoyed being with her because she was not a pushover; she had a very sharp wit and didn’t suffer fools. I’ve always been unafraid of backing my opinions, and Jane and I went round and round early on…. She’s Roman Catholic, and I was raised as a Catholic. But I find it’s an abomination — probably responsible for more bloodshed than any other organization in the world. In any event, we went back and forth, and we finally agreed to disagree. Jane would try to convince me, “You’re not an atheist, Billy … you’re an agnostic.” That was her gentle way of smoothing it over. We became best friends. We were close, really close. I was pallbearer at her funeral. She was a great lady. I loved her.
Is it strange to walk into a room and see yourself on TV 50 years ago?
I hardly ever do. In fact, about the only thing of mine I’ve seen on a regular basis is The Day the Earth Stood Still. That’s on TV all the time, and I’ve seen that well over a dozen times. But I hardly ever see Father Knows Best…. I’ve got DVDs of them, but my DVD player doesn’t work. I’d kind of like to see them. But I am sensitive. I can tell when something wasn’t quite right. That’s awkward, when you see yourself acting. It’s not good for your self-image. You realize you missed it, basically.
After a six-year run, the show was canceled in 1960.
It was still in the Top 10, but Young wanted to move on. That was a nice long run at the time. There was a writers’ strike, and a decision was made to capitalize on that. They didn’t make any money on the show while it was in production. So I think at the end of the writers’ strike, they decided, “Well, let’s put it in syndication, play as many reruns as we can, and let’s make some money on this thing.” It still ran in prime time two years after we stopped production!
Looking back, I did good work. I’m proud of that. In fact, I think it hurt me. Of course, the bust ended my career, but even before the bust I think people thought that was the way I was — that I wasn’t acting, that I was just being myself. Like Ricky Nelson was Ricky Nelson. People thought that I wasn’t an actor, that I was just me. And it wasn’t. I’d been smoking grass before I got the show. I was getting high the whole time. Bud wasn’t getting high — but I was.
What were your plans following the cancellation of Father Knows Best? You were a celebrity; you’d been nominated for an Emmy…
I was actually tired of playing that character. And this is where I think I was underestimated as an actor. I wasn’t getting offered anything other than Bud Anderson–type parts. I didn’t get a shot for something like In Cold Blood, which I would’ve been good in. I never got that opportunity.
Let’s talk about the bust. It was 1962, and Father Knows Best had been out of production…
I had a little bag of seeds and stems under the seat of my car. A friend of mine lived out here, and I was saving this little bag of seeds; I thought I’d give it to him so he could plant ’em. Then I forgot about it….
I was in a car trying to park. I don’t think I was having any difficulty…. I parked, and the cops came over. I pulled down the window; they smelled a little odor. Somebody looked under the seat, and there was the baggie. That was the end of it. I didn’t know how to handle it. The way it actually went down was, I pleaded nolo contendere and got one-to-10 suspended. I did 45 days. When I got out, my agent said, “Nope. Can’t handle you anymore.”
Over seeds and stems?
In those days, there wasn’t a distinction. It was drugs. I had a page in the Enquirer saying “He’s Off Drugs — But He’s Still Got to Straighten Out His Life.”
You did get a few parts after the bust. The Navy vs. the Night Monsters in 1966.
My theory was, work begets work. And that’s the only reason I did that.
In 1971, you appeared in a minor cult classic, Dusty and Sweets McGee, which turned out to backfire on you. How did that come about?
Again, my theory of work begets work. The director got in touch with me; I didn’t know him before that. He explained the makeup of the cast — that basically, it was real people who used heroin. The producer and I were the only ones who were actors; he played the importer, and I played the dealer. The rest of the cast were real-life heroin addicts. I kind of looked at myself as being the comic relief in this horrible situation, so I invented this off-the-wall character who’s just ridiculous. I had a pack of cigarettes rolled into my T-shirt sleeve, and my hair was really long at the time, so I made it all greased back — just totally over the top.
I can see how people would look at that performance at the time and think, “Gee, he really is a dope fiend.”
Oh yeah, I saw that coming, and I insisted upon a disclaimer. There’s a black screen at the top of the film that specifically says the importer and the dealer are actors portraying fictitious characters. It made it clear that I wasn’t a user. It was another example of my “work begetting work” theory. But I certainly didn’t get any more work out of that!
Film critic Leonard Maltin made a big mistake when he implied in one of his books that you were a real heroin user.
To be fair to Leonard, I don’t think he ever really saw the movie. I think one of his staff did, and for whatever reason he couldn’t back off. I called him on the phone and said, “You know, I’m not a dope fiend, and you’ve got me here in your book as being a dope fiend.” He wouldn’t retract it. He just stiffed me, basically. I offered to be satisfied with just a removal and maybe an explanation or an apology. But he shined me on, so I sued his ass. His book’s pretty good, actually — kind of a nice reference work. But he was a jerk with me. I gave him an opportunity, a shot at making it right. He probably really thought I was a dope fiend. We settled. I insisted upon a public apology as well. I got it, too. He said, “If any damages were caused, it wasn’t my intent to yadda yadda…” If any damages were caused? Fuck. I was labeled a dope fiend!
Can you talk a little about Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971)? How did you end up in that?
I was kind of desperate for work — and desperate for representation. I went to Dennis, who was a peripheral friend of mine. He was friends with Dean Stockwell and Bobby Driscoll — friends we had in common. And I asked Dennis, “Can you think of someone who can represent me?” He pointed me toward someone, and then said, “Hey, I’m doing this thing in Peru. You wanna come on down?” And at that point, every crazy person in Hollywood was going to Peru to work on Dennis’s movie. There was a lot of blow on that set. And Dennis … well, he was intense.
What a cast. Dennis starring and directing — and Peter Fonda, Michelle Phillips, Sam Fuller, Dean Stockwell, Sylvia Miles, Kris Kristofferson, Russ Tamblyn….
And you barely see any of ’em! Dennis used us as extras! I don’t think I had a single line in that movie. The memory I’ve got of that was we were playing cowboys, and they gave me the horse that reared. I’d done so many cowboy movies as a kid. They trained this horse so when you pulled back on the reins, he’d rear up. Somehow I got that horse, and it was great fun. That was a good movie. Dennis’s cut was great. They fucked it up when they took it away from him.
I had a very meaningful experience in Peru that was unrelated to filming. When I ended up down there in Cusco, I’d heard Machu Picchu was just a two-hour train ride away. Growing up, I’d always seen pictures of Machu Picchu in National Geographic and always wanted to go there. So I took a day off and took the train there. I got there a little late to start the climb. But I just said, “Fuck it. I’m gonna do it anyway.”
So I climbed up to the top of the mountain. And you have to take a lot of switchbacks to get there; it’s tricky. It was a hell of a hard climb. You’re so high up, you’d take two steps and get winded and then sit down. On the way up, I saw a little path that headed off the other way. I had borrowed a sleeping bag and had it with me. And it was getting dark, but for some reason I decided not to spend the night up there. I thought I’d go down the other side and hook up with this trail. I had on leather pants that I’d made and cowboy boots, and it was so steep descending that I was sliding down the hillside. I got to some level ground, and the reeds were twice as tall as I was. I could hear the water from the Urubamba River, and I thought, I’ll get to the river and follow it back to the train station.
I found the river and started heading back in the direction of the train station. And I came to this vertical drop in the river, and the path stopped. So I thought I’d just climb up and over it…. I got up about 100 feet; it was all orchids and vines. So I’m climbing over, and my heart starts pounding. I start thinking, “This could end poorly for me.” It was getting dark; I started panicking … so I went back down looking for a safe place to cross and found a spot in the river that seemed calm. I thought I’ll just take my boots off and swim across. I was just about ready to get in, and on the other side was a lady. She yelled at me, to get my attention — signaling “no, no, don’t do it.” She left, and I spent the night by the river. It was raining, and I slept under a rock.
So I waited. She comes back the next day and she’s got a kid with her, and they try to throw a rope across — but they can’t throw it over to me. So they left and came back with a nylon filament and they tied a weight on it, and they finally got that over to me. I tied the rope around me, and when I ventured out to the middle of the river — whooosh! I was head over heels in the current. If I’d gone across by myself, I never would’ve made it. It was nip ’n’ tuck even with the rope. Oh, yeah … and I saw three different snakes there — all deadly. I dodged a lot of bullets in Peru.
So I get back to the set, and everybody said, “You fuckup! You missed a day’s shooting!”
The whole experience taught me I wasn’t quite as smart or courageous as I thought I should be. I stopped climbing; I didn’t go into the water … it was humbling. It brought me down a peg or two in my own estimation.
In the ’70s, you appeared in a couple of Father Knows Best reunion TV movies.
They were terrible. Done on videotape, not film. It was stupid, a terrible mistake — and everybody knew it, too. At least the cast members did. We all thought it was a bad idea. I don’t even know why Young went along with it. But they did make Bud a motorcycle racer. And they gave him a son.
Do you still get the urge to perform?
I do see work on television and in movies occasionally where I say, “Yeah, that’s worth the effort.” I’ve seen some great performances. Frances McDormand in that movie Olive Kitteridge — she blew me away! She’s amazing. If there was work like that out there, I’d like to do it. But knowing the conditions … to throw yourself out into the world, take a bunch of interviews and auditions and hope that something like that will come along, it would be kind of an uphill grind to try and pull something like that off at this point.
Going back over the years, you’d occasionally appear on talk shows and reunions with the cast of Father Knows Best, and you often made it a point to voice your ambivalence over appearing in the show.
Ambivalence covers my take on the show — although I have evolved over the years. I’ve received an awful lot of communication from out in the world about how helpful people found Father Knows Best. I always felt that they would inevitably compare their real lives and families to our fictitious ones — and comparison is invidious. We were so good at what we did that we came across as real people. In any event, we were good enough to pull that off. So families had a feeling they could use us as models — and that’s totally unfair to the parents and kids. Being compared to some idealized image that’s well-presented is just wrong. The parents of these kids I’d hear from — who are adults now, of course — they got a raw deal being compared to situations and dialogue that were all created by professionals, by people who were good at their jobs. It wasn’t us. And it certainly wasn’t real life.
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