From Child Star to Man Amongst Jersey Boys
by Ronald Sklar
Character actor Barry Livington has a surprisingly fresh and impressive resume.
Yep, he was Ernie Douglas, the prototype nerd on My Three Sons, back in the day. But it’s a new day, baby: you’ve been seeing him a lot lately, and not just in dusty reruns.
The in-demand character actor has appeared most recently in Jersey Boys, but has also been featured in The Social Network, Argo, and more high-end fare like Adam Sandler’s Don’t Mess With Zohan. On TV, he’s appeared on Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and Two and a Half Men, among many others.
Forget Kevin Bacon — Barry’s been six degrees of all of them, and then some (Sandler is only the start of the list). He’s shared screen time with the likes of Paul Newman (Rally Round The Flag, Boys) to Lucille Ball, Ozzie Nelson and Debbie Reynolds.
The kid-next-store persona did not do too badly for him, and he survived the perilous pitfalls of child acting to bounce into meaty and meaningful adult roles, keeping his groove intact. You may not recognize him without the Ernie glasses, but here he fills us in on what’s been going down, career-wise. And now you know.
How was the Jersey Boys experience?
The most interesting and amazing thing is getting to work with Clint Eastwood. That was quite special because he’s such a unique and iconic figure. He’s very calm and, as expected, he works efficiently. He’s a professional and he knows what he wants. He gets what he wants and then he moves on. He’s very approachable. He’s right there with you, standing next to the camera. It’s kind of an old-school thing, [for him] to watch your performance.
He doesn’t say “action” or “cut.” When we start a scene, Instead of “action,” he says, “Whenever you’re ready,” in a very Dirty Harry voice. That was fun. It was very pleasant, the whole thing.
Do people recognize you from the work you do currently, or do they recognize you as Ernie from My Three Sons?
A little of both. I don’t look a lot like I did during My Three Sons, but yeah, that happens. It’s about 60/40, maybe. I think if anything, people may have seen me in something, and then they learn that I was in My Three Sons, so it all ties together nicely now.
How has the entertainment business changed from the days when you were a child actor?
Content is the main thing. The audience expects a lot more authenticity. Everything you see on screen, in terms of relationships, action, sex, it’s so much more in your face.
In terms of the actual process, for me as an actor, it’s not that much different, frankly. The process is still pretty much the same.
You’ve worked with some of the all-time greats throughout your life. Have you picked up acting technique from them?
Yes, starting with Ozzie Nelson, who probably was my first acting coach. The big lesson that he imparted to me was “look at the other person, and listen to what they are saying.” Listen to that person, and then respond. That’s what acting is. That’s pure acting. Just listen to the other person.
As I grew older, I studied acting with a lot of people, not just on the set, but in my private life. I studied with Martin Landau for a couple of years, and people from The Actors’ Studio. I love acting, and I love to watch actors.
You’ve head an incredible career as a character actor, but were there times when work was slow in coming?
It wasn’t one spectacular climb to the heights of where I am right now. I worked pretty regularly for about seven or eight years. And then, inexplicably, as it happens, the work just goes away. That is due to whatever: tastes had changed. Every year, they are always looking for somebody new. Maybe I was just associated with a different era.
My early work was rooted in the Fifties and Sixties. By the time I was in my 20s, it was the Seventies. Tastes had changed and people were looking for new types of faces. I found myself struggling. I did a lot of theater at that time, but it was a natural progression for me. I was very interested in Broadway and New York. I moved to New York and lived there and worked on Broadway. I wasn’t in the white-hot light of Hollywood, but I was still plying my craft and learning and having fun and getting paid for it.
That’s not to say that there weren’t moments where I was in despair or angry or rejected or frustrated, but I tried to channel that into trying to come back in some way, to prove to people that I have talent, to be useful in some way. I took a lot of different roles along the way. With time, it snowballed into a recognition of my talent. Fortunately, I’ve been working in some nice projects like The Social Network and Argo.
It was so sad to learn that your TV brother from My Three Sons, Don Grady, had recently passed.
He was a great guy. He was my big brother. He turned me on to a lot of things: music, The Beatles, playing guitar. He was such a creative force. It was really tragic to lose him so young.
You started on My Three Sons after it had been on the air for a while, and once it was established as a TV staple. Was it difficult for you to hit the ground running?
I came into the show about a third of the way into its run. The show lasted 12 years. I came in around the third or fourth year. [My character] was living next door before I was a son. It was like I was in Triple A ball and went to the major leagues. I knew everybody before I came. [Barry’s brother, Stanley Livingston, was already a regular “son” on the series]. I had done a lot of acting, a lot of big feature films. It was like stepping into a nice Rolls Royce.
During the course of the series’ run [The Sixties], the world — and eventually TV programming itself — had changed intensely, but the show remained insular, safe and sweet. Was there ever any move to make the show more relevant, topical and harder-edged?
The younger people – Stan, my brother, who played Chip, me, and Don [Grady], definitely – were more painfully aware of how out of step the show seemed and what we were experiencing in our own personal lives. But the producers held fast. In some ways, they were right in not trying to make the show more topical and relevant and more controversial. It really appealed to Middle America. They weren’t as radical and as fast as places like LA, New York or San Francisco. So I would go back to public school and grow my hair long and smoke pot. If you didn’t, it was odd. That was just part of my era of growing up.
Coming back from school to shoot the series, we would pressure the producers. Things were changing. People actually do have sex. There are things in the world that we are not addressing. But when you look back, you see that it would have been totally wrong. It would have jarred the audience. People wanted to watch All in the Family and Maude, but My Three Sons was still very popular when it was canceled in 1972.
The pilot was shot in 1959 and it premiered in 1960. It was very relevant in its early years, with a single parent and the novel idea of a household of just men. It was during an era when everybody expected a nuclear family, like on The Donna Reed Show. My Three Sons was a house that was in a little more disarray. That was a novel idea, but it was pretty quaint by the time you get to 1969 or 1970.
What do you think it was about you that made you such a successful child actor?
I had kind of nice, relaxed persona. I look at my early work now and I say, “wow, I’m just standing there, taking it all in.” And then I lay down the punchline.
I was one of the first kids on television who wasn’t the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, beautiful little child. I was a little more ragged and rough around the edges. I wore glasses and my hair was not coiffed in the most wonderful way. I had the Moe Howard bowl cut. All of those things combined to make me what kids really were in some ways, an average kid.
What goes through your mind when you see child stars today?
It’s a tough business. When you are a teenager, that’s when you make all your mistakes. You make your biggest mistakes usually when you’re young. Unfortunately now, the media and social networking has become so lopsided and so gargantuan in its appetite to focus in on everybody’s smallest little mistakes.
If you’re young and get a DUI, which happens to kids, it usually happens out of the spotlight. But if you’re famous and have a lot of money, it becomes a very spectacular headline.
I feel bad for some of those kids, because frankly I made a lot of mistakes myself. I didn’t do anything harmful to anybody, but I was pushing the envelope too. That what kids do. But I was lucky enough never to have any incident.
I feel bad for the kids today to be under that kind of pressure. I think some of those kids, even without the fame, would have had issues. People like to focus on the fact that “well, of course, they’re famous, and that led to their demise.” That could be true to some degree, but there could be something wired into their personality regardless of how famous they are.
Away from the lights, how has your life been treating you?
Still married. We’ve been together since ’80 and married in ’83. The same woman. Happily married. My kids are getting older. My wife and I play music together. We have a band. Sometimes the kids join us because they’re both musicians. I also like to read and write. I did write a book, called The Importance of Being Ernie. And I’m working on some other projects.