Richard Crenna, who gained fame on television's Our Miss Brooks and The Real McCoys comedies -- only to go on to become one of the big screen's finest dramatic actors -- died Friday, January 17, 2003, of pancreatic cancer. He was 75. Lucyfans, of course, remember Crenna as the awkward teenager, Arthur Morton, who falls in love with Lucy Ricardo in the first-season I Love Lucy episode, "Young Fans" (see photo, left). Ironically, Crenna's death came one day shy of the 51st anniversary of that program's filming (January 18, 1952).
Janet Waldo, a longtime personal friend, played opposite Crenna in I Love Lucy as teen Peggy Dawson. "It was always fun to work with Dick," Janet told the press at the time of his death. "He was just an absolutely magnificent actor -- and the kind of guy everybody wanted to be with."
Waldo was instrumental in getting Crenna to appear at our "Loving Lucy 2001 Convention" (photo, right). He had been invited every year, but always had a prior commitment. When Waldo realized the 2001 bash would be celebrating the 50th anniversary of I Love Lucy, she insisted Dick attend. The two appeared in our banquet show, recreating the "teenage" voices they had used in the original program.
"I'm so glad Janet and my wife Penni insisted I do this," Crenna admitted backstage that night. "It's so much fun, reconnecting with so many old friends. Lucy was such a great show. I'm proud to have been even a small part of it."
The character of Arthur Morton, of course, was a carbon copy of Walter Denton, the gawky teenager Crenna had played for four years on Eve Arden's Our Miss Brooks radio show. The production of "Young Fans," as a matter of fact, coincided with Desilu's production of a TV pilot for the CBS comedy.
"I was really too old to continue playing Walter," he later admitted. "And at first I refused. But Eve had great loyalty to her fellow workers, and she liked to keep us around." The TV version of Our Miss Brooks quickly found a spot on CBS's schedule -- but the radio show (photo right) was still so popular that it also continued -- and for 4 seasons (1952-56), the cast did both a TV and radio broadcast of the series. In 1956 Warner Bros. released a feature film based on the show, and the radio series signed-off for good in 1957. By then, "teenaged" Crenna was pushing 31.
A native of Los Angeles, Crenna got into acting almost by accident. The son of a local pharmacist, he attended Virgil Junior High School, where he signed up for dramatic class. "I'd already taken wood shop," he admitted later. "Besides, I noticed that the prettiest girls were in dramatic class, and also the goof-offs. That was for me."
One day, he recalled, a teacher came on the playground to say they were auditioning for a radio show, Boy Scout Jamboree, at the nearby KFI-AM radio station. Nine of his classmates, including future comic Mort Sahl, were hired to become "The Beaver Patrol." Playing the kid who did everything wrong, Crenna was paid a quarter a week.
Over the next few years, while finishing high school and attending USC, Crenna appeared in such radio programs as Dear John (starring Irene Rich), A Date with Judy, The Hardy Family, Burns and Allen, and The Great Gildersleeve.
Much of "network radio" originated in Los Angeles by the late 1940s, and young Crenna often did as many as 8 shows a week, everything from Gunsmoke to Red Rider to I Love a Mystery. In August, 1948, he appeared on Lucille Ball's brand-new My Favorite Husband, in the very first script written for the series by Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh. It was this script that was later rewritten for "Young Fans" on I Love Lucy.
Once Our Miss Brooks ended in 1957, Crenna was quickly cast opposite veteran character actor Walter Brennan in The Real McCoys -- which, Like Brooks, was filmed at Desilu. This time his character was "all grown up," a thirty-ish married man. Actress Kathleen Nolan played his wife.
The series lasted seven seasons, during which time Crenna not only honed his craft as an actor, but earned his stripes as a director as well. He began by directing "cast" commercials for The McCoys, and went on to direct entire episodes.
"We were in the fourth year of the series," Crenna later recalled, "and the idea hit me literally out of sheer boredom of being involved with a successful series. I felt it would stimulate me to be included creatively in it." Crenna mentioned the idea to Brennan, who gave it his blessing. "Walter said 'Take a shot at it.' Without his approval, I couldn't have done it. I ended up directing 30 segments in the following two years."
When The Real McCoys ended in 1964, Crenna made yet another career change -- switching from situation comedies to straight dramatic roles. He won the title role in Slattery's People, playing an idealistic state legislator. The series, which co-starred a still unknown Ed Asner, was produced by Bing Crosby's production company -- and filmed at Desilu.
Slattery won high praise from critics but low ratings from Neilsen, and lasted but a season and a half -- just long enough to convince Hollywood that Crenna was just right for major film work. He was quickly cast as the humorous but courageous captain in director Robert Wise's 1966 epic drama, "The Sand Pebbles," opposite Steve McQueen. Roles as a criminal who terrorizes Audrey Hepburn in "Wait Until Dark," and as an astronaut in "Marooned" soon followed.
For the next 30-odd years, Crenna juggled acting and directing assignments in both television and motion pictures, equally at home doing comedy and drama. Among his movie credits are such top box office favorites as "Body Heat," "The Flamingo Kid," and three installments of Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo" series.
On the tube, he ventured back to series work three times, starring in All's Fair, opposite Bernadette Peters (1976-77); It Takes Two, opposite Patty Duke (1982-83); and Pros and Cons, opposite James Earl Jones (1991-92).
During the 1980s, Crenna appeared in a series of made-for-television movies, including "The Rape of Richard Beck," a 1985 film for which he won an Emmy Award.
A longtime member of the Screen Actors Guild, Crenna help lead a fight in the 1950s to ensure that actors receive residuals for their TV work. At the time of his death he was serving as a member of the SAG board of directors. Said fellow actor Sally Kirkland, "This was a man who worked. His humility was such an example to all actors."
Crenna is survived by Penni, his wife of 47 years, son Richard, daughters Seana and Maria, and three granddaughters.
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