Fred MacMurray was born in Kankakee, Illinois, the son of Maleta (née Martin) and Frederick MacMurray, Sr., both natives of Wisconsin. His aunt was a vaudeville performer and actress Fay Holderness. Before MacMurray was two years old, his family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where his father worked as a music teacher. The family then relocated within the state to Beaver Dam, where his mother had been born in 1880. He later attended school in Quincy, Illinois, before earning a full scholarship to attend Carroll College (now Carroll University) in Waukesha, Wisconsin. While at Carroll, MacMurray performed in numerous local bands, playing the saxophone. He did not graduate from the school.
MacMurray, as a featured vocalist, recorded in 1930 with the Gus Arnheim Orchestra on "All I Want Is Just One Girl" on the Victor label. and with George Olsen on "I'm In The Market For You". Before signing to Paramount Pictures in 1934, he appeared on Broadway in Three's a Crowd (1930–31) and alongside Sydney Greenstreet and Bob Hope in Roberta (1933–34).
Later in the 1930s, MacMurray worked with film directors Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges, along with actors Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich and, in seven films, Claudette Colbert, beginning with The Gilded Lily (1935). He co-starred with Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams (1935), with Joan Crawford in Above Suspicion (1943), and with Carole Lombard in four productions: Hands Across the Table (1935), The Princess Comes Across (1936), Swing High, Swing Low (1937), and True Confession (1937).
Usually cast in light comedies as a decent, thoughtful character (The Trail of the Lonesome Pine 1936) and in melodramas (Above Suspicion 1943) and musicals (Where Do We Go from Here? 1945), MacMurray became one of the movie industry's highest-paid actors in that period. By 1943, his annual salary had reached $420,000, making him the highest-paid actor in Hollywood and the fourth-highest paid person in the nation.
Despite being typecast as a "nice guy", MacMurray often said his best roles were when he was cast against type, such as under the direction of Billy Wilder and Edward Dmytryk. Perhaps his best known "bad guy" performance was in the role of Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who plots with a greedy wife Barbara Stanwyck to murder her husband in the film noir classic Double Indemnity (1944). Sixteen years later, MacMurray played Jeff Sheldrake, a two-timing corporate executive in Wilder's Oscar-winning comedy The Apartment, (1960) with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. In another turn in the "not so nice" category, MacMurray played the cynical, duplicitous Lieutenant Thomas Keefer in Dmytryk's 1954 film The Caine Mutiny.
In 1958, he guest-starred in the premiere episode of NBC's Cimarron City Western series, with George Montgomery and John Smith. MacMurray's career continued upward the following year, when he was cast as the father in the popular Disney Studios comedy, The Shaggy Dog. Then, from 1960 to 1972, he starred on television in My Three Sons, a long-running, highly rated series. Concurrent with My Three Sons, MacMurray stayed busy in films, starring as Professor Ned Brainard in Disney's The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and in the sequel Son of Flubber (1963). Using his star-power clout, MacMurray had a provision in his My Three Sons contract that all of his scenes on that series were to be shot in two separate month-long production blocks and filmed first. That condensed performance schedule provided him more free time to pursue his work in films, maintain his ranch in Northern California, and enjoy his favorite leisure activity, golf..
Over the years, MacMurray became one of the wealthiest actors in the entertainment business, primarily from wise real estate investments and from his "notorious frugality". After the cancellation of My Three Sons in 1972, MacMurray made only a few more film appearances before retiring in 1978.
In the 1970s, MacMurray appeared in commercials for the Greyhound Lines bus company. Towards the end of the decade, he was also featured in a series of commercials for the Korean chisenbop math calculation program.
MacMurray was married twice. He married Lillian Lamont (legal name Lilian Wehmhoener MacMurray, born 1908) on June 20, 1936, and the couple adopted two children, Susan (born 1940) and Robert (born 1946). After Lamont died of cancer on June 22, 1953, he married actress June Haver the following year. The couple subsequently adopted two more children—twins born in 1956—Katherine and Laurie. MacMurray and Haver's marriage was a long one, lasting 37 years, until Fred's death.
In 1941, MacMurray purchased land in the Russian River Valley in Northern California and established MacMurray Ranch, where he spent time when not making films or later appearing on television. At the 1,750-acre ranch he raised prize-winning Aberdeen Angus cattle; cultivated prunes, apples, alfalfa, and other crops; and enjoyed watercolor painting, fly fishing, and skeet shooting. MacMurray wanted the property's agricultural heritage preserved, so five years after his death, in 1996, it was sold to Gallo, which planted vineyards on it for wines that bear the MacMurray Ranch label. Kate MacMurray, daughter of Haver and MacMurray, now lives on the property (in a cabin built by her father), and is "actively engaged in Sonoma's thriving wine community, carrying on her family's legacy and the heritage of MacMurray Ranch."
He was a staunch supporter of the Republican Party. He joined Bob Hope and James Stewart to campaign for Richard Nixon in 1968.
A lifelong heavy smoker, MacMurray suffered from throat cancer in the late 1970s and it reappeared in 1987; he also suffered a severe stroke at Christmas 1988 which left his right side paralyzed and his speech affected, although with therapy he was able to make a 90% recovery.
After suffering from leukemia for more than a decade, MacMurray died from pneumonia at age 83 in November 1991 in Santa Monica. His body was entombed in Holy Cross Cemetery. In 2005, his wife June Haver died at age 79; and her body was entombed with his.
In 1939, artist C. C. Beck used MacMurray as the initial model for the superhero character who became Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel.
MacMurray was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for The Absent-Minded Professor (1961).
MacMurray was the first person honored as a Disney Legend, in 1987.
The Academy Film Archive houses the Fred MacMurray-June Haver Collection. The film material at the Academy Film Archive is complemented by material in the Fred MacMurray and June Haver papers at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library.Three's a Crowd (1930–31)
Screen Snapshots: Art and Artists (1940)
Popular Science (1941)
Hedda Hopper's Hollywood No. 1 (1941)
Show Business at War (1943)
The Last Will and Testament of Tom Smith (1943) (narrator)
Screen Snapshots: Motion Picture Mothers, Inc. (1949)
Lux Radio Theater - Pete Dawes ("The Gilded Lily") (1937), Victor Hallam ("Another Language") (1937), John Horace Mason ("Made for Each Other") (1940), Bill Dunnigan ("The Miracle of the Bells) (1948)
Screen Directors Playhouse - Take a Letter, Darling (1951)
Bright Star - George Harvey (1952-53)
Lux Summer Theatre - The Lady and the Tumblers (1953)
The Martin and Lewis Show - Himself (1953)
The Jack Benny Program 1 episode (Fred in The Jam Session Show) (1954)
General Electric Theater 2 episodes (Richard Elgin in The Bachelor's Bride) (1955) (Harry Wingate in One Is a Wanderer) (1958)
Screen Directors Playhouse 1 episode (Peter Terrance in It's a Most Unusual Day) (1956)
The 20th Century-Fox Hour 1 episode (Peterson in False Witness) (1957)
Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour 1 episode (Himself in Lucy Hunts Uranium) (1958)
Cimarron City 1 episode (Laird Garner in I, the People) (1958)
The United States Steel Hour 1 episode (The American Cowboy) (1960)
My Three Sons 380 episodes (Steve Douglas) (1960–72)
Summer Playhouse 1 episode (Himself in The Apartment House) (1964)
The Chadwick Family (TV movie) (Ned Chadwick) (1974)
Beyond the Bermuda Triangle (TV movie) (Harry Ballinger) (1975)