Big Eddie

Sheldon Leonard spent most of his early acting career playing gangsters, race track touts and other shady individuals. In the sixties, he turned to producing and directing but could always make time for the occasional mobster role. In 1975, he even starred in a short-lived situation comedy about a former tough guy. Big Eddie featured him as Eddie Smith…and one suspects the innocuous surname was chosen to make sure there was no connect to any ethnic group. Smith had made the move from the rackets to an almost-respectable life operating a New York sports arena. Past associates and old, unfinished business from his past life had an annoying way of turning up, though all Eddie wanted to live an honest life with his spouse (a former stripper played by Sheree North) and their granddaughter (played by 12-year-old Quinn Cummings, who would go on to steal the movie, The Goodbye Girl, two years later). Eddie also had a thing about bubble baths and could often be found luxuriating in one.

The show went on the air August 23 of 1975 with solid writing/producing from Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, who’d worked with Leonard on The Dick Van Dyke Show among other triumphs. CBS didn’t seem to have a lot of faith in it. After only three broadcasts, they moved it to another night — never a promising sign — and wound up shutting it down after only ten episodes. It was a bad year for Persky and Denoff, who were simultaneously launching a sitcom for NBC called The Montefuscos. They made thirteen of those but the network only aired eight or nine of them.

I remember Big Eddie as a pleasant show that kept hitting the same note over and over…Eddie trying to convince people that he’d changed and had put the old days behind him. I also seem to recall that it was never quite clear how nefarious those old days had been; like early on, the idea had been that he’d been the kind of hood who had people rubbed out but someone — the network or the producers or someone — had said, “No, then he’d be a murderer who got away with it and audiences wouldn’t like him.” So they softened his backstory down to the point where he was almost a businessman who’d occasionally dealt with the wrong people, thereby removing what might have been more interesting about Eddie Smith. Still, it was a nice, albeit short star turn for Sheldon Leonard, who was very good in the role. He didn’t do much acting after that but did manage to get cast as J. Edgar Hoover in a TV-Movie just before he retired. That might have been the sleaziest character he every played.