How a former sitcom star made his directorial debut on The Andy Griffith Show's ''Christmas Story''
The former Fibber McGee became Andy Griffith's ace thanks to a ''hunch.''
Image: The Everett Collection
Watch "Christmas Story" on Sunday, December 22, at 5PM | 4C as part of A Very Merry MeTV!
Bob Sweeney had big shoes to fill. Fibber McGee and Molly had been delighting American audiences for decades. The radio program premiered in 1935, with Vaudeville veterans and married couple Jim and Marian Jordan portraying the title characters. The scheming Fibber McGee and patient wife Molly set the mold for the husband-wife sitcom.
A massive success, Fibber McGee and Molly spawned a spin-off, The Great Gildersleeve, and led to the inevitable television reboot. Jim Jordan had resisted a TV adaptation for years. By 1959, when Fibber McGee and Molly finally made the leap to the screen on NBC, Jim Jordan was deemed too old to play the character on television. Enter Bob Sweeney.
Sweeney himself had been part of a hit comedy team on the radio, partnering with Hal March on The Sweeney and March Show. His television breakthrough came with a starring role on My Favorite Husband, another adaptation of a popular radio program — one that had starred Lucille Ball and essentially evolved into I Love Lucy. Anyway, Sweeney turned up on The Rifleman and Our Miss Brooks before taking the unenviable role of Fibber McGee.
Longtime Fibber fans did not take to the replacements. Imagine an I Love Lucy reboot with anyone other than Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to understand what it must have felt like for Fibber-fanatics.
NBC canceled Fibber McGee and Molly after a single season. Sweeney then shifted to a new role behind the camera.
Sweeney was friends with Sheldon Leonard, who in 1960 was creating a new sitcom called The Andy Griffith Show. Leonard hired his actor pal as a director "on a hunch," according to Daniel de Visé's 2016 book Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show.
"He had never directed before," his daughter Bridget explained to de Visé. "He read every book he could get on the subject."
To make things more daunting, the first episode "Sween" (as friends and colleagues called him) was asked to direct was "Christmas Story," the heartwarming holiday story in season one. Don Weis had directed nine of the first ten episodes. Leonard and the producers then looked for a director who had chemistry with Andy Griffith and Don Knotts.
When he first walked onto the soundstage, Sweeney announced himself, "Sweeney's the name, comedy's the game!" It broke the ice. But his confidence perhaps took a hit when he began to film. Instead of saying, "Action," Sweeney yelled "Cut!"
Sweeney ironed out the kinks quick enough. "Christmas Story" was perfection, a classic holiday movie condensed into 26 minutes. Picture the moment when the camera slowly pans up the wall of the jail cell to reveal old man Weaver singing along to "Away in a Manger," his hands wrapped around the bars as he tries to steal a glimpse of the warmth inside. What a lovely shot.
No wonder that Sweeney went on to direct the next 80 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, up through "The Big House," the final episode of season three.
The onetime sitcom star became an in-demand sitcom director. Sweeney helmed numerous episodes of That Girl, Hogan's Heroes and The Doris Day Show. Despite his formidable comedic skills, Sweeney never appeared as a guest star on these series. He was comfortable behind the camera. And all thanks to Sheldon Leonard's "hunch."