Most of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s remember Don Grady as Robbie Douglas, originally the frustrated middle sibling and later the wise big brother in the all-male Douglas clan in the long-running TV sitcom My Three Sons, which aired from 1960 to 1972 on ABC and later on CBS.
But Grady, who died June 27 in Los Angeles at the age of 68, also had a successful second career after the show as a musician and composer, with credits including the theme song for The Phil Donahue Show and the music for the 1991 Blake Edwards-directed film comedy Switch.
For Grady, who grew up in Lafayette, Calif., music always was his first love. By age six, he was singing and tap-dancing, and by middle school he’d learned to play the clarinet, accordion, guitar and trumpet. At age 12, his voice and dancing ability earned him a spot as a Mouseketeer on Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club.
After a season on the children’s show, Grady spent the next few years appearing as a child actor in TV westerns such as Have Gun, Will Travel and The Rifleman. “I usually played the sole son protecting his mother from the prairie, or from his drunk dad,” Grady later recalled on his website.
According to John G. Stephens’ memoir From My Three Sons to Major Dad: My Life as a TV Producer, when My Three Sons was cast for its debut season in 1960, the show’s producers had to be coaxed to see the teenage Grady, whom they’d pegged as a Mouseketeer who got by on cuteness rather than acting talent. But when his mother Mary Grady, who was also his agent, finally landed an audition for him, Grady gave such a great reading that he was hired on the spot.
Initially, Grady’s character Robbie was the middle brother, who was perpetually discouraged by having to play second fiddle to Mike (Tim Considine). But when Considine left the show in 1965, the family conveniently adopted a friend, Ernie (Barry Livingston), which elevated Robbie to the role of wise elder sibling. Eventually, toward the end of the show’s run, Robbie married a high school classmate, and the couple had triplets of their own. Eventually, in the final season, Robbie essentially was written out of the show, which enabled Grady, who on the side had been singing and playing drums for the band The Yellow Balloon under an alias, to pursue a full-time musical career.
“I couldn’t wait to get into something I was passionate about,” he later recalled in Jennifer Armstrong’s oral history of the Mouseketeers. “I never really saw myself as an actor. It was just something that happened out of my musical beginning.”
Grady initially tried his luck as a rock singer – he recorded an album, Homegrown, under his birth name, Don Agrati, for Elektra Records in 1973 – and appeared in musicals. He later went on to a successful, albeit lower-profile, composing career. He garnered 18 credits as a composer in the Internet Movie Database, and wrote music for the DVD releases of Disney’s The Lion King and Aladdin. In 2008 he released a CD, JazRokPop, of music written for baby boomers. But his brief career as a young actor continued to be a plus for him. He met his wife Ginny, whom he married in 1985, when the two participated in a Disneyland stage show that pitted Mouseketeer alums against a new generation of young performers. “She represented the New Mouseketeers,” he later recalled. “Of course the old Mouseketeers won, and you know, I won, because I met my wife.”