Tom Ward Caught Up With Father Knows Best: Actor Billy Gray (Bud)
By Tom Ward
Baby boomers will fondly remember the classic TV show “Father Knows Best” which ran from 1954 till 1960. One of its stars was actor Billy Gray who played “Bud” the only son in the series to his TV parents Robert Young and Jane Wyatt. Bill told me the role was explained to him that his character was supposed to be the boy next store. The perennial all American teenage kid whose exploits on the show were exaggerated to make him larger than life for the benefit of the series. I asked Bill if he ever got to inject anything about his real life into the show’s storyline. He said, ”Yes, I had a set of Bongos that I brought to the set one day. I was banging on them in the dressing room and apparently one of the writers in the nearby room heard me. Next thing I know he writes a story where I am using my bongos to be the life of the party and the center of attention. The episode was called “Calypso Bud”. Bill was a very versatile child actor whose worked with many of the top stars of the day in numerous films. His mother Beatrice who was a longtime character actress who got him started acting in movies at age 5. He co- starring with Doris Day “By the Light of the Silvery Moon and Moonlight Bay”. Yet, the film he is best remembered for is the classic Sci-fi film “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”He played Patricia Neal’s son “Bobby” who befriends an alien from outer space. Many Hollywood insiders and film critics considered it one of the 100 greatest films in movie history. It was directed by the legendary Robert Wise who called Billy Gray one of the finest child actors he ever worked with.
After his show ended Bill guest starred on a number of popular TV shows throughout the 1960’s. He had been acting from such a young age that he decided he wanted to pursue another passion of his which was riding motorcycles. He had a good career racing professionally on the Speedway circuit for 23 years. It’s a dangerous profession racing around dirt tracks with no brakes and just one gear. Jokingly, I thought maybe that’s why he took up golf. He could participate in sport where you’re not putting your life on the line every time you tee it up. I asked him how he got started playing golf. He said, ”I started playing golf about 20 years ago with my good friend actor Dean Stockwell who is an avid golfer”. Then I inquired what kind of scores he shot and Bill told me, ” If I broke 100 it was a very good round and I would be a happy camper.” He mentioned to me that his worst fault was trying to hit the ball too hard for distance. He said, ”I noticed when I just relaxed the ball would go further. It’s hard to stand over the ball and think easy, easy, easy and not want to smash it.” Bill really likes the game of golf and is trying to get out to play as much as he can when time allows. Bill is a very industrious guy and a successful inventor of quite a number of products. Go to his website www.billygray.com or www.F1pick.com
and to learn more about some of his inventions. He told me about the time a few years ago he invented his own special ‘Putter’. Bill said,” I finished making this putter and took it out to a municipal golf course near my home. The first time I putted with it I holed a 50 footer. Unfortunately, the putter I made was deemed illegal because I put a hook on the top of the putter head. I re-arranged the handle and the bottom. Then I put a little arm with a hinge in the middle of the shaft and made it like a pool cue. I played a few rounds with it and had tremendous success until I heard about all the tight restrictions that were being placed on club manufacturing.”
Bill mentioned to me that one of his all time favorite stories about the TV series was that the title of the show got switched around. Bill said that “Father knows Best” was on the radio for 5 years before the TV show aired. The original title had a question mark at the end of it which has a degree of irony to it. There was only one sponsor that had a time spot available and they insisted that the question mark be dropped. They wanted the title of the show to become a declarative statement. It was like a dogmatic, dictatorial Father Knows best. That title became the iconic phrase that we know even after all these years, when in fact the original intent of Robert Young was the question mark. Robert Young fought with title sponsor Kent cigarettes at the time who wanted no ambiguity about who was the figure-head of their product. It was a deal breaker for the show who had to lose the question mark.
Bill told me he still keeps in touch with his TV sisters actresses Eleanor Donahue and Lauren Chapin(Kitten). Bill said, “Sadly, I don’t get to see them very often because we all live in different parts of the country.” Bill spoke fondly of his TV mother Jane Wyatt. ”I became good friends with Jane over the years and periodically would visit her at her home. She was a wonderful lady.” Bill’s TV dad Robert Young had a long battle with alcohol, however Bill told me that during the 6 year run of the show he never saw any indication of Robert being inebriated. “He sure hid it well” Bill said. Finally, I told Bill the next time we get together and go golfing I will have him hitting the ball farther and breaking the 100 mark with ease. He laughed and said, ”Tom, when it comes to golf. You Know best!”
Tom Ward can be reached at www.teetimewithtom.com