Fred MacMurray was born in Kankakee, Illinois, to Frederick MacMurray and Maleta Martin, both natives of Wisconsin. When MacMurray was two years old the family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and several years later settled in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, where his mother had been born in 1880. He earned a full scholarship to attend Carroll College (now Carroll University), in Waukesha, Wisconsin. While there, MacMurray participated in numerous local bands, playing the saxophone. He didn't graduate from the school.
In 1930, MacMurray recorded a tune for the Gus Arnheim Orchestra as a featured vocalist on All I Want Is Just One Girl on the Victor 78 label. Before he signed on with 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).
MacMurray worked with directors Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges and 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 films, 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 had become one of Hollywood's highest-paid actors; for 1943, when his salary reached $420,000, he was the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, and the fourth highest-paid American.
Despite being typecast as a "nice guy," MacMurray often said his best roles were when he was cast against type by Wilder. He is perhaps best known for his role as Walter Neff, an insurance salesman (numerous other actors had turned the role down) who plots with a greedy wife Barbara Stanwyck to murder her husband in 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 1954's 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 was revitalized in 1959, when he was cast as the father in the popular Disney Studios comedy, The Shaggy Dog.From 1960 to 1972, he starred in My Three Sons, one of the longest-running television series in the United States. 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 clout, MacMurray had a provision in his "Sons" contract that all his scenes be shot first. This freed him to pursue his film work and golf hobby. It's also interesting to note that two character names on "My Three Sons" were obviously nods to his real life children, that of Rob (as in Rob Douglas) and Katherine (Kate); he often referred to his TV son Robbie as 'Rob' and later TV daughter-in-law Katie Douglas as 'Kate.'
MacMurray was one of the wealthiest and, at the same time, most frugal actors in the business. Studio co-workers noticed that even as a successful actor, MacMurray usually brought a brown bag lunch to work, often with a hard-boiled egg. According to his co-star on My Three Sons, William Demarest, MacMurray continued to bring dyed Easter eggs for lunch several months after Easter so as not to waste them. Friends and business associates jokingly referred to him as "the thrifty multimillionaire."[this quote needs a citation]Over the years, MacMurray had proven to be a very skillful investor, particularly in California real estate. 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 did commercials for the Greyhound Lines bus company. Towards the end of the decade, he also did a series of commercials for the Korean chisenbop math calculation program.
MacMurray was married twice. He married Lillian Lamont on June 20, 1936, and the couple adopted two children, Susan (b. 1940) and Robert (b. 1946). After Lamont died on June 22, 1953, he married actress June Haver the following year; he and Haver adopted two more children, twins Katherine and Laurie (b. 1956).
In 1941 MacMurray purchased land in the Russian River Valley in Northern California and established MacMurray Ranch. He spent time there when not making films, engaging in, among other things, the raising of prize-winning Aberdeen Angus cattle. MacMurray wanted the property's agricultural heritage preserved, and it was thus sold in 1996 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.
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 in November 1991, aged 83 in Santa Monica. He was entombed in Holy Cross Cemetery. Actor John Candy was entombed in the same mausoleum, two crypts above Fred MacMurray. In 2005, his second wife June Haver, aged 79, was entombed with him.