Five of TV's Eight is Enough kids struggled with substance abuse, two suffered mental breakdowns, one is fighting ovarian cancer and one paid the ultimate price in the years after their show’s demise in 1981. Here are updates on all eight:
Grant Goodeve (David), 57, is an actor, musician and host of the Seattle-based series Northwest Backwoods. A recovering alcoholic, he found God and sobriety in 2001. Goodeve enjoyed a stint from 1990-92 on the hit drama Northern Exposure. He currently stars in a radio-play version of It's a Wonderful Lifein Seattle and will appear in the upcoming film Crimes of the Past.
Lani O’Grady (Mary), suffered anxiety attacks while on the show. She died of a prescription drug overdose at age 46 in 2001. "I have a real hard time with people who have been successful in this business as young children . . . and [as adults] they are no longer wanted by Hollywood—and, yeah, Hollywood is not a user-friendly place," she told an interviewer in 1994. "But rather than accepting responsibility for their life, it's easier to say, 'The business is the reason I'm so messed up today.' I hate that."
Dianne Kay (Nancy), 55, is a mom who quit acting in 1999 after a guest appearance on Dick Van Dyke's hit series Diagnosis Murder. She lives in California. According to Internet reports, during a 1998 appearance on Jenny Jones' talk show, Kay said she dabbled in interior design and antiques. Also that year, she played the role of a waitress in the feature film Falling Sky.
Connie Newton-Needham (Elizabeth), 50, was diagnosed this year with ovarian cancer. The ballet dancer and mom of two is on leave from her work as a dance instructor in Santa Margarita, Calif. According to the National Enquirer, she's found emotional support in her cancer battle from co-stars Goodeve, Dick Van Patten and Willie Aames. In 1995, she played a waitress in the "Gladiators" episode of Ellen.
Susan Richardson (Susan), 57, became a cocaine addict in a desperate effort to drop 90 lb. she had gained while pregnant during the show's fourth season. A tailbone injury later led to a morphine addiction. In the late 1980s, she claimed filmmakers in Korea held her hostage and tried to kill her. She suffered a nervous breakdown in 1999. In recent years, she has enjoyed healthier times while working as a retirement home caretaker in Pennsylvania.
Adam Rich (Nicholas), 41, seems to have put years of drug problems and run-ins with the law (including a 2003 DUI) behind him. In 1996, he participated in a Might magazine cover story spoofing his death. In 2003, he played himself in the feature film Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. Adam also has taught classes to young actors at the prestigious Beverly Hills Sound Stage. He lives in Santa Monica.
Willie Aames (Tommy), 49, went from Charles in Charge co-star and cocaine user in the '80s to born-again Bibleman in the '90s and celebreality TV staple in recent years. In 2008, he filed for bankruptcy, separated from his wife (with whom he co-authored the book Grace is Enough) and attempted suicide. In March 2009, he sold the contents of his home to avoid a foreclosure. The VH1 special Broke & Famous: Willie Aames chronicled his troubles last month. He's now working to become a licensed financial adviser.
Laurie Walters (Joannie), 62, and her husband, John Slade, live in Ojai, Calif., where they run the Ironweed Film Club. She continues to act and direct. Her vast stage resumé includes recent roles in Sylvia, Fools, Children of a Lesser God and Memory of Water. She landed major roles in Month in the Country, Measure for Measure, Undiscovered Country andRichard III at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. And she won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for her role in Playboy of the Western World.
By Chris Mann Retroality.TV Editor
Look up the word "wholesome" in the dictionary and you'll see a picture of Dick Van Patten. Whether helping a troubled Eight is Enough kid or encouraging hungry puppies by eating his line of Natural Balance dog food, the TV father figure's familiar image reassures us he's still serving up hearty goodness.
Van Patten, who turned 81 on Dec. 9, shares his eight decades as an actor, family man and TV octodad in his delightful new memoir Eighty is Not Enough: One Actor's Journey Through American Entertainment (Phoenix Books), co-authored by Robert Baer.
The lighthearted book reads like a who's who of New York stage and Hollywood screen, detailing Van Patten's successes and struggles as a Depression-era child model-turned-Broadway child star who grew up, thanks to his uber-attentive mother-turned-manager, working with acting legends such as Tallulah Bankhead and Fredric March while hanging out with the likes of James Dean and Kirk Douglas.
In 1949, the industrious Van Patten moved to TV land, playing the winsome son in one of America's premiere live sitcoms, I Remember Mama, whose audience surged as America went from 3.5 million to 60 million TV sets during its nine-year run. In 1977, he landed his pop culture-defining role as Tom Bradford, the kindly dad of eight who never forgot to leave a plate of homemade wishes on the kitchen window sill.
The ever-spry actor, who's recovered from a stroke in 2008, inspires readers with his trademark—and still fully-intact—upbeat attitude in this biography. He doesn't shy away, though, from briefly discussing the storied and, in one tragic case, fatal troubles of his Eight is Enough children (see sidebar) or acknowledging the less-than-rosy child-star memories of his sister, actress Joyce Van Patten.
He also offers poignant memories of the late Farrah Fawcett and actress Diana Hyland, who portrayed his TV wife before quickly succumbing to cancer less than two weeks after Eight premiered in spring 1977. The actor and his wife of 55 years, Pat, were with Hyland and her considerably younger lover, John Travolta, when Hyland died. (Actress Betty Buckley joined the show in season two as Bradford step mom Abby; her acting and singing talents later won her critical raves and a Tony on Broadway.)
Despite the sadness he's experienced, Van Patten emerges as a grateful and gracious everyman whose soft-spoken optimism and genuine persona promise to keep him going decades beyond eighty.
I was quite amazed at your history—from child modeling to Broadway to live TV and film. You’ve done it all.
Oh, yeah, I’ve been around a long time. (Laughs.)
And yet I, like most of America, grew up watching you on Eight is Enough.
I was on another series before you were even born. It was on for nine years, live very Friday night, called I Remember Mama. It was one of the very first sitcoms, from 1949 to 1958. I was a kid actor. It was nice working on Eight is Enough because I was surrounded by kid actors. And they went through everything I went through on I Remember Mama.
You had two big hits—that’s a rarity in television.
When I read the script for Eight is Enough, I didn’t think it would be a hit. I thought it was just like Father Knows Best. So I was surprised and happy when it took off.
And it survived and thrived, despite Diana Hyland’s death—let’s discuss that in a bit—and the substance problems of about half of the Bradford kids. Were you aware of the drug abuse behind the scenes?
No. I had no idea about any of that. Maybe it’s better that I didn’t. Things went very smoothly on the set … There was a real bond between me and the Eight is Enough kids. I used to tell (them), “This is as good as it gets. Sit back and enjoy it because it’s not gonna get any better.”
Which kids do you keep in touch with? You bailed Adam Rich out of jail in 1991—and I understand you’ve been a father figure to him and others.
Adam Rich calls me all the time. And also I’m the godfather of Susan Richardson’s girl. (Susan’s) in Philadelphia, so I don’t see her at all. She’s doing alright [Richardson suffered a nervous breakdown in 1999 and in recent years has worked a a retirement home caregiver in Pennsylvania.]… Connie Newton and Laurie Walters, I still keep in touch with them; I went to Laurie’s wedding. Of course, Lani O’Grady is dead now. It’s so sad.
Lani really struggled with drug and mental health issues. Did you keep up with her?
I did. She’d call me or I’d call her every couple of months. (Pause.) I’m still very much in touch with Dianne Kay.
I had a crush on her as a kid.
I don’t blame you. She was the prettiest of them all.
A few of your TV kids became teen magazine pin-ups.
Yeah. I go up to Seattle every once and a while and see Grant Goodeve. He’s a lovely guy. He’s got three kids and he does a local show up there called Northwest Backwoods. He’s the commentator.
Willie Aames has not been so lucky—he’s fallen on hard times again.
I don’t hear from him much. But I heard that he’s broke now and selling the stuff in his house. I don’t even know how to get in touch with him. It hasn’t been a good life (for him).
You fell on hard times after Mama.
That was about from ’59 to ’67. When I Remember Mama went off the air in 1958, all of a sudden I couldn’t get any work. I was too identified with that show, I guess. So I did go into other things like real estate, and I did very well. Then all of a sudden Elaine May put me in a play called Adaptation/Next and then she sent me out here with it and I never went back to New York. I started getting all sorts of work again out here. That was the only slump I fell into.
What advice would you give Willie if you connected with him?
I’d tell him to make his work as an actor the most important thing and not let anything else interfere. Forget all that–it’s nonsense.
TV’s a pretty tough market for actors now, given reality TV. Now instead of Eight is Enough we get Jon and Kate Plus Eight.
I can’t stand all of that reality stuff, that improvisation. I can spot it in a minute. Good scriptwriting and doing your writers’ lines—that’s what I think is great. I don’t go for all of that improvising; I never did. The actor’s lines are the important thing. (In reality TV), they try to act like it’s so real. But it isn’t. It comes off as very artificial. It’s not real.
Do you think his fate is a product of the times? You came from an era—
A more wholesome era, yeah.
But also an era when people valued money after the Depression. And people valued their opportunities during War World II …
That’s a good way to put it. That’s right. I don’t think it was just Hollywood (that changed), I think it was society in general. Things changed.
If you could go back to 1977, have a crystal ball and find out that at least four of your eight TV kids were gonna have really hard times, in retrospect, is there any advice you’d have given them to keep them on the right track?
(I would tell them) I’d get a high on working. I didn’t need to anything else to get high on. I’d tell them that’s what you get your high from—from working, from getting jobs, winning auditions and beating out other kids on the auditions.
A major turning point for you, certainly as a comic actor, came when you landed the role of the son in O Mistress Mine—a part you got over Marlon Brando and Roddy McDowell. How did your O Mistress Mine parents, actors Alfred Lunt and his wife, Lynn Fontanne, change your life?
I was with them for four years and they were almost like parents to me. I lived with them on their farm up in Genesee Depot, Wisc., for about three weeks. They were a big influence on me. I got very good reviews playing their son. There were about 90 kids up for the part, and they narrowed it down to me, Roddy and Marlon. I beat them out at the last (minute). (Laughs). When it closed in 1949, I went right in to I Remember Mama. It prepared me.
Looking back, how did you manage not to be overwhelmed and get a little cocky growing up on stage and screen?
I knew nothing else. I had a real stage mother—I owe everything to her. She got me in a Broadway play when I was seven years old. And it just seemed like the natural thing (for me) to do. I didn’t know anything else.
You credit your mother so much in your book. Yet she was a complicated woman.
So many times when you hear the term “stage mother,” they say it like it’s a dirty word. On the contrary, I owe everything to my mother. In tennis, Serena Williams owes everything to her father. Tiger Woods owes everything to his father; he had him out on a golf course when he was seven years old. I figure it’s a terrific thing when a mother helps her son. If it hadn’t been for my mother, I’d probably be a bellhop. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a bellhop … But it’s been a great life and I’ve met the most interesting people and traveled all over the world.
But you’ve got an exceptional attitude—you saw gigs as a child as opportunities that you didn’t take for granted.
My mother and father used to tell me, “You’re only as popular as the show that you’re on, so don’t let it go to your head.” It’s so true. It’s the show that made you popular. And I had that in my mind all the time; I had smart parents.
We all know what happened when stars such as Suzanne Somers forgot that maxim. And, ironically, Eight is Enough premiered on the same night—March 15, 1977—as Three’s Company.
That’s right! I forgot that!
Some of your earliest career advice came in a rather unexpected way from the sexy Tallulah Bankhead in her—aptly titled—Skin of Our Teeth dressing room on Broadway.
She invited me to her dressing room—and she was stark naked. I was 14 years old. I’d never seen a woman naked before. It was sort of exciting for a little kid. I kept saying my line wrong so she’d keep calling me back to her dressing room.
She mentions me in her book. She said, “I never liked child actors. The only child actor I ever liked was Dickie Van Patten, because he could read the racing forms.”
They give Katherine Hepburn credit as the first woman to wear slacks. It’s not true. Tallulah Bankhead wore slacks before Katherine Hepburn. That was 1942, and she wore slacks every day.
So Tallulah was a pioneer in more than one way.
Yes. (Laughs.) And she loved baseball. She was a fanatic about the New York Giants.
What advice did she give you?
Here’s what happened. I was offered the (lead) role in Tomorrow the World, but I would’ve had to leave The Skin of Our Teeth. She said to me, “Don’t leave a hit to take a chance on some other show.” It turns out she was wrong because Tomorrow the World was a big hit also. Skippy Homeier played the part. And my sister did the play.
You and your sister certainly did some major plays—and so many of them war-themed. Heavy material about the big issues of our times. How did this shape you?
It was a great education. It really was. I just did what I was told. I’d go from one play to another. One play would close and they’d get me into another one. It was crazy.
Of course, you were an old pro by age 10. In the midst of the Depression you were make $5 an hour as a child model. Did you ever feel exploited—or that you had a responsibility as a breadwinner?
I never felt that way. I just felt that this is what I was supposed to do.
Your attitude is reminiscent of Ron Howard’s.
Oh, I’m a big fan of Ron Howard’s.
How is your sister doing? Has she made peace with her life as a child actor?
My sister just did twelve weeks in Boston in a movie (Grown Ups) with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. It’s a big, big movie. So she’s doing very well. Every play that Neil Simon did on Broadway he had my sister in it.
For better or worse, your mother was a real go-getter. She was your manager?
Yes, she was. She was stage-struck. She loved the theater. My mother and father went to a play in 1928 when they were just married. It was called Showboat. Every since then, she was a fanatic about (theater). About four years ago I did Showboat in Chicago. It all came full circle.
I love the story in your book about your mom traveling cross country to L.A. to hit up Stan Laurel after he sent her a letter saying you had a promising future.
I’ve got to tell you one thing that’s not in the book. About a month ago I was at the race track and someone said, “Stan Laurel’s daughter is coming tomorrow. Why don’t you bring that letter and show it to her?” So when I met her I showed her the letter he sent to my mother. She got a big kick out of it.
Ultimately, you and your mom decided that New York was your town.
Now I’m out in California, and I love it, but I still feel like a New Yorker.
You’ve done just about every major play out there.
And worked with so many important directors, too. Every major stage director I worked for: George Kaplan, Moss Hart, Max Reinhardt, Joshua Logan, Elia Kazan.
Your book reads like a Who’s Who in Hollywood—from hanging out with James Dean to watching women hang out with Kirk Douglas at a burlesque bar.
Jimmy Dean was like my flunkie! He used to follow me all over. He’d get me a pack of cigarettes. I used to play poker and he’d sit behind me and watch me play all night.
For the generations that view you as a genteel father-type, do you think people will be surprised to learn you were rather, um, adventuresome in your youth?
That’s putting it mildly. Yes. (Laughs.) The one thing I had in common with (Tom Bradford) is I’m very family-oriented. I have a great family, and that comes first. Same way it was with the father on Eight is Enough.
Your dad left your family when you were 14. That must’ve been tough for you.
I felt sorry for my mother. She wanted my father to come back—she was still in love with him. He met somebody else, and I always feel my mother never liked anybody else (romantically). It’s so sad.
Then you become the ultimate TV dad of the ultimate idyllic family on Eight. Yet the show was fraught with tragedy off camera—starting with Diana Hyland’s sad death from cancer after filming the fourth episode.
When she passed away, I never thought the show would be a hit. I sort of went, “That’s the end of the show.” Yet they wrote it into the show and it worked out fine. Diana was going to marry John Travolta. That was definitely true. We were with her when she died.
I had done another show with her, a soap opera called Young Doctor Malone. So we’d worked together for about two years in New York. I knew her pretty well.
She didn’t know she was sick until the second or third week of filming Eight?
Well, that’s what she said. But I sort of think she knew it but didn’t want to lose a job. Before you do a TV series, they have you go through a physical at the doctor. But the doctor just never picked up that she had cancer.
How did her death affect you and your TV kids?
We were all very, very upset. Diana was a nice girl, and we got very close those few weeks that we worked together. The kids took it very hard.
Eight’s step mom Betty Buckley went on, of course, to become a huge Broadway star. And she wrote a lovely endorsement of you and your book for your back cover.
She lives in Texas now on a ranch. It was very nice of her to write that. It’s funny: She wanted to sing on the show and they never would let her. I bet they’re kicking themselves now. She’s an amazing singer. She won the Tony.
Sadly, thirty-two years after Diana Hyland’s death, you lost your friend Farrah Fawcett to cancer.
Yes. Farrah was my wife’s best friend … My son Vincent was on a show called Apple’s Way. He was 16 years old and supposed to fall in love with a woman 24 years old. Farrah Fawcett had done these commercials and they hired her for the part. My wife had to go to the set every day with my son. So while she was on the set my wife and Farrah became very friendly. Later on, we all played tennis together.
What made her so special as a person and as a performer?
Well, first of all, Farrah was very, very smart. She wasn’t just so bimbo or some blonde—she was really intelligent. I think that helped a lot. She was such good company and just a great girl.
Were you with Farrah in her final weeks?
I wasn’t but my wife was. She went up to see her about every week.
You even have a Michael Jackson connection.
The funny thing is we lived next door to the Jacksons. My wife became very friendly with Michael. He was so nice to her. He loved to help her out—clean the house and everything … For Michael and Farrah to die on the same day was weird. My wife lost two close friends on the same day.
You were hanging out with Hollywood hotshots even back in your teens.
I had the same dressing room with Kirk Douglas. Kiss and Tell in 1944 was his first Broadway play. Then when I was in The Skin of Our Teeth I had the same dressing room as Monty Clift. This was before he became a big superstar. Whoever I shared a dressing room with would become big stars. (Laughs.)
You and Kirk share the same birthday.
We were both born on December 9. We’re exactly 12 years apart. I have the same birthday as Donny Osmond, Redd Foxx and Kirk Douglas.
You and Kirk also have survived similar health challenges.
I had a stroke about a year ago. But I’m okay now.
Eighty clearly is not enough for you. What do you want to do between 80 and 90?
I’m not sure but I want to keep working. I also have that (line of) dog food now, Dick Van Patten’s Natural Balance. I like to help animals. We give away dog food to different animal charities.
And you still go to the track?
I do. I have a couple of racehorses.
Can we expect another Eight is Enough reunion?
They don’t even have the shows on DVD! That surprises me. (So) there won’t be a reunion.
The show has certainly survived in the U.S. vernacular—
People come up to me every day and say, “I grew up with you.” And then Obama’s 2007 speech: “Eight is enough.” (The crowd chanted,) “Eight is enough! Eight is enough!” I couldn’t believe it. He was smiling when he said it. It was so cute.
I hate this phrase. They are not dead to me and a ton of people in my generation who grew up with good ones. I always say they are very much alive to me but they just got a lot smaller. I have been building miniature sitcom sets since the early '90s and now have let the world look at them for the first time.
Some might say this is a strange hobby and ask, "How on earth did this come about?" Well, to me it's never been a strange hobby but just something I did in my spare time that I really loved. I went onto the Cheers soundstage as a youngster on vacation with my family in Hollywood and that did it.
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.
Everything I saw was familiar to a point but also brand new, and since I could not take photos, I burned everything into my brain and came home and reconstructed the whole thing. I wanted to build not only the set I saw on TV but really wanted to concentrate on all the "junk" that the TV viewer never gets to see. The lights, cables, cameras, microphone booms, script tables, back staircases, etc. Then I built another set of another show and so on and so on.
Classic television was a major part of my childhood and this book is years' worth of blood, sweat and tears neatly packaged for you to enjoy. It really was a labor of love looking high and low for materials to use since I built everything from scratch.
Nowadays I have moved on to other hobbies and interests but am always game to pop in a DVD of my favorite '70s or '80s sitcom to relax. As for building additional sets, I am enjoying my retirement but who knows? One day I might sail on the Love Boat or visit with Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda.
Come and dance on our floor, take a step that is new!
We're running a bit behind schedule this month but have lots of fun forthcoming. Retroality.TV's December features include:
• An exclusive interview with iconic TV dad Dick Van Patten, who spills on his amazing new book, Eighty Is Not Enough, as well as his former TV kids (including the troubled Willie Aames), late, great '70s icon and family friend Farrah Fawcett and the sad state of reality television (Jon and Kate Plus Eight is Enough!)
• A look at the TV remake craze—including plans to update Charlie's Angels
• Retro books for the holidays
• Guest blog from Charles Brogdon, author of the fantastic new book On the Set: Famous Hollywood Studio Sets in Miniature
GUEST SHOT By Suzanne Sumner Ferry Author, Corinna the Christmas Elf
Yukon Cornelius has nothin’ on me! At least I hope not. I have searched high and low in my mind for an interesting, fresh as a just-baked Christmas sugar cookie take on a holiday classic character. You see, as a writer, I am fully aware that it has all been done “to infinity and beyond”… so the trick is to create a story or character that has a fresh twist on a classic.
I recently wrote and published my first children’s book titled Corinna the Christmas Elf: A Christmas Story. Having been raised with the nickname “Chrissy, a.k.a. Christmas Snow” (my maiden name is Suzanne Sumner; need I say more?), I have always been obsessed with this spiritual, glittery, festive and magical time of year. Put a steamy mug of hot cocoa and a peppermint stick on my bedside table and I’m as happy as a clam. This is a fact, regardless that my dear fraternal grandmother was of Jewish origin.
So I must first thank my father, who converted to Catholicism, for my lust of all things Christmas. I had no way to escape it, not a chance, during my Catholic upbringing. In fact, my fondest childhood memories spawn from painfully early Christmas morning treks, clad in fuzzy footed PJ’s, to the fireplace, where I would dive into overloaded stockings hung with care. And ne’er did I find a lump of coal, mind you.
Being a Holiday-a-holic (and a new mother), I just had to make my mark by writing a new children’s Christmas story. Yet I was finding it impossible to fix what ain’t broken. Thus, I eventually pulled all of my old frosty faves out of the deep, dark recesses of my mind and got to work.
We all have our dear old holiday loyalties from childhood that will never go away. I think the best way I can describe how I came up with my children’s book concept, besides the initial inspiration from my mother, who used to sign her Christmas packages “from Corinna the Christmas Elf,” was to take those candy-cane romances, misfit toys and all, and mold them into my own, fresh take on a holiday character.
And so I came up with an independent, young and ambitious elf girl named Corinna (thanks, Mom) who has just been promoted to Senior Elf Factory Manager by Santa himself. Corinna has very special skills and loves all things electrical, which proves to come in very handy at the end of a long work day in the Elfin Toy Factory.
I created Corinna the Christmas Elf out of love, and out of the desire to empower young children, especially little girls, with the knowledge that they can accomplish ANYTHING they put their minds to. All it takes is hard work, perseverance, a spark of interest, and belief in oneself. Calculated risks can get you everywhere; never taking a risk (within reason) will get you very little. Goals for the future, a strong work ethic, and being brave are all good qualities to have. These are only a few of the messages I leave my young readers with after they embark on a sleigh ride through the Elfin Toy Factory with Corinna and her coworkers. (Insert Shameless Plug Here: Did I mention that my book is available at amazon.com, borders.com, barnesandnoble.com or tatepublishing.com?)
So my ode to all you wonderful predecessors is quite lengthy, but I must, out of loyalty, pay you my utmost respect in helping me create Corinna the Christmas Elf, because there is a little bit of all of you in her:
• To Yukon Cornelius, for your fearlessness in taking down the Abominable Snowman
• To Hermey the Misfit Elf, because you decided to do what made you the happiest and most inspired: pulling teeth
• To Rudolph and your shiny red honker, for taking a special and unique quality about yourself and shedding a positive light on it (no pun intended)
• To Charlie-in-the-Box, for never giving up hope
• To the Bumble aka The Abominable Snowman of the North, for trusting someone (Hermey the Misfit Dentist) enough to let him help you by pulling your teeth and then staying dedicated and grateful to him
• To Frosty himself, for braving the elements to help others and make young children happy
• To Cindy Lou Who for your innocence and trust coupled with your immense wisdom
• To The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, for giving it back and making it better than ever
• To Ebenezer Scrooge, who was taught a valuable lesson about giving and helping others and ended up embodying the true spirit and meaning of Christmas after a few romps in the graveyard
• To Tiny Tim for your courage and faith while facing death, and for giving Ebenezer a second chance
And finally, to my own mother. who has always shared my love and lust for all things Christmas … from the shiny aluminum star on the top of her tree to the countless cherubic figurines on her bookshelves … and to all, a good night!
Iron Heart: The True Story of How I Came Back From the Dead by Brian Boyle is a triumphant story of one young man’s struggle to come back from the brink of death. After he had a horrific car crash, Brian shocked and amazed the medical community and his family by his stunning recovery. By all accounts he should be dead, all of his organs were shifted inside his body, including his heart, bones broken, and he was in a coma for months.
Somehow, he had the strength inside himself not only to survive, but to be able to rehabilitate himself to the point that he could compete in a world class event, the Ironman. The amazing fact that he could come back and swim, bike, and run the Ironman triathlon is almost beyond comprehension. Anyone who reads this first-person account will be inspired by his strength and courage.
As I was reading Iron Heart, I was considering if I'd want to have my husband “pull the plug” automatically if I ever end up on a ventilator. Brian Boyle’s harrowing account of his time in a coma from a severe car accident chilled me to the bone. During his coma Brian was clearly in and out of consciousness, he could see and hear but not communicate.
It brings to mind the Terri Schiavo case, where she was suspended in a coma from 1990 until her death in 2005. She was not on a ventilator, but instead on a feeding tube that provided nutrition and hydration. I wonder if she was suspended in a limbo, wanting to communicate, having thoughts and emotions, just like Brian had. No one will ever know.
Her husband fought in the courts for the option to end her life, stating that Terri would never want to live incapacitated, and that she said she would never want to live on life support. After a long, contested trial between her husband and the rest of her family, the courts ruled that her feeding tube could be removed. Terri starved to death after FOURTEEN days. I wonder if there ever could have been some sort of breakthrough for her, some kind of ability to blink commands or SOMETHING. It is a frightening thought.
My heart stirred when I read this book. In fact, I am reading it aloud to my 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. They can’t get enough of it. When we pick it up to read, my daughter’s comments are “Oh, it’s so sad” and my son says, “I know he comes through in the end!” I feel that this book is universal in its appeal, and is definitely worth checking out.
MTV personality and Remote Control host Ken Ober has sadly died on Nov. 15, apparently due to natural causes, at age 52. Retroality's friend Ted Nichelson shares this with us that Ken visited him and Love to Love You Bradys co-author Susan Olsen at a booksigning on Oct. 17.
Says Ted, "He was a good friend of Susan's (as demonstrated in the You Tube video linked below) and we were so impressed he came out to support us. Ken and Susan hosted a radio talk show in the 90's on Los Angeles station 97.1 FM called Ober and Olsen. We never dreamed he would be gone so soon. Susan said she is grateful to have seen him one final time. We don't know the cause of his death at this time."
Suzanne Somers has a number-one book. And all hell is breaking loose.
For good reason. The media-savvy, self-branding celebrity poet-turned-actress/entertainer-turned-author/entrepreneur-turned-home shopping mogul/ThighMaster millionaire-turned-alternative health guru’s latest tome, Knockout, boldly cold-cocks chemotherapy while promoting controversial treatments and doctors claiming to cure this year’s biggest celebrity killer: cancer. This dreaded, virulent scourge is expected to claim 562,340 American lives—famous and non-famous—in 2009.
In recent months, cancer has achieved an unusually high media profile, tragically claiming the lives of the iconic Farrah Fawcett, Patrick Swayze, Ted Kennedy, Ed McMahon, Bea Arthur, Dom Deluise and Dominick Dunne. One of its latest famous victims was Larry Gelbart, the Emmy-winning M*A*S*H writer/producer who in 1976 penned the first (jiggle-free) pilot of the ABC series that—on the heels of Farrah Fawcett-Majors-dom in 1977—would make Somers a self-merchandising poster girl and boob-tube superstar: Three’s Company.
Writes Somers, “After all the billions and billions of dollars thrown at cancer research, after all the marches for cancer by well-meaning women raising yet more money for pharmaceutical companies and after all the black-tie fundraisers … There is no cure! Only more and more money for the pharmaceutical companies to the tune of $200 billion a year!” Counters Posner, “Cancer is a recurring thread and marketing tool for her wide-ranging business interests … To many cancer experts interviewed by The Daily Beast, (Knockout’s promotion of bioidentical hormones as cancer ‘wonder drugs’) now makes Somers extremely dangerous. A flawed decision won’t lead to a lower sex drive or body aches. It will lead to death.”
Most of Posner’s quote eerily echoes the late John Ritter’s emotional words spoken to me in spring 2001 shortly after TV’s former Chrissy Snow revealed to Larry King (and the world) that she had breast cancer and eschewed chemo in favor of injecting the herb Iscador. The bestselling diet book author took to King’s show several days after The National Enquirer caught her coming out of a liposuction clinic—weeks before her third “Somersize” book, Eat, Cheat and Melt the Fat Away (!), was due to hit stores. Legit press picked up the scandal, which comedians dubbed “ThighGate.” In a move that stupefied and likely pissed off the medical community, an uncharacteristically fidgety, nose-scratching, hesitant and inarticulate Somers nervously claimed to King that she’d had lipo strictly to “even out” the disfiguring effects of radiation and a lumpectomy.
Days after her revelation, I met Ritter backstage at his Neil Simon-written Broadway play The Dinner Party. He was not a happy camper. Two weeks prior he’d poked fun of his once-beloved yet famously-long-estranged co-star’s lipo scandal when he reteamed with Three’s Company roomie Joyce DeWitt for a CBS Early Show “Retro Reunion” segment (Somers declined to participate). During the interview, John grabbed a Chrissy Snow doll, pressed its midsection to his mouth and joked that he’d given it “lip-osuction.” Joyce, the female host and off-camera crew guffawed. Suzanne, not so much.
Instead, she returned what she called Ritter’s “stab in the heart” with a stab of her own, telling King that Ritter’s “really low-class joke” played a role in her “higher power” pushing her to come forward as a breast cancer survivor … who just happened to have what may be the most bizarre—if brilliantly bad-PR-shifting—explanation ever for having cellulite sucked out of one’s post-ButtMastered hips, upper back and abdomen.
“The whole reason I was in (the lipo clinic)—my book was not even on my mind,” Somers told King after evading his lipocentric questions for a good 10-15 minutes. “The whole reason that I went in there is because of … of … I was affected by the radiation and what happened to me on the medication, and having cancer. Cancer … cancer throws everything off when you're in treatment.” Apparently, the infamously softball-lobbing King’s relentless pressing of the lipo issue also threw her off.
Ritter was unnerved, to say the least. “I talked to Joyce,” he told me in his Dinner Party dressing room, “and we don’t know if Suzanne has cancer or not, because she lies.”
In my 1998 book Come and Knock on Our Door, Ritter, DeWitt and several other Three’s Company staff members said Somers fibbed about her health and lied about Ritter and DeWitt in TV and print interviews while holding out for a 500 percent pay hike and series profits during the number-one-rated sitcom’s production in fall 1980. Ritter, the series’ lead, interpreted his once-close friend’s alleged cracked ribs (X-rays for which never surfaced) as a negotiation ploy, and he took what Three’s Company’s cast and crew perceived as her very public sick-out and very public grandstanding … well … very, very personally.
Flash forward two decades. Ritter was appalled that Somers might be using breast cancer—real or imagined—to leverage damage control during a public relations nightmare. “I take this disease very, very seriously,” he emphasized to me. One of his best friends, actor Paul Linke of CHiPs fame, lost his wife to breast cancer in 1986 after her valiant two-year battle, Ritter said, the crescendo building in his voice. Somers should be careful what she says, he added, because this wasn’t Three’s Company, circa-1980 back/rib injuries and a Somersize salary fight that threatened to sink a hit show. Forget livelihoods—this time, people’s lives were on the line.
“Do you think this scandal will do her in?” I asked Ritter.
“I’ve thought she was done a few times,” he responded, “but she always manages to come back.”
His words flooded back to me while reading Somers’ and Posner’s dueling blogs on TheDailyBeast.com. Posner quotes Dr. Nanette Santoro, the Director of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, as saying of Suzanne: “That she possibly aided and abetted her own cancer should have destroyed her credibility. The real miracle is her ability to continue to pitch her theories.” Counters Somers, “(D)octors who are onto ‘another way’ are afraid to speak up. I am speaking up for them. I don’t have a license to lose and I have the voice of a very large readership. My readers know I have never lied to them.”
The lipo debacle threatened to end Somers’ multimillion-dollar careers as a trusted diet author and health-and-fitness-product-hawking Home Shopping Network maven. Her breast cancer disclosure, however shaky in its delivery, miraculously not only helped save her lucrative contract with Random House (several diet and hormone-therapy books followed Eat, Cheat and Melt the Fat Away) but also enabled her to extend her brand identity as a disease-battling survivor. The requisite People magazine cover—with the ominous cover line “Is She Risking Her Life?”—soon followed.
And despite an initial flurry of medical-industry outcry underscoring that liposuctioned fat was not used to reconstruct breasts (“I think some of [Somers’ lipo story] is spin,” Dr. Susan Love, a breast cancer expert, told People), Somers emerged a poster girl for breast cancer, alternative treatment and, eventually, hormone-based health protocols. In late April 2001, her oncologists, Mel Silverstein and James Waisman, confirmed to NBC’s Dateline that Somers had a 2.4-cm tumor removed a year earlier, and she rejected recommended chemo in favor of injecting the medically-risky Iscador into her stomach on a daily basis. By this point in the news cycle, physicians, laymen and media pundits continuing to question Somers’ odd and suspicious story about her still seemingly-unrelated lipo were pretty much seen as harassing a cancer survivor.
Unfortunately for Ritter, some viewers unable to grasp the space-time continuum misinterpreted his lipo joke—told a full two weeks prior to Somers’ cancer admission—as a cheap-shot at a woman battling a breast tumor. Entertainment news shows reporting on her King appearance inevitably showed the clip of a solemn-voiced Somers chiding Ritter’s “low-class joke.” Suzanne did nothing publicly to clarify this not-so-wacky chicken-and-egg misunderstanding.
By the second week of April, John released this statement to the press: “My view regarding any tabloid story is to put it down and stomp it. I had no idea of the gravity of Suzanne's condition. I apologize from the bottom of my heart if I caused her any further pain by my ill-informed remarks.” When I interviewed him for TV Guide about Three’s Company’s 25th anniversary a year later, Ritter would publicly only say, “None of that [contract controversy] means anything beside [Suzanne] being healthy and happy as long as possible.”
For those who’d followed the still-healthy-and-happy Somers’ career, her masterful PR turnaround wasn’t totally surprising. Indeed, Suzanne is the ultimate Hollywood survivor, coming an incredibly long way since her star-launching 1973 book of poetry, Touch Me, which SNL’s Kristen Wiig spoofed last week in a hilariously nuanced, and now video-viral, dramatic reading.
But make no mistake: Suzanne has always been laughing her way to the bank. The smart sex bomb used Touch Me and her wee bit as American Graffiti’s mute blonde in the T-bird to land touch-feely appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Producers took note, as did ABC exec Fred Silverman, who saw her scene as a wacky stripper on Starsky and Hutch, recalled her double entendre-laden Carson bits and called her in to join up-and-coming sitcom staple and Waltons co-star Ritter and classically trained stage actress DeWitt in the series-making third pilot of Three’s Company.
Within four years as a Nielsen topper and Newsweek cover girl (Ritter and DeWitt claimed Somers manipulated the shoot—and her co-stars—to become the magazine’s center focus in February 1978), ABC’s favorite as-seen-on-TV bubblehead swelled to the size of Balloon Boy’s runaway mylar dirigible. Untethered to the reality that, despite her burgeoning celebrity, she was the third-billed actor in an ensemble comedy about a guy living with two girls, the quick-witted businesswoman behind TV’s jiggliest sitcom ditz fired her publicist-manager, Farrah’s legendary “starmaker” Jay Bernstein, and turned over the reigns of her career to her husband, Canadian talk show host and supermarket pitchman Alan Hamel.
The power couple’s first item of business: unsuccessfully demanding a raise from $30,000 to $150,000 a week and 10 percent of Three’s Company’s profits in summer 1980. Her producers eventually cut Chrissy to a one-minute phone call at the end of each episode. A defiant Somers took to the media, claiming a back injury/broken ribs caused her to miss tapings, alleging on-set “mob fury” mistreatment and charging Ritter and a “jealous” DeWitt conspired to keep her off the show. The public began to sympathize with Somers, but she was still fired in spring 1981.
Twenty years later and still estranged from her co-stars, a pre-ThighGate Somers was enjoying a multifaceted career resurgence. In 1991, she’d fought her way back from Hollywood oblivion as a star, with Dallas’s Patrick Duffy, of ABC’s new family sitcom Step by Step (which ran to moderate ratings through 1998) and—more importantly—as the leotard-clad pitchperson of the ThighMaster. Since 1997, she’d publicly sworn by her slimming system of food combining (and related food products), called Somersizing, and she promised she kept her body trim and toned by using the ThighMaster, ButtMaster, Torso Track, Butterfly and other Somers-branded exercise gadgets now part of her multimillion-dollar health and fitness empire.
The public had come to trust Suzanne as a soul-baring author and inspiring voice of self-help. In 1988, after a blistering TV Guide cover story titled “The Rise and Fall of a TV Sex Symbol,” Somers dramatically recrafted her (to quote TV Guide) “gambling house chanteuse” image into that of a triumphant survivor of her alcoholic father’s physical and emotional abuse. Keeping Secrets brought the phrase “adult children of alcoholics” to the media forefront, and a thoughtful, heartfelt Suzanne hit the talk show and lecture circuits sharing her family’s touching story before playing herself in the book’s ABC telefilm adaptation timed to her Step by Step and ThighMaster comeback in fall 1991.
After a decade of firm thighs and good fortune, the Enquirer had to go catch her at a liposuction clinic. As Don Knotts’ landlord Mr. Furley would say, “Damn!!!”
Not that potentially career-killing scandal kept Suzanne down for long. In fact, by summer 1998, when Somers released her second autobiography, After the Fall—ostensibly about “blended families” but at its core a well-orchestrated response to my upcoming Three’s Company tell-all (for which Suzanne graciously interviewed)—the again-sitcom-less siren seemed ready for a media fight.
Ritter and DeWitt finally broke their silence about Somers in Come and Knock on Our Door and, subsequently, in the two-hour E! True Hollywood Story version of my book. Suzanne stuck to her story that ABC, wary after high-stakes Laverne & Shirley salary negotiations, and Company’s patriarchal powers-that-be planned her demise prior to her cast-and-crew-alienating sick-out and resulting media blitz—the latter factors inconvenient truths that she now omits from her tale of Three’s Company woe.
And the controversy-loving media forefront is where this onetime celebrity poet-turned-cancer warrior intends to stay. “I am the messenger, the filter for hundreds of doctors of great courage,” Suzanne writes in her Daily Beast blog. “I will be attacked most likely in this article, but read through the lines. I have no agenda.”
He was the legendary persona behind the immortal phrase “come on down!” But Johnny Olson, who died Oct. 12, 1985 from a cerebral hemorrhage, was so much more than a golden-voiced TV sidekick. Just ask fellow announcer, warm-up personality and Olson mentor/friend Randy West, author of the fantastic, brand-new book Johnny Olson: A Voice in Time (BearManor Media).
Hard to believe Johnny would be 100 next May—and that next October marks the 25th anniversary of his sad, shocking death. Thanks to your book, Johnny's voice is still transmitting loud and clear. What inspired your love and admiration for the man and his many talents—and your pursuit to write his biography?
Randy West: Chris, I dislike the expression, “You had to be there” because it rudely excludes everyone who wasn’t at a particular place and time. But those who were “there” to see Johnny, know. Like so many of the millions of audience members he entertained over the decades, I was transformed by Johnny’s presence. Within seconds of stepping on stage on what was likely just another rainy day to him, Johnny had me and 300 grouchy, wet New Yorkers who were tired from standing in line energized, enthused, laughing and bonding with the strangers they were sitting near. Johnny had a magical ability, and as a kid, I was compelled to watch him do it again and again.
Eventually Johnny included me in his warm-up act as a seemingly random audience member who volunteered when he asked who would be willing to get him a cup of water. Each time he sent me off-stage with convoluted and confusing directions to the nearest water fountain, I developed more confidence to mug facial reactions and ad-lib questions, and the routine got longer and funnier. He taught me how to get a laugh upon my return with an empty cup that I seemed to have spilled as I tripped and stumbled over the camera cables. He gave me the laugh, instead of making me the brunt of a joke, and the audience’s response invoked a feeling I had never before experienced.
What ultimately inspired this book was Johnny’s generosity. He was willing to invest his time and encouragement with a stranger who admired him. He mentored me from enthusiastic fan to working broadcaster by sharing the tricks of his trade, and he enriched the entire experience with his passion for people and his unique behind-the-scenes historical perspective of the business. That wealth of knowledge had to be chronicled, Johnny’s extensive career had to be catalogued, and his incredible character had to be celebrated. As you say, it’s now almost 25 years since he passed. It’s obvious that the time was right to be certain that his memory didn’t permanently fade.
Most of America, of course, recalls Johnny as the announcer who made "Come on down!" one of TV's most famous catch phrases. What did this radio and TV pioneer make of his burgeoning game-show celebrity in his "retirement years"? What drove him to keep working into his seventies?
Johnny told me that he first felt the thrill of audience approval as a kid, when he sang at his local movie theater. I think he simply loved that feeling – the warm adrenalin rush that accompanied his making emotional connections with strangers. What Johnny called “making merry” was a selfless gift, but I know he also derived a very personal reward from the admiration that he saw on the faces of smiling audience members.
The greatest lesson to be learned from Johnny was in the grace and dignity with which he transitioned from work as a host, emcee and top-billed attraction to the supporting role for which he is now best remembered. While others who have faced the realities of a youth-obsessed media passing them by as they aged haven’t reacted well to the challenge, Johnny not only made the most of the opportunities still before him, he also elevated the entire job of announcer and warm-up performer to new heights that earned him continuing recognition and respect. Talk about being handed lemons and making lemonade, Johnny added his unique ingredients and concocted a recipe that few have come close to replicating.
At the age of 62, Johnny and his wife Penny were planning retirement when the call came from Goodson-Todman with an offer to move to Los Angeles for a new version of Price. He and Penny assumed, like most shows, it would run its course in a year or two and the couple would be well out of the limelight and enjoying a quiet life together in rural West Virginia by the time Johnny reached age 65. As the show continued, season after season, Johnny loved the work too much to walk away, and Penny understood his passion for the work too much to make it an issue. If Johnny were alive and able today, he’d likely still be doing the job and America’s TV fans would be richer for it!
We also lovingly recall his anything-for-a-laugh Showcase skits. How did Johnny's "one-man operation" as KGDA radio's station manager—a $25-a-week gig he landed at 18—shape his knack for creating characters and performing comedy sketches?
Radio was played in the theater-of-the-mind of the listener, and using only his voice Johnny created fully developed comedic characters. He acted the roles of sidekicks, guests and even serious interview subjects to fill the forty and fifty hours some weeks that he was alone, behind a radio microphone in the 1930s. Only through years of ad-libbing in accents and dialects did he master the gift for fabricating over-the-top, fun characterizations.
I can’t imagine putting all that experience to better use than those wacky Price showcase skits first penned by Jay Wolpert. And knowing how little rehearsal time they had to collaborate on those sketches can only heighten our appreciation of the skill it took to play those insanely funny skits for maximum laughs, live to tape, without any chance for second takes.
How much did Johnny enjoy hamming it up with Barker's Beauties Janice Pennington, Anitra Ford, Dian Parkinson and Holly Hallstrom during Price is Right's golden years on CBS?
Johnny absolutely loved those opportunities! As Holly tells it, Johnny and the girls would huddle before their one shot at a quick rehearsal to collaborate and devise the shtick and bits of “business” that would make the most of the skit. I know he enjoyed the creative challenge, but more than anything he loved the camaraderie with Barker’s Beauties and the on-camera opportunities that were so few and far between in the second half of his TV career. He saved dozens of the scripts from those showcase sketches. It’s clear those were his favorite moments!
Few knew Johnny was also a singer. How did his passion for crooning propel his pursuit of a career in radio?
Singing afforded John an opportunity to participate in show business long before he had developed the hosting, announcing and interview skills that made him an in-demand broadcaster. From school productions and local theater, Johnny’s first work on radio was as “The Buttermilk Kid,” crooning on a tiny station in Minnesota. From there, singing was Johnny’s ticket to recording studios and hundreds of gigs across the country as he fronted a number of musical groups.
In fact, it was while performing as a singer at a Hollywood radio station in the 1940s that John had the epiphany to refocus his goals from vocalist to radio host. He left the musical group, and stayed in Hollywood to seriously pursue a career in broadcasting. It was a risky move, but Johnny followed his heart. There’s a lesson there for all of us.
How did you come to know Johnny and his wife, Penny? What became of his long-ago plans to write a memoir? Was this book the chief reason he saved so many clippings and other relics of his career?
My friendship with Johnny grew from those in-studio moments we first shared when I was in my early teens. I only came into contact with Penny after Johnny’s death. Among Johnny’s personal effects she saved and I now have is a long paper trail concerning a planned autobiography. He wrote outlines and sample chapters about his life and career which one friend suggested be adapted to be more of a history of broadcasting as he experienced it. It was exciting to pour over the carbon-paper copies and handwritten chicken-scratched notes to see how the idea was refined. Johnny ultimately abandoned the project, but I was careful to include all of the subject matter he was working on and the stories he wanted to tell.
The idea for a book seems to have only materialized in the 1960s. As Johnny began saving clippings, tapes and kinescopes decades earlier, I believe the scripts and other ephemera were collected simply to commemorate the high points of his career. Remember, Johnny loved his work!
Johnny and Penny were show biz partners, too. Often serving as his associate producer and, in the case of the popular radio-turned-TV show Ladies Be Seated, his on-screen supporting player, what role did Penny play behind the scenes in her husband's long and varied career?
Penny was in the trenches with Johnny, and she was very capable in a wide variety of jobs. From playing character roles in sketches, singing and dancing, to selecting contestants and procuring prizes, to arranging the logistics at hundreds of personal appearances, Johnny described her as “masterful” in bringing all of the pieces together for many of his programs.
By all indications Penny loved being part of the work her husband enjoyed so much, and there is much to suggest that she had been bitten by the show biz bug herself. Penny continued to give interviews long after she retired from the public eye, and reflected on her career with great enthusiasm. Her partnership with Johnny likely gave her far more opportunities and fame than she would have enjoyed on her own.
I think the greatest and most selfless gift she gave Johnny was the freedom to pursue his passion for more than a decade after she had hoped the couple would have retired. As loving a partner as Penny was, she also supported Johnny’s pursuit of the love he so treasured from the audiences.
Many don't realize the extent to which Johnny was a camera-ready personality and showman—and star of the American Bandstand-esque Johnny Olson's Rumpus Room on ABC in 1946. Tell us how he ultimately became Jackie Gleason's go-to announcer and Mark Goodson's golden game show voice?
Mark Goodson and Johnny actually crossed paths many times, years before they formed their successful alliance. As early as 1947 Johnny hosted a pilot for Goodson-Todman’s radio game show Time’s A-Wastin.’ But it took almost a decade before Goodson hired him again. The producer ultimately came to rely on Johnny as his “voice of choice,” and he was the first and only announcer Goodson considered for the 1972 return of Price.
Other producers were first to exploit John’s versatility. Before his 25-plus-year teaming with Goodson, John hosted everything from talent competitions, variety shows, interview programs and quizzers. As an announcer and sidekick he was paired with some of the biggest radio and TV stars, from Kate Smith to Glenn Miller, Merv Griffin and Jackie Gleason.
Johnny worked with Gleason on the comedian’s very first variety show for DuMont television, and they were next together in 1963 for a flop of mythical proportions called You’re In The Picture. Although that CBS show was cancelled after only one airing, Gleason became a huge fan of Johnny’s work that night. Gleason flew John across the country, between New York, Atlantic City and Hollywood, hundreds of times over the years to be part of every subsequent Gleason TV show that was staged before a studio audience.
Johnny hosted TV series up through 1964's On Broadway Tonight for CBS. Did he ever express regret that his career didn't ultimately go the TV emcee route a la fellow audience-participation radio show vet Bob Barker?
This is a very telling moment in Johnny’s life, and it gives us great insight to his character. While he enjoyed on-camera moments on that short-lived series, Johnny’s swan song as a TV host was the 1963 Mrs. America pageant. Judging by the wealth of materials he kept from the broadcast, it was one he wanted to remember.
There’s no doubt that he missed his work as an emcee, and for decades Johnny proudly reminded studio audiences that he had been the host of television’s very first daytime network entertainment program. But in the true tradition of a showman, Johnny never expressed any disappointment. The only public peek behind his seamless veneer was in comments he made to a Time magazine reporter in which he admitted it was a comedown to now be warming-up other hosts’ audiences, but he laughed it off by pointing out that the many shows he was able to announce simultaneously yielded a higher income.
After hosting opportunities faded, Johnny made the best of a situation that would have made performers of lesser character bitter. Despite being relegated to a supporting role, Johnny continued to approach his work with a level of enthusiasm that ultimately earned him greater respect than if he had continued as an aging on-camera personality on lesser assignments, such as local shows or commercials. In retrospect, it’s clear that he gained far more fame from those years as an announcer than from all of his earlier hosting work.
From your dual perspective as a successful announcer/studio audience warm-up personality and friend of Johnny's, what made him and Barker click professionally as host-star/announcer-sidekick as well as personally off camera?
That’s easy. Johnny was the best at discerning when he could support a host with a quick line or a simple laugh, and knew when to sublimate his own creative instincts to be certain to never upstage or outshine an emcee. Having spent hundreds and hundreds of hours as a host, Johnny had incredible sensitivity to when it might be helpful to contribute a straight line or a laugh in order to smooth an awkward moment or to help an emcee with a transition, but he never lost sight of his role as a second banana.
Gene Rayburn who had been a host as well as sidekick to Steve Allen knew the trick of maintaining that delicate balance, and was always outspoken in his praise of Johnny’s ability to walk that tightrope. In discussing the importance of having a trusted on-air partner, Bob Barker said, “When you’re in ad-lib situations with people, you want to know that they have the good taste and good judgment not to embarrass you.” Johnny filled that bill; he never even approached the line between G-rated good taste and questionable content.
I had a discussion with Barker about that very issue when I was announcing The Price is Right in 2003. During a commercial break, a couple in the audience told Bob that they were newlyweds, married only 2 days. He offered only the most wholesome congratulations on their recent nuptials, and the audience applauded to help celebrate their good fortune. I later confided that I would have been tempted to respond with something more like, “Married two days; what are you doing out of bed?” While Barker is no prude off-stage, he taught me that such a response could be offensive to some, and would steal the moment from the proud couple. Those were the kind of values and instincts he and Johnny shared.
Speaking of kindred spirits, some of Barker’s and Johnny’s mutual respect stemmed from their parallel careers separated by 3,000 miles. While both originally hailed from America’s heartland, Johnny was pioneering in New York’s early television community while Barker was hosting many of the same kinds of programs in Los Angeles. There was an added bond between the two in that Barker’s mother had been a fan of Johnny’s dating back to a time decades earlier when she first saw him at a personal appearance in the Midwest.
Describe Johnny's repertoire of high-energy, anything-for-a-laugh audience warm-up skills—including his famous "peacock dance." Why were these pre-show talents critical in particular for an audience participation show such as Price?
From the earliest days of broadcasting it became well known that an engaged and receptive audience was vital to the success of a program. Johnny knew firsthand that when even the best prepared material falls flat on its face in the studio, the lack of an enthusiastic response from a live audience would simultaneously dampen the home audience’s perception of a show’s entertainment value.
The unique staging that has the audience not only audible but prominently on-camera at Price made it vital that those 330 folks all be involved, engaged and enthused throughout the show—the more manic, the better. Johnny would dance, run, bump, grind, kiss, cajole and joke with incredible vim, vigor and vitality in order to infuse the audience with a level of energy that could pour right through the TV screen and into living rooms. Johnny had a special innate charm and likeability that made his antics especially endearing. He was part of what made Price feel-good television for all those years.
It’s tempting to say, “you had to be there,” but for those who weren’t, a great deal of Johnny’s act and the details of his well developed philosophy about audience warm-up are explored in Johnny Olson: A Voice in Time.
Johnny's death in 1985 was shocking. For young viewers growing up on Price during summer reruns and sick days, it was as if a voice from heaven was suddenly silenced. How did his death affect your life?
Like everyone, viewers, co-workers and friends alike, I was shocked. With Johnny’s ubiquitous presence on television for so many years, it seemed like he would always be with us. Although Johnny was 75 years old, he was in good shape and there was no indication that a health crisis was imminent. We hadn’t spoken for a while, and I felt sad that I hadn’t been in closer contact. I would have liked to say “thanks” again for all that he gave me.
You were friends with Johnny's Price successor, the late Rod Roddy. Did Rod ever share with you the pressures of filling Johnny's huge shoes as the godly voice behind "Come on down!"
Dear Rod. What a wonderful guy; kind and complex, simultaneously silly and so serious. Rod was a very private person, and I think he would appreciate my choice to respect that privacy.
The Match Game certainly pushed the envelope in the '70s and early '80s—and Johnny always seemed game for its double entendre humor. Was he comfortable with the increasingly risque TV landscape? What do you think he'd say about the provocative humor on your current show, GSN's hit remake of The Newlywed Game?
Johnny would likely not believe that so much of what is on television today clearly crosses a line he rarely approached, even in private. While I never considered him a prude, Johnny’s sense of good taste kept him focused far more on the living room than on the bedroom or bathroom where so much of the content of today’s TV seems to be rooted.
He made it a point during his Match Game warm-ups to tell audience members “don’t think too much about the answers… just go along with the ‘booze, boobs and broads’… it’s all in fun.”
Little offends me, and I have a very colorful vocabulary. I love the fun, but I experience a little culture shock at some Newlywed Game tapings knowing that the discussion is meant for television. Husbands disclose all kinds of intimate details including whether, during sex, their wives are more likely to be facing the ceiling, the wall, or a pillow. On one recent episode I introduced a husband repeating his wife’s pet name for him, “Sir Farts-a-lot.” No, I can’t imagine Johnny ever saying that for public consumption, but I don’t think he would have been judgmental. After all, entertainment has always been based upon giving an audience what it wants.
Any final thoughts you'd like to share about Johnny, his legacy and—thanks to you—his finally-realized life story?
Just that I’m so pleased that more people will now have the chance to learn about the man behind one of American television’s most popular voices. Johnny Olson lived an amazing life, and brought such positive energy and optimism to every undertaking. From the youngest of ten children in a family of a dozen members who all shared a one bedroom / one bathroom farmhouse to a nationally-known entertainer, John’s story is quite a tale.
I derive constant inspiration from Johnny’s work ethic, as well as the absence of cynicism and sarcasm in his approach to life. It’s a beacon that helps me stay on course when times are challenging. John said he hadn’t missed a single day of work since 1948. While that’s an impressive record, more inspiring is the upbeat attitude, professionalism and good cheer that Johnny brought to each and every one of those days.
Thanks Chris, for helping to whet the appetite for those who want to know more about this amazing, generous and kind-hearted friend to all he met! I encourage those who are interested in learning more about Johnny Olson’s life and career to preview the new biography at www.tvrandywest.com