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.