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|Also Known As:||Richard Vincent Van Patten, Dickie Van Patten||Died:||June 23, 2015|
|Born:||December 9, 1928||Cause of Death:|
|Birth Place:||Kew Gardens, New York, USA||Profession:||actor|
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Recognizable for his perennially cherubic countenance and myriad roles of mild-mannered and beleaguered fathers or authority figures on the big and small screen, Dick Van Patten boasted one of the lengthiest and most varied résumés in the acting business. As a child, Van Patten performed alongside giants of Broadway during its Golden Age in some of the theater's greatest works, became a familiar face nationally in the early days of television, and deftly avoided the "child actor curse" that some of his later co-stars could not, working consistently for six decades. Becoming a patriarch of a prolific show business family of his own, he briefly came to engender an American everydad in the 1970s comedy/drama "Eight is Enough" (ABC, 1977-1981), even as he built his comedic bona fides as a regular in the goofball ensemble often used by director Mel Brooks in classic comedies like "High Anxiety" (1977). In his later years, Van Patten essayed his lifelong love of animals into a successful line of pet food products that bore his name and image. This, on top of a career in which, by his own onetime estimate, "I've probably had more jobs than any other actor living." Dick Van Patten died of complications from...
Recognizable for his perennially cherubic countenance and myriad roles of mild-mannered and beleaguered fathers or authority figures on the big and small screen, Dick Van Patten boasted one of the lengthiest and most varied résumés in the acting business. As a child, Van Patten performed alongside giants of Broadway during its Golden Age in some of the theater's greatest works, became a familiar face nationally in the early days of television, and deftly avoided the "child actor curse" that some of his later co-stars could not, working consistently for six decades. Becoming a patriarch of a prolific show business family of his own, he briefly came to engender an American everydad in the 1970s comedy/drama "Eight is Enough" (ABC, 1977-1981), even as he built his comedic bona fides as a regular in the goofball ensemble often used by director Mel Brooks in classic comedies like "High Anxiety" (1977). In his later years, Van Patten essayed his lifelong love of animals into a successful line of pet food products that bore his name and image. This, on top of a career in which, by his own onetime estimate, "I've probably had more jobs than any other actor living." Dick Van Patten died of complications from diabetes on June 23, 2015, at the age of 86.
Born in New York, NY, on Dec. 9, 1928, Richard Vincent Van Patten spent his earliest years in a family enamored with the theater. Every Friday night, by his telling, his mother Josephine and father Richard Byron Van Patten, a furniture salesman, would make a subway pilgrimage from their home in Brooklyn into Manhattan to see Broadway plays. Josephine would soon fancy herself a "stage mother," Van Patten recalled, and entered him in a "beautiful child" competition, which earned him an MGM screen test in Hollywood. He did not win a studio contract, but, upon returning to New York, his mother persistently secured meetings with agents and producers. It paid off when, at age seven, he was cast in the play "Tapestry in Gray" as the son of lead Melvyn Douglas, who would go on to win a Tony and two Academy Awards for his work. It began an impressive Broadway career that would see "Dickie Van Patten" - as he was oft-billed - cut his teeth on stages with such luminaries as Sam Jaffe, Fredric March, William Bendix and Tallulah Bankhead. Throughout these years, he went to school at the Professional Children's School on New York's Upper West Side, which specifically catered to young working artists, also attended by his sister Joyce and a fellow child actor by name of Sidney Lumet, the future Oscar-winning film director.
Dickie and Joyce together won parts on a radio play called "Reg'lar Fellers," which was made into a movie in 1941 starring Our Gang star Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer - their first (albeit brief) big screen time. Another imminent Oscar-winner, Elia Kazan, directed Dickie in Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy "The Skin of Our Teeth" in 1942. His co-star in the play, the tempestuous and irrepressible Bankhead, disliked working with children but famously said she liked Dickie because he could read her The Daily Racing Form, presaging a later passion of Van Patten's. It also hinted at Van Patten's affinity for animals, which his success translated into a "menagerie" of pets, as he would later call it, including snakes and alligators. In 1946, he won a major role in "Oh Mistress Mine" over two teen up-and-comers, Marlon Brando and Roddy McDowell, and spent more than a year with the show on Broadway and two more in the touring production. In 1948, he starred alongside Henry Fonda in the Pulitzer-winning play "Mr. Roberts," playing Ensign Pulver, the role for which Jack Lemmon would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the 1955 film version.
But after spending most his childhood and teen years in live theater, a more secure job would manifest in the burgeoning field of television; specifically CBS, which cast Van Patten as the eldest son, Nels, in what would become the prototype family comedy/drama, "Mama" (1949-1957). Following the lives of a struggling, blue-collar Norwegian family and its wisdom-spinning title matriarch, the show became the most lasting iteration of what had become a proto-media franchise based on the Kathryn Forbes memoir Mama's Bank Account, which had inspired a Broadway play and 1948 movie under that name "I Remember Mama." As with much early television, the show was initially broadcast live, apropos to Van Patten's stage training (but leaving few recordings of the episodes to posterity), and he became a familiar face to Americans through his twenties, the show consistently rating in the Top 20. During "Mama," he also reacquainted himself with one of his old schoolmates, Pat Poole, now performing with the famed June Taylor Dancers on another CBS offering, "The Jackie Gleason Show" (1952-70). The two married in 1954 and the next year named their first-born son, Nels.
When "Mama" ended production, Van Patten stayed busy with TV guest appearances and a few film roles, as well as returning to live theater. His movie roles ranged from the low-budget proto-slasher flick "Violent Midnight" (1963) to the Academy Award-winning "Charly" (1968); from B-grade horror camp like "Beware! The Blob" (1972) and fluffy Disney live-action fare like "The Strongest Man in the World" (1975) to the sci-fi classics "Westworld" (1973) and "Soylent Green" (1973). He returned to series TV in the Don Adams cop comedy "The Partners" (NBC, 1971-72) and, when the network cancelled that program, he landed a role in "The New Dick Van Dyke Show" (CBS, 1972-74). In the meantime, he became ubiquitous as a guest-star, doing one-offs on such period staples as "I Dream of Jeannie" (NBC, 1965-1970), "Sanford & Son" (NBC, 1972-77), "The Doris Day Show" (CBS, 1968-1973), "McMillan & Wife" (NBC, 1971-77), "Cannon" (CBS, 1971-76), "Love, American Style" (ABC, 1969-1974), "Adam-12" (NBC, 1968-1975), "Medical Center" (CBS, 1969-1976) and "The Six Million Dollar Man" (ABC, 1974-78) - just to name a handful. Curiously, he shared the latter credit with as his son Vince, who briefly became the young cyborg protégé of Steve Austin in a special "Six Million" two-hour TV movie dubbed "The Bionic Boy" (ABC, 1976) - just one outcrop of a growing Van Patten family infestation of the American visual entertainment.
In fact, throughout the 1970s, it was hard NOT to find a Van Patten somewhere on TV, film or in the latest fan magazines. Vince, the Van Pattens' youngest son, had begun netting child parts in series TV as early as 1970, racking up 20 jobs through 1974, when he was cast as a regular on "Apple's Way" (CBS, 1974-75). Jimmy, Dick and Pat's second child, began a similar pattern in 1972, becoming a go-to kid for Disney during its period of live-action movies. Dick's sister Joyce, meanwhile, had followed a similar career route as a frequent TV guest-star, as well as landing prominent supporting roles in 1968's Peter Sellers comedy "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas" and a 1974 movie remake of "Mame!" Joyce's daughter by ex-husband and Oscar-winner Martin Balsam, Talia Balsam, would begin her own acting career in 1977. And Joyce and Dick's much younger half-brother, Timothy Van Patten, would make his debut a few years later as a regular in the groundbreaking NBC inner-city drama "The White Shadow" (1978-1981) and went on to be an award-winning director for his work on HBO's "The Sopranos" (1999-2007). To say the entertainment biz was in the Van Patten blood line, it would seem, was an understatement.
The mid-1970s would usher Van Patten to two projects that would thereafter characterize him in the public eye. First, in 1975, he began his professional association with Mel Brooks. Both were avid tennis players and established a fast friendship, which no doubt led to Brooks casting Van Patten in his off-the-wall treatment of the Robin Hood legend, "When Things Were Rotten" (ABC, 1975). The show built on the topical satire that had informed Brooks' previous TV hit, "Get Smart" (NBC, 1965-1970) - which had starred Van Patten's former co-star, and poker partner, Don Adams - and went further to anachronize it in Sherwood Forest and ratchet up the zany, with fusillades of sight-gags, consciously lame jokes and breaking the "fourth wall." It posited Robin Hood and his Merry Men less as elegant, clever swashbucklers and more as medieval buffoons who, like Maxwell Smart, stumbled their way to their weekly victories over even more inept f s. Brooks brought along "Smart" regulars Dick Gautier (Robin) and Bernie Kopell (Alan-a-Dale), with Van Patten as their flighty, ever-noshing Friar Tuck, but the show proved either too ahead-of-its-time, as some posited, or simply too hammy to find a groove with audiences and lasted only through the fall before ABC pulled the plug. But his unofficial affiliation with Brooks' ensemble of semi-regulars would continue, starting in 1977 with a role in Brooks' Hitchcock spoof, "High Anxiety."
In the interim, The Douglas S. Cramer Company cast Van Patten in a two-hour TV movie for ABC called "The Love Boat" (1976), a "comedy" that would track varied vignettes of cruise-ship guests and their amorous couplings. Van Patten played the ship's doctor, Adam O'Neill, and the movie rated well enough to spur two more, with Aaron Spelling Productions taking over, but without Van Patten on board. ABC - soon to greenlight the movie series into a regular hourly sitcom of the same name (1977-1986) - had him on contract but had other plans for him. His friend Bernie Kopell replaced him as the doctor, leaving Van Patten to go on to anchor his own show - a return to the family comedy/drama genre that first introduced him to television - with "Eight is Enough" (1977-81). The show premiered as a mid-season replacement in March 1977. With Van Patten as Tom Bradford, the patriarch of a large family, the show posed a cross between classic TV's vanilla families and the more reality-infused shows that were challenging the "safe" TV paradigm in the 1970s - usually shown through the trials and tribulations of Van Patten's gaggle of young, attractive on-screen spawn. It proved an odd admixture, as a quirkier, contemporary "Waltons" (CBS, 1972-1981) with sassier spawn - none of whom looked much like another - shot on film but presumptuously using a laugh-track on joke lines. If Van Patten expected his fond experiences of child stardom and TV's halcyon days to be repeated with his new on-air family, he would find himself sorely disappointed.
Nearly out of the gate, the show hit turbulent waters, as Diana Hyland, who played Bradford's wife Joan, died suddenly of cancer after filming only four episodes, her character written out only as "away" for the rest of the first season. The show returned the next season and came in an impressive 13th in the overall ratings, but even as it remained stable in the Nielsen's Top 20, things would get worse off camera. Joan Bradford's death was written into the show in Season 2, and Van Patten would get a new love interest, Abby, played by Betty Buckley, though the two demonstrated little on-screen chemistry. Van Patten developed a particular rapport with the youngest Bradford, likely seeing something from his early career in the baby-faced scene stealer, Adam Rich, who began playing Nicholas when only nine years old and for whom the writers often called on to deliver a simple wisdom-of-innocence message to solve the problem of the week. But as for the rest of the cast, their TV dad reportedly kept himself above what would become a showbiz Bacchanal behind the scenes. The theater-trained Buckley bridled at the inelegant, assembly-line process of television work, but more ominously, the gaggle of young talent - thrust so quickly into fame and fortune - behaved accordingly, at least by contemporary Hollywood standards. The "siblings" engaged in affairs with each other, some developed drug and alcohol habits, all of which went compounded by jealous squabbling over screen time, lines and publicity. The second youngest Bradford, Willie Aames (Tommy) became an instant Tiger Beat heartthrob to young girls, who would have been struck dumb to find out he had a flight with sister Connie Needham (Elizabeth) during the first season, which made for set tension when she dumped him a year later. Aames, just 16 when the show began, also became drinking buddies with Grant Goodeve (eldest son David) who even admitted in a People Weekly puff piece in 1979 that the two would sometimes "drink so much beer we'd come into work cross-eyed." Aames later reported that by the time he turned 18, he was doing harder drugs up to six times a week. Susan Richardson (Susan) got pregnant during the show, prompting producers to write it and, later, her new baby Sarah into the show, but when she had difficulty losing the 90 pounds she had put on, she opted for a cocaine diet out of fear of being replaced in the part. Eldest daughter Lani O'Grady (Mary) developed such a valium addiction that by 1980, she began showing up late to work and screwing up her lines, to the point where producers finally threatened to fire her if she did not clean up. Even Rich began drinking when only 11 and smoking marijuana at 12, before moving on to LSD and coke after the series shuttered.
Despite the off-screen shenanigans, the show continued to perform well, finishing No. 12 overall in the 1979-80 season, and it hit No. 1 one week on the strength of a double episode featuring two of the Bradford children getting married in one ceremony. "Eight is Enough" dropped to a still respectable No. 18 the next year, but at season's end ABC execs - likely troubled by the constant roiling on and off set - abruptly pulled the plug on the show, to the surprise of many, including Van Patten. "Nobody called me to tell me it was cancelled," he said years later. "I read it in the paper."
Free of his most famous role, Van Patten retained a development deal with the network, shot a pilot for a sitcom, "Fit for a King" the next year, and at one point claimed to have a "Charlie's Angels" (ABC, 1976-1981) satire in mind, to be called "Dick's Devils," but nothing saw air. He returned to his familiar pattern of frequent guest-star and supporting film roles, including a total of six guest spots on "The Love Boat." He reunited with Mel Brooks in 1987, playing the hapless King Roland in Brooks' spoof of the Star Wars trilogy, "Space Balls." But the Bradfords, for all their issues, would just not fade away so easily. That same year, NBC called Van Patten back for "Eight is Enough: A Family Reunion" (1987), then again for "An Eight is Enough Wedding" (1989). The Bradford clan, however, had not borne the end of the show's demise as well. Many had bowed out of the acting game or would soon, and Van Patten claimed to stay in touch with all his onetime TV kids. Aames had plummeted from his It-boy status into a drug spiral, and O'Grady continued her own battle with prescription drugs and booze, eventually dying of an overdose of Vicodin and Prozac in 2001. Richardson notoriously claimed to be swindled by her management and kidnapped and sold into white slavery in North Korea -a story few believed - suffered a breakdown, and later said that she was nearly homeless at one point when Van Patten, her daughter's godfather, simply took money out of his pocket and gave it to her for her and Sarah's airfare back to her native Pennsylvania. Rich, who so neatly fit the tabloid "child star curse" became most famous for his fall from America's-darling status, snaring a couple short-lived shows before succumbing to his own addictions. Hungover one day during the "Reunion" shooting, he got into a car accident on his way to the studio and got to the set late, prompting the studio execs to suggest he get himself into rehab, which he did, then got the boot for smuggling in cocaine. He was caught attempting to rob a pharmacy in 1991, and estranged from both his parents, he called Van Patten, who immediately posted Rich's $5,000 bail. "I just did what anybody would do for a friend," Van Patten told People.
He returned to a series cast job, joining the ensemble drama "WIOU" (CBS, 1990-91) for its one-season run, then hooked up with Brooks again in 1993 on familiar turf for them both, "Robin Hood: Men in Tights." Though timed to send up two recent big-screen Robin Hood retreatments - foremost Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" (1991) - "Men in Tights" came off as an even hammier, but still joyously stupid, iteration. Van Patten returned to a clergyman's role, playing The Abbot, with Brooks himself transposing Friar Tuck into "Rabbi Tuckman," alongside Cary Elwes as Robin, Richard Lewis as a wholly neurotic Prince John, Tracey Ullman as the witch Latrine, and Dave Chappelle as an incongruously African member of the Merry Men, Ahchoo (a riff on the Costner film's casting of Morgan Freeman). In ensuing years, Van Patten spiced up his regular guest and supporting regime with some creative veers off the beaten path. In 1999, he made a brief, hilariously untoward cameo on Fox's ribald cartoon, "Family Guy" (1999- ), voicing over an animated version of himself as Tom Bradford. The next year in the raw indie film, "The Price of Air" (2000), Van Patten played almost devilishly against type, playing a sanguinely murderous, racist businessman who hosts S&M parties and bankrolls the drug trade. The film drew almost universally critical pans, so few people would see amiable, now grandfatherly Tom Bradford utter the line, "You f*cked my wife and now you are trying to f*ck me."
But Van Patten had also branched out in a more lucrative direction: the pet care industry. While on a talk show appearance in the 1980s, Van Patten had chance to strike up a conversation with drummer J y Herrick, and the two swapped tales of their predilections for fauna. Herrick shared his idea of creating a healthier dog food and Van Patten said he played tennis with a vet who could counsel them on how to do so; sort of an organic alternative to the pet food industry, guaranteeing doting pet-parents "no filler, no wheat, no corn, no soy and no by-products." Though it started off in 1989 as a struggling niche brand, Dick Van Patten's Natural Balance grew into a $40 million business by 2004 and recast him as, according to one business wag, "the Paul Newman of the pet food industry." The company expanded beyond the consumer business to all but corner the market on specialty food for American zoos, and drew Van Patten to a new kind of public performance - appearing at trade shows and zoos to promote his products, which, like Newman's Own brand's colorful representations of its famous namesake, features Van Patten in different guises representative of the different products, including Irish Stew, Hobo Chili and Chinese Take-out.
Son Jimmy also got involved in the pet food business, evidence of the close-knit relationships maintained in the immediate family, all living adjacent to each other in Sherman Oaks, CA, and still playing tennis (Vince became a tennis pro at one point). But the family endured its share of rough spots. In January 2006, Van Patten, who had Type 2 diabetes, suffered a diabetic stroke, though he subsequently made a full recovery. In the spring of 2007, Dick Van Patten's Natural Balance found its brand image stained when it became mired in the pet food contamination scandal which killed numerous pets. Van Patten and Herrick recalled some Natural Balance products when traces of melamine were found - an industrial chemical increasingly occurring in pet products whose companies who sourced either production or ingredients in China. In August 2007, Natural Balance was named alongside Binzhou Futian Biological Technology, maker of a rice-protein ingredient imported by one of the company's suppliers, in a class action lawsuit filed by people whose pets became sick or died from melamine ingestion. The company said it would fight the suit, and pointed out its already rigorous damage control mode, spending $500,000 for an in-house product-testing lab and paying out some $600,000 in veterinary claims by consumers, including one $14,000 payment, as Herrick recalled it, that went to pay for medical care that saved a dog's life. Returning to the screen, Van Patten guested in episodes of "The Sarah Silverman Program" (Comedy Central 2007-2010) and "Hot In Cleveland" (TVLand 2010-15), and had a supporting role in the family comedy "Opposite Day" (2009). Dick Van Patten died of complications from diabetes on June 23, 2015, at the age of 86.
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"My mother was a real stage mother. On the other hand, it's terrible if a stage mother pushes a child into a business. People berate stage mothers--but how about mothers who push their kids to become doctors and lawyers?" --Dick Van Patten to Army Archerd in DAILY VARIETY, February 28, 1997
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