Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Many Degrees of DVP

Which Dick Van Patten would you like to remember and mourn today?

Is it the actor Van Patten, who most famously seeped into our consciousness as Tom Bradford, the patriarch of the TV family on ABC's "Eight is Enough" from 1977-81?

Is it the tennis player Van Patten, whose sons got some of the old man's genes and did pretty good on the court as well?

Is it the animal activist Van Patten, who worked tirelessly for our furried and feathered friends, including founding National Guide Dog Month in 2008?

Is it the entrepreneur Van Patten, who co-founded Natural Balance Pet Foods in 1989?

Take your pick---or take them all, if you'd like.

Van Patten passed away on Tuesday at age 86. Some reports blame the cause of death on complications related to diabetes.

There was some juice to the Van Patten name in the entertainment industry. There was Dick, of course, and there was his younger sister Joyce, a fellow actor. There were the Van Patten boys---Vincent, Nels and Jimmy---who were all actors.

It's so fitting that Dick Van Patten made his most pop culture hay as family man Tom Bradford on "Eight is Enough" because his own family tree is pretty interesting and runs like an artery through show business.

In addition to the aforementioned, check this out.

Van Patten's sister Joyce married actor Martin Balsam, and the couple had a child---actress Talia Balsam.

Talia Balsam's first husband was George Clooney. You may have heard of him.

Talia Balsam is now married to "Mad Men" actor John Slattery.

Van Patten's son Vince is married to soap star and current reality TV personality Eileen Davidson.

Dick's other son Nels is married to former "Baywatch" regular Nancy Valen.

For some, it may seem like "Eight is Enough" lasted longer than just four seasons, but that's a testament to the show's impact. It hit the small screen four years after "The Brady Bunch" filmed its last episode, and American TV viewers were ready for a family show featuring a large brood that was a little more grown up.

With "EiE," entire episodes weren't spent on trying to find the family dog or teaching kids lessons about humility. The show was about (mostly) grown-up kids who had more convoluted issues.

Of course, by the end of the hour, all the loose ends were tied up, but not before some laughter, some crying and some reflection.

Real-life tragedy was dealt with, as well.

Actress Diana Hyland was originally cast as Tom Bradford's wife but she succumbed to cancer four episodes into season two. Her untimely death wasn't ignored, like the shows from the 1950s and 1960s would have done---replacing the passed away actor with someone else playing the same character.

Instead, the producers of "EiE" dealt with Hyland's death head on, writing it into the show, and the cast's mourning on the screen was real.

Betty Buckley was brought in to play Tom's new love interest (and eventual second wife), Abby, for seasons two through four.

Leading it all was Dick Van Patten, whose character was based on real-life newspaper columnist Tom Braden, who chronicled his large family with an autobiographical book also titled Eight is Enough---a reference to Braden's (and Bradford's) eight children.



Dick Van Patten was hardly the leading man type---thin-haired, slightly paunchy and with a round face. He looked more like your neighbor---which was likely why Tom Bradford resonated on the screen. Van Patten looked like a guy who had eight kids and who worked for a newspaper.

Van Patten's Tom Bradford was also unlike other TV dads in the sense that he wasn't written as a buffoon who somehow got a pretty, smart girl to marry him. The kids didn't zing witty one-liners at dad's expense; rather, Tom Bradford was a true patriarch who had his kids' respect.

Van Patten was acting on stage and screen for some 28 years before he got the "EiE" gig, but he was treated by many viewers as a virtual unknown until 1977. Such is the power of being a lead actor on a successful TV show.

Van Patten was also a favorite of comedian/director Mel Brooks, who cast Dick in a number of films.

Such was Dick Van Patten's varied interests that he even served as a TV commentator for the World Series of Poker from 1993-95.

Trivia: Van Patten named his son Nels after the character that Dick played in his first TV job, a series called "Mama" (1949-57).

Dick Van Patten didn't light up the screen. He wasn't that type of actor. But you were always aware of his presence.

Unlike some of his brethren who felt typecast and button-holed by roles they played on television, Dick Van Patten embraced Tom Bradford.

"I appreciate 'Eight is Enough'," he once said. "It made me recognizable."

But he was influential in so many other ways, and for that so many are grateful.


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