He was a child model and actor, making his Broadway debut at seven. He would go on to star in several hit shows. He was a perennial presence on radio as well, racking up hundreds of appearances on many of the popular series of the day. By the time he was 21 he was in a hit TV show (‘Mama’), going on to many guest starring roles throughout the ’50s and ’60s. By 1977, he was back on another popular series, the family drama ‘Eight is Enough.’ At that time, he was also a movie regular, making appearances in ‘High Anxiety,’ ‘Soylent Green,’ and Disney efforts ‘Snowball Express,’ ‘Superdad,’ and ‘Freaky Friday.’
But perhaps the greatest legacy left behind by the late Dick Van Patten, who died on June 23 of complications from diabetes, was familial. Not only was his sister, Joyce, an accomplished actress, but his sons Tim, Nels, and Vincent are all part of the business. He even has a tie to George Clooney and ‘Mad Men”s John Slattery (his niece, Talia Balsam, is George’s ex and John’s current wife). Beyond the limelight, Van Patten was an avid tennis player and animal rights activist. He even started a company – Natural Balance – to provide pets with a healthy alternative to mass produced food.
Fans who followed his career always felt Van Patten was a bit of an enigma. On the one hand, he was a true actor, taking roles that would challenge an audience’s perception of who he was. By the time he completed ‘Eight is Enough,’ however, he seemed stuck in a “goody two shoes” ideal which limited the kind of work he would associate himself with. He loved his time with Mel Brooks, but only appeared in his later, less aggressive spoofs (‘Anxiety,’ ‘Spaceballs,’ ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’) and a lot of his acting in the ’90s and beyond was reserved for direct to video releases.
And yet, for all his career misgivings, Van Patten maintained an ardent and adoring fanbase. As Tom Bradford, the father of a big family located in Sacramento, California, the actor struck a chord with viewers. While only on the air for four years, ‘Eight is Enough’ became a weekly ritual, a chance to see a clan similar to your own struggling through the same problems and personalities. Van Patten was the dad we all wish we had, the knowing patriarch that didn’t pretend to be your friend or reply to problems with the back of his hand. Instead, he was a careful balance of new age ideas and old school strengths.
The show itself took on such Me Decade topics as step-parents, divorce, and sibling dissatisfaction. When the actress cast as the mother – Diana Hyland – fell ill with cancer four episodes in, the creators scrambled for a way around the issue. When she died, Van Patten’s Bradford was allowed to grieve, and then remarry. It was a big step for TV, which was watching movies like ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,’ and ‘Shoot the Moon’ deal with the then tenuous circumstances of families falling apart. Another Broadway star, Betty Buckley, became the new matriarch of the Bradford brood, and along with its fellow hit, ‘Family,’ ABC was suddenly the place for series discussions of social issues.
Van Patten falls into that category of someone you recognize, whose work your admire, and whose name frequently escapes you. He wasn’t a superstar. No one was looking to greenlight the next “Dick Van Patten” blockbuster nor was he the top candidate for TV’s highest profile gigs. Instead, he was the typical journeyman actor, the backbone of an industry that sees more failures and flame-outs than lengthy careers. His was legitimately talented, yet never really rewarded for same, and when celebrity became a premium in the late ’80s and ’90s, he traded on it in unique ways (he was big supporter of guide dogs, and started National Guide Dog Month in 2008).