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Remembering Dick Van Patten

In his book, Eighty is Not Enough, Dick Van Patten described the role he played in the film Westworld, as “bumbling.” Fact is, Dick often portrayed characters who were meek, nonconfrontational, indecisive, easily intimidated, and yes, bumbling. But in real life, Dick Van Patten was anything but those things. He was opinionated, passionate, compassionate, had a great sense of humor, loved women, loved kids, loved sports, and could hold his own with just about anyone on the tennis courts or at a poker table.

The one thing common to both his on screen and off screen personas, though, was his trademark smile. It was genuine and infectious, and I will miss it. Dick died on June 23 from complications of diabetes. He was 86.

I first met Dick in 2009 when I produced and moderated A Salute to TV Dads for the Television Academy. Dick was one of nine iconic TV Dads I brought together for a lively and comical discussion of their lives and careers. The panel included such luminaries as Dick Van Dyke, Bryan Cranston, Bill Paxton, Patrick Duffy, and Jon Cryer (Video clips from the event can be viewed on my website www.jimlongworth.com). Dick and I talked on several occasions prior to that Father’s Day gathering, and I called him on his birthday in the years afterwards. Of course it was always difficult to catch Dick at home because he was either working, playing tennis, or spending time at the track. He also managed to compile a trivia book, and pen an autobiography.

Dick was not just busy, he was relevant to audiences across nine decades. He performed in over 600 radio programs, 27 Broadway plays, 24 feature films, and scores of television series, including starring in seven. But before he discovered acting, young Dick’s passion was animals. I asked him about that at our TV Dads event.

JL: I read somewhere that your Dad used to take you to the pet store every weekend when you were a kid.

DVP: Yeah, I wanted to have my own pet shop when I was a kid. My father would take me every Saturday and I would buy a different pet. Once I bought a baby alligator for a dollar. We kept it in the bath tub, but it got bigger and bigger, and finally nobody could take a bath. So my grandmother said, “Get rid of that alligator!” So I took it the Central Park Zoo, and it’s probably still there today because alligators live for a long time (audience laughs).

Dick’s love of animals continued, and in 1989 he co-founded the Natural Balance Pet Foods company. He also raised money for guide dog schools. And while his Dad facilitated a lifelong devotion to animals, Dick credits his Mom with setting his acting career in motion.

JL: I understand that your Mom entered you in a photogenic contest when you were a kid, and you actually won it. I also heard that the judge of the contest was none other than Eleanor Roosevelt.

DVP: Yeah, it was Eleanor Roosevelt and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. My Mother was a real stage Mother, thank God, and I’ve had a great life because of her. The first job she got me I was acting in a Broadway play called Tapestry in Gray when I was just 7 years old.

After that, there was no turning back. Dick was constantly in demand, performing regularly on radio and on stage during the 1930’s and ‘40’s. And though he was becoming well schooled in dramatic arts thanks to his Mother, Dick’s Dad made sure he was well rounded in other areas.

JL: Who first told you about the facts of life?

DVP: I was 14 years old and my Father told me. And I was thinking, “Oh boy, I hope he’s right!” (sustained laughter from the audience)

JL: I also have it on good authority that at age 16, you dated a stripper and she made you get a tattoo. Is that true?

DVP: Yeah that’s true (laughs). It was on my arm, it was a horseshoe. She made me get it, it was stupid. She said, “I bet you’re not brave enough to get a tattoo.” And I said, “No, I’m brave enough.” I was trying to impress her. In those days they didn’t use the electric needle, they used a real needle, and I can’t stand blood. And the blood is streaming down my arm, and she says, “Does it hurt you?” And I said, “No, no.” What a dopey thing to do. Oh, and then, I thought I would make out with her or something. NOTHING! (laughter and applause).

No worries though, Dick made out fine (pardon the expression) with his lovely wife Pat, who he met while copying off her paper in school. And later, he managed to have two great families. One with Pat, and one on the hit show Eight is Enough, where he became beloved by audiences of all ages. Kids during our Father’s Day event, and had special words for the head of their respective clans.

Son Nels said, “You mean a lot to me Dad, you know that. You’ve made life a lot of fun for us, you and Mom.

Dick’s son Vincent added, “My Father is fantastic. He taught me so many things in life, and he’s always been very supportive. I love you Dad.

Adam Rich, who played Dick’s on-screen son recalled, “Dick bailed me out of jail once. That’s above and beyond a TV dad (laughter). But Dick has always been more than a TV Dad to me. He’s been like a real father, and I truly love him with all my heart. Dick Van Patten is one of the nicest people you’d ever wish to meet, and if you were ever lucky enough to meet Dick, he would meet you with a huge smile, and kindness, and great respect, and he treats everybody the same.

Diane Kay, Dick’s TV daughter, added, “He’s my favorite friend and a wonderful actor. He set the standard for professionalism on our show, and he was the glue that kept all of our cast together. Dick used to tell us, ‘Remember, THESE are the good old days’. And so, I remember them.

So do we all. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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