Twenty years after his death, here is a look at a noted TV actor, after the jump ….
In the spring of 2000, I was home, absently-minded watching TV when an MSNBC series (hosted by Matt Lauer) called Headliners and Legends came on. And while the subject matter didn’t immediately register: by the time it was half-over, I was letting my answering machine take calls …. as a special on the late TV actor Bill Bixby had become so compelling …… I was sorry to see the program end.
Odd …. because I am not a celebrity follower, nor a major TV/film viewer …. and after the special was over, I began to wonder …….. just what was it that made that profile so special to me?
And the conclusion I came up with was two-fold: first, the facts behind his life were quite dramatic (including much I had not known). And secondly, having first watched “My Favorite Martian” as a child: I realized that I had grown-up with Bill Bixby … and any part of your childhood tends to register with you, later in life. So when I saw his name mentioned recently, noting the 20th anniversary of his passing …… well, maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at someone who was a TV mainstay for four decades.
Bill Bixby was born in San Francisco in 1934, where he participated on his high school’s speech and debate teams. Upon graduation, he enrolled in the city’s community college (majoring in drama) where one of his classmates was future Batgirl/Barnaby Jones star Lee Meriwether. After graduation, he transferred to UC Berkeley (his parents’ alma mater) and was four credits short of graduation …… when he was drafted into the Korean War (although he served stateside) serving in the Marines.
Upon his discharge, he asked his folks (who were expecting a lawyer or businessman) for “five years, to find out if I have any talent for acting” before returning to school. He moved to Hollywood, where he had a day job as a pool lifeguard to help make ends meet. And lo-and-behold, there he was ‘discovered’ by an agent ….. albeit one for the auto industry.
Bixby thus moved to Detroit, where he was a model in auto ads as well as a narrator of industrial films for General Motors and Chrysler. After appearing in a play there, he had enough credentials to return to Hollywood … where he landed small roles in TV series such as “Dobie Gillis”, “Ben Casey”, the “Joey Bishop Show” and a small role in films, notably the Jack Lemmon/Shirley MacLaine film Irma la Douce from 1963.
His big break came when he arrived at an audition (for producer Jack Chertok) as a co-star in a TV series as a reporter who takes in a Martian anthropologist marooned on Earth:
He walked up and offered his hand to the producer, saying “Hello, I’m Bill Bixby”.
Chertok replied, “No, you’re not. You’re Tim O’Hara.”
My Favorite Martian (co-starring the veteran actor Ray Walston) thus saw a cast-on-the-spot Bixby portraying Tim O’Hara sheltering his “Uncle Martin” from his landlady and rather snoopy police detective boyfriend. It was a hit series in my childhood (1963-1966), but high production costs forced the series to come to an end after 107 episodes.
From there, Bixby went on to appearing in two Elvis movies (“Speedway” and “Clambake”) and actually turned down the male lead role in “That Girl” (opposite Marlo Thomas). It was in 1969 that his next break came.
The Courtship of Eddie’s Father – based on a 1963 movie – was unusual for a TV show of its time; starring Bixby as Tom Corbett, a magazine publisher who was also … a widowed father. And it also featured an Asian-American: the Academy Award winner Miyoshi Umeki as the housekeeper – who addressed Tom Corbett as “Mr. Eddie’s father”.
The show had a memorable theme song by Harry Nilsson and a precocious child actor named Brandon Cruz – who was involved in trying to fix his dad up with dates. The series earned critical praise for the sensitive ways in which it dealt with the father/son relationship (earning Bixby an Emmy nomination), made easier by the fact that Bixby and Cruz had an excellent rapport on-and-off camera.
All of this led to the show’s successful run from 1969-1972, ending when Bixby and executive producer James Komack had a falling-out over the show’s direction. Brandon Cruz (who turns age 51 later this month, photo right) has had an eclectic career (actor, punk rock singer, counselor), is upset that Bixby never received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and gave his son Lincoln Cruz the middle name …. Bixby.
The show also changed Bixby’s views on parenting, as one of Hollywood’s prominent eligible bachelors married his girlfriend, soap opera star Brenda Benet and they had a son Christopher born in 1974.
Bill Bixby never transitioned to movies as many expected he would – saying “TV is the medium I was raised in. I have never wanted to get out” – but did have roles (such as “Kentucky Fried Movie”) at times. In interviews, he urged viewers to monitor their children’s viewing habits and to write to the networks if they were unhappy with TV fare:
“I believe that people who do not vote in this country have no right to complain about the government that we are now living under. By the same token: if you don’t really vote in television, you’re never going to have your way … write a letter to the president of the network. You won’t get ‘Eddie’s Father’ back, but you’ll get the kind of television that you want. They do read the mail…”
“I’m proud of what I’ve done,” Bixby said in reviewing his body of work in 1979. “My shows are the kind children can watch with their parents, without embarrassment. And parents can watch with their children, without embarrassment. I like that.”
During the 1970’s he also began directing – and had a chance to both act and direct in the Rich Man, Poor Man miniseries in 1976, again earning an Emmy nomination as well as a Director’s Guild award. “Directing,” he commented, “is my Social Security when there’s no more market for me as an actor.”
Bixby also hosted Once Upon A Classic on PBS from 1976 to 1980, and made guest appearances on many popular TV series (such as the “Streets of San Francisco”) and appeared on many a game show during the decade.
In 1973, Bixby starred as a crime-solving magician in a show entitled ….. well, The Magician in which he insisted that he learn to do his own tricks for the show. While the ratings were decent, both high production costs (again) and a 1973 writer’s strike helped lead to an early demise. Afterwards, Bixby hosted several specials involving professional magicians, and the show has been cited as an influence by the creators of “The X-Files” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”.
In 1977, plans were made to develop a TV series based upon the comic book figure The Incredible Hulk created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Reportedly, Larry Hagman turned down the role of David Banner, the “Dr. Jekyl” role (which paid off, as he soon landed the lead role in “Dallas”). Bill Bixby was initially not interested, either … believing a comic book figure was inappropriate (and he chose his roles carefully). But after reading the script for the pilot episode, he was persuaded to change his mind …. wanting to “Make it an adult show that kids are allowed to watch, rather than a childish show adults are forced to watch”.
The show ran from 1978-1982, and Bixby later went on to direct several TV movie specials on the character. Ray Walston and Brandon Cruz were two old cohorts brought in as special guest stars. Bixby’s co-star Lou Ferrigno – who played The Hulk character – said in his memoirs that, although he enjoys watching old episodes:
The experience is always bittersweet, though, because it is a reminder that Bill is gone. It brings me sadness because I spent five years with him and then (in the many years that followed) occasionally getting together. He was like a brother to me.
Ferrigno also said that he saw Bixby during a particularly trying time of his life. Being a workaholic and perfectionist took a toll on his marriage to Brenda Benet, which fell apart in 1979 after eight years … and then on a skiing trip, their six year-old son Christopher caught a rare throat infection and died at a hospital. Benet – who had been dating a twenty year-old (and future talk radio host) Tammy Bruce – fell into a depression and committed suicide in April, 1982 at the age of only 36.
Bixby did what he usually did during such a time of stress – plow himself back into his work (with “Change is my friend, boredom is my enemy” as his motto). And not just on the set: he grew peaches and 30 other varieties of fruits and vegetables on a farm in the San Fernando Valley.
He starred in one more series: a sitcom (along with Mariette Hartley) as co-anchors of the nightly news at a fictional Boston television station in Goodnight, Beantown – with Bixby as executive producer – that ran for two seasons (1983-84) before being cancelled for low ratings.
From the mid-80’s on, his on-screen roles were either guest spots on popular shows, or hosting TV specials. He turned more to directing, including pilots for proposed series such as “Wizards and Warriors” and eight episodes of the satirical police sitcom “Sledge Hammer!” in 1987.
He was involved with one more hit series: the NBC sitcom Blossom which ran for five years from 1991 to 1995. Bixby directed 30 episodes (in seasons two and three) of the show, but …… often in pain.
For he was diagnosed as having prostate cancer – which his friend – the comic Dick Martin – had to prod him to have checked out by a specialist after Bixby had complained of lower back pain for some time. After his prostate was removed (in an emergency operation) he was in remission … but the cancer returned more viruently.
Bixby had married again in 1991, but the stress took its toll on his second wife, who filed for divorce in 1992 (and for which Bixby never faulted her for, as he thought he might have done the same thing).
Having stated that he wished to continue to work until he was physically unable, he again plowed himself into his work. The seventeen year-old star of the show Mayim Bialik (center in photo below) was amazed at Bixby’s openness about his disease: “A lot of times he would direct from a reclining position because he couldn’t stand since it was too painful. (But) he’s talking to everybody-the grips, the prop people. It’s amazing.”
As the cancer spread, Bill Bixby went public with his disease, appearing on the “Today” show and “Entertainment Tonight” – in part to urge men of a certain age to have a prostate exam.
And he began dating the artist Judith Kliban – the widow of B. Kliban, a cartoonist who had died of a pulmonary embolism. He married Judith in late 1993, just six weeks before he collapsed on the set of “Blossom”. Bill Bixby died in November 1993, just six days later, two months short of his 60th birthday.
What impressed me most on the Matt Lauer special was how many people in Hollywood spoke highly of him:
Brandon Cruz – “There are guys around Hollywood who are so well-liked, you couldn’t pay people to say bad things about them. Bill was one of those guys.”
Lou Ferrigno – wrote in his memoirs about Jimmy Pitts, a tour bus driver at Universal Studios. Jimmy said, “Mr. Bixby was nicer to us than any other star. Most would hide or try to chase us away, but he would go out of his way to meet the tourists.” He drove Bill around neighborhoods late at night just so Bill could personally deliver autographed photos of himself to children who requested them.
Tom Arnold – “Bill Bixby starred in three hit television series – and appeared on all three TV networks – there are not many people you can say that about”.
The actor Hugh Jackman has talked of producing a biopic on Bixby, though nothing has come of it yet. Let’s conclude below with the final interview that he gave to Entertainment Tonight before his death.