Dick Van Patten, best known as Tom Bradford, head of the Eight Is Enough family, has died at age 86 from complications from diabetes. Van Patten’s sunny demeanor made him a beloved TV actor, and his performances were informed by shrewd comic timing and a generosity toward his co-stars.
Van Patten started work in television near the very start of the medium, co-starring in I Remember Mama, one of the first TV hits (an adaptation of a popular radio show) from 1949 to 1957. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Van Patten popped up all over TV in supporting roles on dramas and comedies, shows as various as Naked City, Adam-12, The Streets of San Francisco, That Girl, Banachek, Cannon, and Happy Days. But it wasn’t until Eight Is Enough, which ran from 1977-81, that Van Patten secured a stardom that carried through to the rest of his career.
Based on the real-life adventures of newspaper columnist Tom Braden, Eight Is Enough was a fairly standard, big-family-cast sitcom raised a notch by the performances of Van Patten and Betty Buckley as the parents, as well as the budding teen idols Grant Goodeve, Willie Ames, and Lani O’Grady among the cast’s children.
But it was Van Patten who anchored the show. As Tom Bradford, he radiated a soothing sanity that could occasionally spill over into sputtering exasperation or giddy joy. Van Patten never played Tom as a doofus dad — there was a core of firmness and believability that made the role an indelible one for the actor.
In addition to his TV work, Van Patten gave a fine, wacky performances in several Mel Brooks movies, including the 1993 comedy Robin Hood: Men In Tights, playing the easily flustered abbott. He appeared in a wide range of films, from 1976’s original Freaky Friday to sci-fi movies such as Soylent Green and Westworld.
In his later years, Van Patten specialized in comic roles that utilized his gift for genial bafflement in shows such as Arrested Development and The Sarah Silverman Program. In 2009, he wrote a memoir called Eighty Is Not Enough.
Van Patten had the necessary gift to be an essential TV star: A charm and warmth that came through screen, offering an always welcoming presence.
Van Patten is survived by his wife of 62 years, Patricia Van Patten, as well as his sons Nels, Jimmy and Vincent.